What is a webnovel? (In-depth guide)
Wattpad stories have been made into books, movies, and graphic novels, but all of those formats come after the original: the story. Wattpad stories share a lot of similarities with all of these formats, but they’re actually their own distinct format. Though Wattpad stories are most similar to books, they are actually a different form of storytelling called a webnovel. Webnovels have slightly different storytelling conventions than books; elements that work well in books will not be as effective in a webnovel, and effective webnovel techniques don’t work well in print books.
Know your audience
Webnovels operate differently because they exist in a different context than print books: namely, the Internet. It seems obvious, but the constraints and norms of the internet mean that webnovels exist in a fundamentally different context, which informs their storytelling conventions. With dozens of tabs open in a browser or a phone always ready to serve another notification or pop-up, internet reading is built around distractions. It’s part of the form in a way that just differs from print books. People reading on the internet are almost always distracted readers: there is always another tab or notification available to pull focus. In contrast, a book reader is less distracted because reading a book removes those potential inputs.
A distracted reader is less likely to retain information, more likely to skip over the text, and more likely to stop reading and find something else to do. Writing successful webnovels means optimizing for the distracted reader by designing your story to be easy to fall into and retain.
As a result of the difference in context and readership, the storytelling rules of books and webnovels are different. For example, in print books, there’s a strong artistic tradition in English literature of inferring meaning or emotional states instead of stating them outright. Part of the pleasure of the story is reading between the lines to understand what the author means. In webnovels, this kind of storytelling does not work well because the distracted reader is less likely to retain all the details needed to make inferences. In webnovels, if you want your reader to know something, you have to say it directly. This is just one example of a difference between webnovel craft and book craft; can you think of any others?
Effective webnovel storytelling
Our research indicates that in addition to immediate, engaging, and commercial, the following qualities are important to a story’s success:
The most successful Wattpad stories are ones that focus on big emotions and deliver emotional highs and lows right off the bat. This is part of why we emphasize the hook in the first chapter—to give the reader an emotional experience right away. Emotional information is easier to digest and retain than technical information or description, so you are more likely to hook and retain your reader with emotion. Readers remember how a story makes them feel. Focusing on big, intense emotions that play out in easily digestible ways allows your readers to stay engaged in the story and retain information even in the midst of distraction. There’s a reason soap operas lean into melodrama and big emotions: they were the original serial fiction for distracted audiences since their target audience was women working in the home who were splitting their attention between TV and other tasks. Big emotions are easier to hook into and retain for distracted audiences.
Wattpad readers love tropes! Part of the function of tropes for the distracted reader is to provide a ready-built framework to understand the story. It’s a kind of shorthand that tells the reader about the kind of experience they’re going to have, so they can decide upfront if they want to dedicate their time to it. A reader who’s after an enemies-to-lovers romance wants that specific dynamic, and putting the tropes up front in the story allows them to figure out quickly if a story is going to give them what they want.
Approachability refers to how complex the setting is—that is, how easy it is to understand the story’s world, how it works, and why it matters to the protagonists. A story is approachable when it does not require a lot of specialized knowledge to connect to and understand. When specialized knowledge is required for the story, it is introduced in an easy-to-understand manner that brings the reader into the world of the story. The key to approachability is to ground the world in the characters’ emotions and to avoid info dumping. Remember that readers retain emotions better than facts, so if you want readers to retain an aspect of your setting, couple it with an emotional moment or reaction in order to make it meaningful. For more info on approachability, see Commercial 301. For information on approachability in speculative fiction worldbuilding, see Worldbuilding 201 and 301
Relevant and focused
Narrative focus is extremely important in webnovel storytelling. In order to keep your readers engaged, you need to keep delivering the emotional experience they’re looking for. While in a traditionally published book, there might be room for digressions and side plots, in a Wattpad story, every scene and every chapter needs to deliver on the promise to the reader. The distracted reader has a limited attention span and inclination to retain information, so make sure that all the information you give them is relevant to the story and to their emotional experience.
Story pacing is incredibly important for keeping your reader’s attention. A story where events progress quickly and chapters end with well-placed cliffhangers is one that offers fewer off-ramps for the distracted reader’s attention.
Try to keep flashbacks, flash-forwards, time skips, and prologues to a minimum. The exception to this is the flash-forward hook, but in general, try to tell the story in a straightforward, linear fashion. This is easier for a distracted reader to understand and retain, which in turn keeps them engaged in the story.