A reader invested in a good story might become oblivious to the world around her, and if she is on the brink of resolve after a suspenseful scene, she might grip the book a little tighter as the anticipation builds. Angry readers might be known to throw a book across a room in a fit of dissatisfaction, and a thoughtful reader might pause to highlight a line or two or perhaps add a note. Books can cause us to react or physically engage with the text in a number of ways, but have you ever wondered how details like physically turning the pages of a print book, compared to the navigation of an ebook, may alter the experience of reading something suspenseful?

Two different readers could each read the same title—take Gillian Flynn’s bestselling Gone Girl, for example—and yet if the first reader thumbs through a paperback and the second swipes digital pages on her iPad, these readers will encounter two distinct reading experiences. Small differences in content organization and how readers measure progress shape the experience of reading print versus ebooks. Many readers hold a strong preference for one format over the other, and the conversation of how each will impact the other is ongoing. Zooming in, then, let’s look specifically at the element of suspense—not only a typical thriller or mystery, but any narrative that uses a driving force to push it forward.

Curious about these different reading experiences, I surveyed some fellow readers, and from forty-one total responses, I found that 65% said they prefer to read print books, 15% prefer to read ebooks, and the remaining 20% prefer to read both equally. The majority of those surveyed (63%) said they at least sometimes choose to read suspenseful books. Looking at reader habits, 95% will read more pages in one sitting if they feel kept in suspense, 79% feel more suspense when nearing the end of a book, and 88% will look ahead for stopping points, such as the end of a chapter. Of those surveyed, 45% agree that physically turning pages makes them feel like they’re advancing more so than with digital cues, such as a progress bar or percentage. Finally, 96% of print readers do not physically engage with a book by underlining, highlighting, or making notes during a suspenseful scene, but 33% of ebook readers do.

These results provoke some interesting questions: do print books make it easier to look ahead for stopping points, thus increasing the level of suspense? Do ebooks make it easier to highlight text with less distraction? How does seeing progress using digital cues versus feeling it build tangibly by turning pages change the way a reader interprets suspense?

While additional research would be needed to provide deeper insight, a few practical areas to consider with both formats include a book’s content organization and how a reader gauges progress. If readers feel greater suspense as they near the end of the book, stopping to look for chapter breaks or “checkpoints” could potentially add to this building sense of anticipation. Strategic narrative structure on the publisher’s end could be considered for ebooks, where navigating chapter or section breaks more easily could impact the level of suspense. Determining a “best practice” in content organization based on additional research could improve how a reader moves through a text. Improvements in ebook navigation and usability could also create a more fluid digital reading experience.

With overall reading progress, feeling the pages accumulate in the reader’s hands signals a particular message of anticipation as the reader gets closer to the end of the book. This background tangibility may serve as a link between physical touch and processing content. With ebooks, highlighting or engaging with the text can lock in a reader’s understanding. The ease of swiping or clicking through digital pages might also contribute to one’s choice to read further when held in suspense. Removing any unnecessary distractions and focusing on seamless ebook and device features could reinforce an inviting digital reading experience. Although these considerations only graze the surface of comparison between print and digital formats, awareness of how every detail contributes to interpreting suspense and the overall reading experience is key for future improvement.

While both print and digital formats offer a unique way to read suspenseful narratives, each could take cues from the other to continue to provide a quality experience for the reader. Creating stronger content organization and considering progress measurement could heighten a reader’s sense of suspense, from subtle to scream-worthy. One constant that will stick around is the reader’s desire to be intrigued, entertained, engaged, or surprised. Whether curled up with a favorite hardcover or eagerly swiping through an ebook, a good story will continue to offer readers the small thrill of turning to the next page.

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