Everything I know about writing great blog posts I learned from devouring probably a literal ton of novels—and dissecting how they keep me turning pages.
I know, it seems really far-fetched. But hey, I just thought of something they both have in common: Great novels and great blog posts both hold on to your attention from the beginning to the end, and they never let up. So what are the best practices we can apply from novel to blog post?
I looked at three different elements of both novels and blog posts, and looked for three different novels that I think illustrate these really well. And I’ll show you the ways some great bloggers I read have applied these same techniques to their own posts.
Tension is the backbone of any work of narrative art, whether that be a short story, a novel, or a blog post. Good tension helps with plot, which is what keeps the reader turning pages in a novel. In a blog post, it’s what keeps them reading to the very end.
In a novel or short story, tension typically looks like events that force a character to act, to make one choice or another, but tension can also be internal to the character: A character may be at war with herself, say.
For instance, in Vanessa Hua’s A River of Stars, we know right away that the main character, Scarlett, is an upwardly mobile young woman. She has strong, clear expectations for herself, but she’s made a life choice that puts her future squarely in the hands of her boss. That tension sets up the rest of the novel, from plot to setting.
You can mimic this kind of tension in a blog post as well. If you look at, say, this post from The Everywhereist in which she reveals her brain tumor, you’ll see how she creates tension, even though she tells us about the tumor straightaway: She opens the door and then leads you through each of her different thought processes. We get to know her right off the bat, even if we’ve never met her before, and we know immediately that the tension here will be both internal and external.
Yes, there’s the tumor, and the question of what the author will do next. This is the external tension.
But then there’s also the internal tension, the quieter tension: the person the author is, and how at war she is with herself as she describes this tumor to you.
DeRuiter’s natural humor and the way that plays against her very serious condition is another strong point of tension, but it also points to another key aspect of great novels that can inform a great blog post: the voice of the work, or the writer.
Some writers say that voice can’t be taught. It’s that elusive thing that lets you know immediately who is speaking. In novels, we look more for the voice of the story. But in blog posts, we look for the voice of the writer, since there’s very little that comes between the writer of a blog post and the writing of a blog post.
Take, for instance, the novel The Country of Ice Cream Star, by Sandra Newman. This is the opening paragraph:
“My name be Ice Cream Fifteen Star. My brother be Driver Eighteen Star, and my ghost brother Mo-Jacques Five Star, dead when I myself was only six years old. Still my heart is rain for him, my brother dead of posies little.”
We know so much about this narrator and about this story from just these brief lines. We know that we may be in a different country, and quite likely in a different time, since she’s referencing a disease we’ve never heard of before. We know this place has different ways of recording age. We know this character has suffered great loss. We know she loves her family.
This voice will carry us through the rest of the novel. It is intimate, and warm, and we immediately know what to expect from it.
The voice in a blog post can be similar. We read certain blogs time and again because we like the narrator, the author of the blog. In Tim Urban’s “Wait But Why” posts, on his blog of the same name, his voice is one of friendly puzzlement, an “I’m with you” kind of curiosity that nearly always starts off the same way: Urban gives us what we call an in media res kind of opening, one that puts us in the middle of a situation, and then he proceeds to dissect that opening by way of segueing into a larger discussion and conversation, by the end of which he thinks we—both Urban and his reader—will learn something new.
In blog posts more so than in novels, we might refer to voice as style. And in some cases, this style might be bolstered by another great lesson we can draw from novels: smart pacing.
A novel’s pacing is related to its structure and narrative arc: It’s how the book moves, how the action flows and ebbs.
I spend an irrational amount of time each year reading Dick Francis’ mysteries. They’re centered around the horse racing world and set mostly in England. I love the former because I don’t know it very well, and so I enjoy reading about it; the latter because I have a strange affinity for Jelly Babies, Cornish pasties, and uptight manicured gardens.
As a body, though, I love each of the 39 novels for their individual narrators—and for their pacing. Because nearly every single one of the novels has a different protagonist with their own pace of life, I haven’t been able to discern a pattern to this pacing, but I’ve never been bored with a Francis novel, no matter how many times I’ve read it.
Francis’ pacing is the work of a master. He layers in information, so you’re almost never confronted with huge chunks of it at once, even if he’s trying to parlay the information you need to know about an obscure profession. His characters go about their daily lives as suits them, but as the reader, you’re somehow never bored. This is largely because Francis gives you the action where you want it, and leans on verisimilitude where you don’t.
When one of his heroes has just been through a terribly harrowing event, you, the reader, have gone along with him, so it’s OK if the next few pages—days, for the character—are spent pottering around in their own apartments, eating beans on toast and watching old horse races.
And then, as the action ramps up again because the character just can’t stand being at home by himself another minute, so is the reader ready for another, even more serious and harrowing event to happen.
Some of this is rote reader psychology; some of it is smart fiction practice. But you can put it to use in blog posts as well. Take a look at the pacing in a post by writer Kate Siber, on the nearly forgotten female mountaineer Lucy Walker.
Siber’s been a journalist for most of her career, so the pacing is already spot-on. Here’s how she did it for this post: She gives us an enticing first paragraph, and follows that with a capsule of Walker’s life so we feel like we know a little bit about this woman. Siber then pulls way out, for a meta look at the backdrop of mountaineering in Walker’s time, but only very briefly, so we don’t digress too much away from Walker’s story.
Pretty quickly afterward, we get a deep dive into Walker’s world, with some backing from a researcher who has extensive knowledge of Walker’s life, and then, finally, we pull out again for a little speculation on how this remarkable woman may have been lost to time.
Finally, we end with a quote from someone who knew Walker, the most intimate of viewpoints.
If you chart out this post, you’ll see it has a distinctive shape to it. That shape mirrors the ebb and flow of action in a good mystery or thriller, and it’s something to aim for.
The next time you sit down to read a novel, consider the things we’ve covered above, and ask yourself what you can learn from the way that novel approaches tension, voice, and pacing. Everything we read has something to teach us, but if you look closely enough, you’ll see that even the most seemingly disparate forms have things in common that we can put to use in our work.
Yi Shun Lai has worked with words for over twenty years. She publishes and edits the Tahoma Literary Review, a thrice-annual literary magazine, and writes both fiction and nonfiction. She teaches creative writing in workshops and classes at the college level when she’s not working for CYC, and has an irrational fear of earthworms, slugs, and sharks. Her debut novel has been in its fourth printing forever.