Sal McKeown dips into an interactive online novel for school readers – and is hooked
Fiction ExpressPlot development by online votesAs an English student, one of my specialist areas was serialisation and the Victorian novel. Much like today's soap operas, they were written in parts, with little idea of how and where the story would end. They just knew they had to write 24 monthly parts.

The plot was influenced by audience opinion so minor characters might suddenly assume a major role. Fall out with the public and there could be a sudden, drawn-out deathbed scene. Now that art has been revived online with Fiction Express.  A chapter is published on a Friday and readers have until 3 pm on Tuesday to vote on options for the next thrilling instalment.

Then the author has a scant two-and-a-half days to concoct the next chapter. The Fiction Express approach to providing online books in parts is the brainchild of Paul Humphrey, a former director at Wayland Publishers. Like EastEnders or Coronation Street, the key factor is an exciting plot.

Fiction Express is designed to turn reluctant readers on to stories, and it is succeeding in building anticipation, getting pupils involved and making sure there is a cliffhanger of an ending. Recent books cover ghosts, time shifting and an Olympic adventure aimed at readers aged eight or older.

One of my favourites is School for Supervillains. This is aimed at readers aged 10 or older. It is the story of Mandrake de Ville, daughter of super villains, who is sent to a boarding school where acts of kindness are outlawed. The first instalment ended on a suitably melodramatic note as an evil teacher set Mandrake a challenge, "Which fate would you like for you and your classmates?” His beady eyes were on her, boring into her. “Or, if I could put it more bluntly… how would you prefer to die, my dear?”

Students can also interact online with authors, editors and other readers

The Ghosts of Eden ValleyAs well as the voting option, there is also a blog on the website which lets students interact with the authors, the Fiction Express editors and other readers. One girl was finding it hard to read the book on the computer and another pupil suggested reading it on a mobile phone which worked much better for her.

But Fiction Express is not just popular with pupils. It is also finding favour with teachers who report improved comprehension, increased motivation and are very appreciative of  the teacher resources which accompany each book. Gareth Williams, a teacher at Hanbury CE First School in Bromsgrove, said, "I have rarely seen my class so excited by reading and so willing to read on.

"Perhaps it's the novelty of reading on the school's laptops; perhaps it is the nature of the books; perhaps it is because they know how much they have to read and that they must wait before continuing.I don't know. But for the moment they aren't drones barking at a text; they are readers."

Ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose   5
Ease of use               5
Features                    4
Quality                       5
Value for money        5

Fiction Express for Schools
Online service costing £150 ex VAT for whole school use for three different books each term at different reading levels. They can be read by pupils in school and at home. Fiction Express also provides comprehensive weekly teacher resources to accompany each chapter.

Sally McKeownSal McKeown is a freelance journalist. Her book How to Help your Dyslexic and Dyspraxic Child is published by Crimson Publishing

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