A Lesson in Suspense


Reading graded readers can be quite educational on how to write good stories. Previously I wrote an article about a graded reader “Hall of Shame“, in which I highlighted various problems I had observed within the genre, and then provided a summary of recommendations on how to write better graded readers. Elsewhere I wrote another summary of advice on writing graded readers (I called them Easy Readers in my earlier posts.)

In this article I’d like to talk about suspense. I think I was in my twenties when I first really thought about suspense at all when reading. A fine simple example that crystallised it for me was Dirk Gently’s Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. Two memorable simple bits of suspense occurred in it. The first is the sofa stuck in the staircase, which is explained toward the end of the story. The second, which amazed me in its simplicity was explaining two of three things, and not answering the third one until late in the book. I was reading on, wondering what the third thing was. This illustrated that it didn’t really matter what the suspense is, as long as it’s suspense. It doesn’t need to be figuring out who committed a crime, or whether the romance concludes happily. It can be pretty much anything.

The next observation, which inspired the way I’ve organised my Gnomeville comics, was the use of cliff-hangers. I was reading a collection of X-Men comics, and noticed that they always ended with a cliffhanger and unanswered questions. By never fully ending the story, people get hooked and need to read the next issue. Soap operas seem to work the same way. It struck me that this is a very good strategy for graded readers, since we want to motivate people to keep reading to improve their language skill.

I buy and read graded readers by other authors, and I was struck by the contrast suspense made between two otherwise very similar stories by the same author, Sylvie Lainé.

Voyage en France tells of an English couple who go to France, because Louis is reminded of a creative project he commenced with his best friend decades earlier, who later moved to France, and with whom he had lost contact. The project was a movie about an old man trying to find an old friend, echoing the current situation. Louis wants to see how the story will end, by finding his old friend. We read the story of Louis and Melba as they follow a series of clues to find Louis’s old friend. This suspense worked for me, as I wanted to know how the story would end. I also wanted to know whether they tried to finish the movie, but that question wasn’t answered. I read the story quickly, despite many chapters of fairly mundane travel activities, all because of the suspense.

Contrast the above story with Voyage à Marseille. This contains the same two main characters, doing the same things, that is, travelling through France to get to a destination. However, it lacks the suspense of wondering whether they will find the person they are looking for. The first bit of excitement happens quite late, the disappearance of the car, and is resolved quite quickly. There is another unanswered question that had potential as a simple bit of suspense, the title of the biography of Louis’s friend that they were visiting. Unfortunately that wasn’t answered in the final chapter. It took me a lot longer to finish this story, because there wasn’t anything I wanted to know the answer to.

So, when writing graded readers, please provide suspense. It makes a lot of difference to the reading experience.




Extensive Reading Musings


I’ve been reading some more research on extensive reading and readability lately. One paper showed gains in reading rate, vocabulary and comprehension with students reading about 150K words over 15 weeks at an intermediate level. This was contrasted with another study where learners read ~65K words over 28 weeks and failed to show improvement. I think there is probably a threshold of some kind where you need to read a certain amount per week to improve language skill. The amount probably varies with the level of skill you already have. Someone still improving their knowledge of the most frequent 400 words of the language will not need to read as much to achieve vocabulary gain (assuming appropriate graded readers) as someone reading at the 2000 word level. The study that showed gains had students reading with vocabularies of 800+.

Given the 10K words per week guide, and the typical reading rate in foreign languages often being around 150 words per minute, that equates to about an hour of reading per week, or 10 minutes a day. That’s not a bad aim for maintaining and hopefully improving your language skills.

Review of Easy French Reader by Roussy de Sales


Here’s my Goodreads review of the book…

Three distinct sections in this reader, at different levels of difficulty.
1. Beginner French, with very simple grammar, but school vocabulary assumed. Progresses through the chapters. Not overly interesting.
2. History. Written in present tense. I enjoyed reading about the ancient history more than the modern. I had read some of these before in Roussy de Sales’s earlier publications, where these were separate books. Again, there is quite a bit of vocabulary here.
3. Famous short stories. These include perfect and imperfect tense, so grammatically suitable for the intermediate student. For some reason I don’t really enjoy these stories, though I think I understood more of them in my most recent reading than when I read them over 10 years ago in other editions.
There is still quite a vocabulary burden when reading these, so their suitability will depend on how comfortable people are with unknown words, and the size of their current vocabulary.

Further info on an extract of the text.

Chapter 1 is 87 words (tokens) and  43 distinct words (types), which makes a type-token ratio of 0.49, which is suitably low for beginners. This compares favourably with other beginner stories, like Bonjour Berthe, and Gnomeville Episodes 1 and 2, but is aimed at an older audience.

Chapter 1 gives a reasonable amount of repetition for de, est and il. Other words would need to be encountered more frequently to be acquired via reading.

In summary, it is good that these stories are still available, as they certainly have their place for French extensive reading.




I’ve been playing with Wordle recently. It creates word clouds, showing the most frequently occurring words in a given block of text after a set of stop words, such as “the”, are removed, with font size indicating the relative frequency of words. It’s a fancier version of the tag cloud. Here is a wordle for my blog.


They’re pretty good at giving an idea of what something is about. Perhaps they can also help the language learner.

Here is a wordle word cloud for Les Trois Mousquetaires.


This shows who are the main characters, and a few common words that don’t appear to have been excluded via the stop list. When no words are filtered, we get something like this.


Really it’s just a pretty word frequency list, and frequency is one consideration for deciding whether a word is worth learning. If you want to get some idea of what are the important words to know for a particular text and you have the text handy, Wordle is an aesthetically pleasing way to find out.