The "Story So Far" Problem

7 years ago | M.C.A. Hogarth (Member)

I've run into this problem both as a reader and a writer: someone says "Wow, this is a great online novel/serial!" and I go check it out, only to discover that there are 600 pages up so far, or 200 episodes, or something else that makes me say, "Oh my gosh, I'm getting tired just thinking of getting through this all."

Sometimes if the premise seems really intriguing, I start on it, but if the navigation isn't flawless and the website itself attractive (a lot of Wordpress/blog-style sites fail this one for me because of the clutter and narrow columns, for instance), I can't make myself get through it.

I notice this problem in hard-copy series too: it used to be that a series like The Dragonriders of Pern would include a brief "catch you up to the setting/other books in the series" page before the story started, but I haven't seen these in books in a while. For instance, Jim Butcher's Dresden series or David Weber's Honor Harrington books could really use a summation of The Story So Far, but they don't.

I've lost readers who didn't want to haul themselves through my web-fic either... only to have them say, "I'll buy it as a PDF if you collect it," or "I'll pay for a hard copy if you issue one." So that's one way to deal with the problem, if you have the cycles to put it together. But have you run into this problem? How do you attract and keep readers who might be daunted by a large backlog?

Read responses...

Page: 12

Responses

  1. Jim Zoetewey (Moderator)

    Posted 7 years ago

    Well... I know that a few people have been put off from reading my serial due to the current size.

    I haven't solved the problem, but I have a plan.

    I intend to put up a sidebar for my blog that lists characters, possibly locations, and definitely the story's arcs so far. When people click on them, they would be able to get information about the character or a synopsis of the arc. If I ever create a wiki, it might be worth having the sidebar link to that.

    I'm also thinking that the sidebar should have a spot where the reader can:
    1. Bookmark the page that they're on.
    2. See a link to the spot they left off.

    I'm a web developer and am pretty sure I can do this myself, but I haven't done it yet. It's a time thing, but it will be part of the custom template I'm making.

    As I see it there are three basic groups a story template has to cater to.
    1. Regular readers (who forgot the relevant bit of story months ago)
    2. New readers who might not be willing to read the entire archives.
    3. New readers who want to read the entire archives.

    The sidebar should (if I do it right) serve all three groups.

    I'm thinking that a sidebar would work better than putting links in the middle of the text itself. I find that distracting.

  2. Stormy (Moderator)

    Posted 7 years ago

    I haven't really come across this problem yet, or if I have, the people scared by my archive haven't come forward and said so. Ok, so it isn't massive compared to say, ToMU, but there's 2.5 books. But I think the advantage there is they can read one book, come back, and read the other at another time, like you would getting a series out of library or something.

    But I dunno, seems to be people just tend to read until 3am, send me a short message about how cool it is, and how sleep deprived they are, then start begging for more updates. >_>

    So far, I haven't really wanted to make a "story so far" page, as it would kind of be spoilery - but I'm going to pimp out book #5 as a great jumping-on point, for those people who don't necessarily want to read through the first few, as it's a more self-contained story than the first four (the fourth is technically self-contained, but the beginning has a lot of crossover with the second half of book #3, and relies on a lot of exisitng knowledge).

  3. Robert Rodgers (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    The most interesting solution (to me) is to divide your story into self-contained arcs and approach writing in such a way that makes it so that reading all the arcs increases the enjoyment of later arcs, but is not required to understand each arc in of itself. Requires a little forward planning, I realize, and won't help for those who already have written a great deal of non-self-contained stuff, but it might be useful to keep in mind if you're still formulating your story.

  4. Wilf (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    This is one of those problems I pretended doesn't exist and hoped it would mope off, unloved and unwanted. When I started Dead Heroes, I did have a story so far page where I was going to have no more than two paragraphs catching new readers up. But;
    a) with weekly updates, I think I've got enough on my hands
    b) I really hate writing book synopses to send to agents and this seemed a little too much like that

    So I've settled for a chapter list page with a line of text hinting at what happens in each one. Unlike the 'story so far' page, it will eventually get really long - but with just a single line for each chapter, hopefully it will be easy for the 'Group 3' readers from Jim's post above to use.

    PS : I like the self-contained arcs idea. I've already utilised that approach to some degree already (in fact, I've got a big arc coming up that will run through May) - but I might give more thought to consciously grouping later chapters into named arcs specifically for this purpose. Thanks Robert!

