Over the past few weeks, our latest blog series has explored the most common issues uncovered in non-fiction manuscripts by target readers. Now, we’re switching gears. This blog is the first in a new series of three articles exploring some of the most common issues revealed by target reader feedback in fiction manuscripts.

To briefly review and provide some brief context, at Target Audience Insights, we empower authors with actionable insights based on feedback from real readers. Here’s how it works: First, working with the author, we send an unpublished manuscript to readers in a book’s target market. These First Look Readers read the book, then provide feedback through filling out a detailed survey. Finally, our expert analysts identify patterns in reader feedback to craft data-driven reports aimed at informing edits and helping books reach their full potential.

Every Target Reader Manuscript Analysis report covering a work of fiction explores what we call The Three S’s—Story, Structure, and Sound (this differs slightly from non-fiction reports, which are organized by Substance, Structure, and Sound). The Story section is all about the readers’ perception of the narrative. Are readers compelled by how the story unfolds? Is the plot clear? Within the world of the novel, is the story plausible? Are there any elements that detract from the narrative?

In this first installment, we’ll be discussing the three most common story issues our analysts see in fiction manuscripts:

Realism and Plot Holes

Target readers frequently identify plot holes in reviewed novels that harm their overall experience of a book. This sort of feedback tends to be very specific and detail oriented. Recent TRMAs have included reader complaints about characters who are government officials, military officers, or medical doctors acting in ways inconsistent with their real-world training and circumstances; unrealistic portrayals of everyday life during the pandemic; and deus ex machina solutions to obstacles faced by a story’s heroes that seem simply too good to be true.

Of course, part of what makes fiction so enjoyable is the opportunity to escape reality. But if a story strays too far from the believable, it can damage reader engagement. As one First Look Reader put it in response to a TRMA report, “[Things kept happening] to cover what they needed at the exact moment they needed it. It was all just too convenient, too unrealistic.”

Target readers help authors identify these weak points so that they can address them and bolster the strength of their novel as a whole.

Character Complexity

Another very common issue in fiction manuscripts is a lack of multi-dimensional characters. Too often, authors focus their creative energy on building a compelling plot, but then neglect to fill out their characters’ motivations, backstories, or flaws.

“We definitely could have used more backstory for the characters,” said one reader in a recent fiction TRMA. “I had a hard time connecting to any of them because I had no idea who they were or what were their motivations.”

In other recent reports, target readers have complained that certain characters are unlikeable, too good to be true, caricatures, or simply unrealistic—all of which hindered their ability to enjoy the book in question. Secondary characters come under particular scrutiny. Authors understandably tend to spend less effort building out backstories and deeper motivations for their novel’s supporting cast than they do for their protagonists. While this is usually fine, if secondary characters are unrealistic or come across as one-dimensional caricatures, readers will notice, and the dissonance can remove them from being immersed in the story.

Native Immersion

Both issues described above emphasize the importance of narrative immersion. This gets us into some nerdy story science: essentially, when a novel is done well, readers will become immersed in the story to such an extent that they experience the same emotions as the characters. When the hero is in danger, the same chemical reactions fire off in the reader’s brain as if they themselves were in danger. When the character wants something, readers want them to have it as if they wanted it themselves. Readers can identify with characters in a story such that they become quite literally emotionally entangled with the plot.

Any serious lover of fiction knows what this feels like: hours pass like minutes as we find ourselves totally sucked into a story. We are heartbroken when a beloved character is killed off. In our real lives, we wonder “What would Albus Dumbledore (or whoever) do in this situation?”

With fiction, cultivating narrative immersion should be every author’s goal. But make no mistake, pulling this off is tough. Over and over again, when asked whether they were able to get consistently immersed in the story, the majority of First Look Readers will answer: “no” or “only sometimes.” And over and over again, they point to issues with realism, plot holes, or flat characters pulling them out of the narrative. These flaws pull back the curtain and remind the audience that they are just reading a story, that none of it is real. Target reader feedback helps authors identify and smooth out these wrinkles to better cultivate narrative immersion and a good reader experience.

Crafting Stronger Stories

Target readers are a valuable asset. By reading early drafts with a critical eye and providing detailed feedback, First Look Readers can help authors hone their manuscripts and craft stronger stories. In part 2 of this series, we’ll explore more common issues that target readers often identify in fiction manuscripts—this time focusing on Structure. Stay tuned!