    Dead Heroes : Robin Hood and the Sheriff bring their fight to modern-day Nottingham - but which is the hero and which, the villain?
  5. M.C.A. Hogarth (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    I think self-contained arcs can work very well; I used them in both my first projects, which were collections of flash fiction on central themes. But not all types of fiction lend themselves to that kind of storytelling, and I'd hate to think that makes them inappropriate for the web-fiction model.

    I already mentioned above a couple of things that help entice me despite a daunting backlog (good navigation and an uncluttered layout). I just thought of another: short chapters. Really long chapters tend to turn me away, which is why I try to keep mine to around 1-3 pages.

  6. Robert Rodgers (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    An alternate method I've considered (as I am very fond of the arc model, but I am also not, at heart, an extensive planner when it comes to my fiction) involves trying to use the online medium to my advantage by creating pieces of interesting fiction that exist for the explicit purpose of catching readers up (but remaining entertaining). That is, a group of one-shot self-contained stories that have various characters dealing with their pasts or handling events that happened in the narrative (or just offshoots from the main narrative, self-contained 'mini-arcs' that happened simultaneously), presented in such a way that newcomers could enjoy it and simultaneously 'catch up' on whatever they need to know. Jack's father died in the last story; so write a short self-contained arc about him dealing with the after-effects of this, telling the reader simultaneously who Jack is, why his father was important, and that his father is now dead. Presenting necessary information in a way that's compelling and avoids appearing like an awkward presentation ("okay, here's what you need to know to enjoy this story") is one of my favorite challenges when it comes to writing.

    Biography pages bother me, because I can't help but see them as cheating (telling readers about characters directly instead of letting the reader get cozy and intimate with them in the prose--"Jessie is a passionate, ill-tempered woman" is so much less interesting than a scene that *demonstrates* that she's passionate and ill-tempered); one-shot stories designed to illuminate a character for us strikes me as so much more intriguing ("Instead of biographies, here's a series of short stories, each focusing on one character to give you an idea of what you're getting into").

    Of course, this is an awful lot of work--but on the upside, it gives you a chance to get much closer to the characters you're writing about. Plus, it's something both new readers *and* old readers can thoroughly enjoy.

    On a final note, I think it might be useful to at least include a brief two or three sentence description of what's happening in the *immediate* present of your story at the beginning of every chapter--so impatient readers can leap right in without hesitation. I kind of don't like that (again, I think of that sort of thing as cheating) but I can't think of a better way to let new readers jump straight in without having to do any serious work or put in a big start up investment.

  7. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    I've handled this a number of ways. On my first complete novel, "No Man an Island," there wasn't a need for "the story so far" because it's a complete story, you really need to start at the beginning. However, audience members requested a family tree of how characters were connected, and I added character sketches and mini-biographies to that just to help keep everyone straight.

    On "The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin" I adapted. It's an ongoing serial, so I have set it up as "Books" -- Book 1, Book 2, etc. At the start of each Book there is a very brief synopsis (usually a sentence or two) of the previous Books so new and old readers alike continue forward with useful reminders about what has gone before. It wasn't hard to realize an arc was finished, even if it wasn't planned out ahead of time. I just start a Book and see what kind of conflicts and themes emerge, and end the book when the major conflict is over. Then the next arc starts with a new Book and a new synopsis.

    The story keeps growing but most of my feedback suggests that I have readers who stay up to date, and most new readers start at the beginning and race to the current update over a day/a few days. No one seems to drop by, read book three only, and then stick around. I don't find it much of an obstacle and no one has complained. I mainly do the organizing of arcs "in case" and also to remind myself where I've been and where I'm going.

  8. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    Oh, I almost forgot:

    It's not that difficult to insert background details into a story. Using Diggory as the example again, he met his love interest Calla in Book One, and his father died in an explosion. Because the explosion has an impact on Diggory, and ramifications in the world around him, "reminders to readers" occur when he finds himself explaining his relationship with his father to Calla, or when the police call to give him an update on the case. He thinks (and therefore narrates) his responses to the new information and adds it to his old memories. It's fluid and natural because that's how real people react to news, they fit it into their previous worldview. But it also makes it easy to remind readers of events that were three books ago, which were written a year ago -- it helps keep readers' memories fresh as well.

  9. vjchambers (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    My two cents:

    Okay, now I might be crazy, but for me, the only purpose of a "story so far" is in the case of a television show pre-2005, when I couldn't go back and watch all the episodes on the internet. Don't know about you, but as a reader/watcher, I'd rather read the whole thing from the beginning. Jumping into an already established story is not something I prefer, only something I put up with if I have to. If there's a way for me to start from the beginning, I'll do that.

    There's a lot of people concerned with the idea that their stories are daunting, their chapter updates are too long, etc, etc.

    I think this is all bull. Readers who love to read love length. Think about it. If two books seem appealing to you, they're the same price, and one is longer, which are you going to pick? The long one.

    We are judging our opinions of the length of pieces on the feedback of other writers, not our readers. A true reader, a fan, is going to want your posts to be as long as humanly possible, and they're going to want to read everything you wrote, starting at the very beginning.

    "Okay, sure," you say, "but I don't have any of those fans at the moment (or at least not enough of them). Won't I turn off prospective readers by making my stuff too long?" I don't think so. I think you can turn people off by lots of things, like a badly designed website, poor navigation, difficult to read text, scattered updates, abandoning your story midstream, etc, but I don't think anyone who comes to your site with the desire to READ is going to want something short. They're going to want something meaty. People who come to your site and say, "Gosh, it's so long. I just don't have the time to read it" never wanted to read in the first place. They wanted to browse.

    This is just what I think. But, then again, I don't write really long serialized novels. Mine are usually 80,000-100,000 words, and I always post novels I've already finished writing. Maybe with something sprawling, triple that size, that's been updating for years, someone would conceivably jump in midstream.

    Breathless: Sex, Satanists, Secret Societies, and (just a hint of the) Supernatural
  10. Robert Rodgers (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    "I think this is all bull. Readers who love to read love length. Think about it. If two books seem appealing to you, they're the same price, and one is longer, which are you going to pick? The long one."

    "We are judging our opinions of the length of pieces on the feedback of other writers, not our readers. A true reader, a fan, is going to want your posts to be as long as humanly possible, and they're going to want to read everything you wrote, starting at the very beginning."

    Two things: I think you need to remember that this is a different medium--we're not dealing in books, we're dealing in internet fiction. The two might overlap, but internet fiction needs to appeal to a demographic with a very short attention span--an audience who is prone to read your latest chapter and decide on the spot whether or not they want to bother with the rest. Unless every chapter you write is gripping enough to hook their interest at a glance, a 'Story-So-Far' segment might be necessary(1) to convince the reader that all the craziness in the chapter they just skimmed is part of a wholly realized work, and worth their time(2). In short, 'Story-So-Far' segments allow readers to enjoy the current chapter without an immense initial investment--which, in turn, encourages them to read the rest of the story.

    Second thing: I don't like distinctions between 'true readers' and 'untrue readers'. Readers are readers; if a format appeals to one reader (such as a reader who prefers 'Story-So-Far' segments), that doesn't mean that their interest is untrue or insincere. Our goal is to connect and entertain as much of our audience as possible; if a 'Story-So-Far' segment accomplishes that, then it should be used. If it doesn't, then it shouldn't.

    (1) Particularly in serials--which you mention isn't specifically what you're talking about, so pardon that. But serials are particularly prone to escalating craziness (is there a term for this? Think the last few seasons of X-Files, or hell, all the seasons for Lost), so a Story-So-Far might be necessary to convince the readers to even bother.

    (2) Probably the one and only hard rule I believe in as a writer: Never make your reader feel as if you've wasted their time.

  11. M.C.A. Hogarth (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    I admit to being bemused to have concerns about length called "bull" as I am concerned with length as a reader, not a writer. There are online stories I haven't bothered reading because they're too long. Yes, when I was younger, I was all in favor of length, on the computer or off it... but nowadays I don't have a lot of free time, and a book that's too long or poorly presented or not chopped into manageable chapters turns me off immediately. This doesn't make me any less a true reader. It makes me a -frustrated- reader to whom many authors are simply not catering. And unlike Young Me, Older Me has money and is favorably disposed toward tipping authors who entertain me. That's never going to happen if they don't have any seeming understanding that not all readers have giant chunks of time to throw at ginormous, poorly-presented stories.

  12. vjchambers (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    "Two things: I think you need to remember that this is a different medium--we're not dealing in books, we're dealing in internet fiction. The two might overlap, but internet fiction needs to appeal to a demographic with a very short attention span."

    I disagree. I don't think it NEEDS to. Many people spend inordinately long periods of time on the internet, often just on one page. My boyfriend, for instance, can read one reddit thread for three hours. That's not even fiction. Many people have grown up with the internet as a part of their lives. They are not only comfortable with using it to read things, they prefer it because it means they don't have to get off the couch. I'm not saying that there isn't a place for web fiction that caters to people with a short attention span (or a lack of time). "Alice and Kev" springs to mind (http://webfictionguide.com/listings/alice-and-kev/). I like that kind of web fiction myself. All I'm saying is that there is also an audience of people who will read long things online, and web fiction writers shouldn't feel that they MUST write short chapters.

    "Unless every chapter you write is gripping enough to hook their interest at a glance..."

    At first, I thought you were assuming a blog format with the most recent update at the top of the page. Not everyone updates that way. Lots of authors guide their readers to start at the beginning. But then I realized that even if a page isn't organized that way, a reader might float in at the middle from a twitter post or facebook status update or any number of things. Would a "previously on" help? Maybe. Someone who's interested in doing one of these should do an experiment: They should take a gander at their google analytics now, note the bounce rates and the times on each page. Then they should put up some "previously on"s and see what happens to the numbers.

    As you said though, I think we all strive to write gripping prose on every page, in every paragraph. Not that we always succeed, but that's what we strive for.

    "Yes, when I was younger, I was all in favor of length, on the computer or off it... but nowadays I don't have a lot of free time"

    I think M.C.A. may have hit on an important point here. Depending on the target audience of your story, you may want to adjust the length of chapters/updates. For instance, if you're writing something that will appeal to busy professionals, you may want to keep your updates short and snappy. If you're writing for teenagers who have unlimited internet time, you may have more room to play with.

    Breathless: Sex, Satanists, Secret Societies, and (just a hint of the) Supernatural
  13. Robert Rodgers (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    "I disagree. I don't think it NEEDS to."

    Yeah, fair enough--that was poor wording on my part. Fiction inevitably fills niches; you write for a specific audience, not for everyone. My point is that if you want your work to appeal to as many people as possible (and I don't think there are many valid reasons that a writer of entertainment shouldn't want this), there are decisions you can make to push this along--and on the internet, those decisions will often involve appealing to shorter attention spans.

    I'm just worried about people dividing their readership up into those who don't 'get it' versus those who 'do'--I often find myself bothered by authors who insist that they don't have to cater to certain readers because those readers are clearly not 'sincere' enough about reading. Writing is entertainment; entertainers entertain. If an audience is not entertained, this is not a failure on the audience's part--but the entertainer's part. It's the author who must adapt to their environment, not the readers. I realize that you're probably not claiming anything to the contrary--but I've met and interacted with a lot of people who have.

    'Previously on' would possibly be helpful--especially because, thanks to the way webpages are designed, 'Previously On' can be entirely optional (or off to the side, where it's not obtrusive). A few sentences to give the current chapter context can probably go a long way to encourage a reader to read on.

  14. vjchambers (Member)

    Posted 7 years ago

    "If an audience is not entertained, this is not a failure on the audience's part--but the entertainer's part."

    Very, very good point.

    I guess maybe what I should have said earlier was something more like this: Will people not read your novels because you write long posts and don't have summaries of the previous action? Probably. But, most likely, regardless, most people are not going to read your novel. This may have to do with a number of issues, from their lack of time to their disinterest in your style to the fact they never even find out it exists. Overall, I recommend not getting too bogged down in the marketing/presentation angles of your content. It only sucks time away from your actual writing. And frankly, there are people who get paid lots of money to figure out what kind of entertainment people will like, and they've never been able to figure it out definitively. So don't worry too much about it (but worry a little bit, and fix it if you get complaints) and have fun (because writing should be fun).

    But this thought process has very little to do with the subject at hand, so that's probably why I didn't say that. And why I'll shut up now. :)

    Breathless: Sex, Satanists, Secret Societies, and (just a hint of the) Supernatural

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