The novel, reduced to absurdity

Unless you’ve been living in a cave or atop a Himalayan peak, you’ve probably heard the news that humans now have a shorter attention span than goldfish. (Eight seconds, in case you’re wondering.)

I got 8 seconds guys... ok, done. [By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga) Copyright: GFDL (GNU Free Documentation License]

I got 8 seconds guys… ok, done. [By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga) Copyright: GFDL (GNU Free Documentation License]

This revelation translates, for writers, into a series of eminently logical commandments:

  • Write shorter sentences.
  • Use shorter words.
  • Construct shorter books.
  • Use bullet points.
  • Write flash fiction.

No more 150K word opuses; stick to 70K or fewer. Above all, keep your readers constantly engaged—at every moment, on every page—or risk losing them to a more enticing pursuit.

Proponents of breathless pacing

At the June meeting of the Peninsula Branch of the California Writers Club, Kirsten Weiss’s presentation “Pace Like Joss Whedon!” followed a trend among writing coaches and instructors that encourages novelists to apply the tricks of the screenwriting trade. Why? To keep readers hooked.

In fact, there’s a veritable listicle (more evil spawn of our goldfish-length attention spans) of authors, screenwriters, and coaches who are proponents of some variation of this:

Perhaps predictably, there’s also something of a backlash against the reduction of novel writing to a formulaic pursuit patterned after TV and movies, including a nice overview at Narrative First and an analysis of what can go awry when screenwriters write novels.

Nor is this a particularly current debate. Earnest Hemingway’s spare prose style arguably influenced a generation of writers and stood in stark contrast to the styles of writers like Faulkner and Fizgerald. The stylistic dialectic rages on today. Take a recent novel like Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. Some sentences go on for paragraphs. The action scenes unfold not as fast-paced kapow-kapow but as rich description, almost like a Breugel painting on the page. I loved it, as did many of the nearly 4,500 people who rated it on Goodreads. I’d be willing to bet that Rushdie did not apply the principles of screenwriting during the editing process.

I like my novels like Bruegel paintings. [Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

I like my novels like Bruegel paintings. [Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

To absurdity and beyond

There’s nothing wrong with keeping readers engaged. In fact, it’s essential. Nor is there anything wrong with borrowing techniques from another medium to improve one’s work. But I began to wonder what happens when you take the shorten-/enliven-/punch-up-to-engage-the-reader argument to its logical conclusion. (Or, reductio ad absurdum, which, as defined by Wikipedia, derives from Latin and “is a common form of argument which seeks to demonstrate that a statement… is false by showing that a false, untenable, or absurd result follows from its acceptance.”)

So let’s pursue this idea of reducing the novel to cater to ever-shorter attention spans by packing ever more action, tension, and other forms of engagement into small and smaller spaces. Reduced to absurdity, we eventually arrive at a place where the novel consists of a single word. Yet it would be a word so powerful and so engaging that the reader would be unable to tear himself or herself away from it!

Now take it a step further. Why not reduce to a syllable? Or a single letter? Or perhaps even no sound at all? By reducing the novel to nothing, would you create something so engaging that your audience would continue reading it for all eternity?

Perhaps that’s exactly the kind of novel I ought to be trying to write.

Note the contrast with Bruegel painting, above.

Note the contrast with Bruegel painting, above.

Back from the brink

Of course the absurd conclusion to this exercise is unrealistic, just as it’s unrealistic to expect most modern-day readers to put up with the likes of Moby Dick. But the middle ground of those two extremes is a good deal wider and more elastic than many people would have you believe. Between breathless attention-grabbing and overwrought description lies fertile ground for storytelling. It’s where every contemporary storyteller must find a voice.

As writers, we should use all the tools at our disposal, including a formula that helps us “pace like Joss Whedon” if it improves our writing. But we have a responsibility, too, not to be led to ridiculous extremes by the dictates of popular culture. When I’m engaging in conversation with my readers, I’d like to think that I am still conversing with human beings, not goldfish.

Where do you fall on the spectrum? As a reader, do you have the patience for pacing that’s less than light-speed? As a writer, do you write ad hominum or ad piscis?

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17 thoughts on “The novel, reduced to absurdity

  1. I think it depends on the story. I read stories that have a slower pacing and unfold more like the stories from decades ago. I enjoy them for what they are. But if that was all I could read, I would lose my mind. I do enjoy fast paced writing, but again, if that was all I could read, I’d grow bored. I want books that have lots of setting and also books that have sparse setting. I like having options. 🙂

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  2. AWESOME NEW BLOG LOOK. Wait, my attention just wandered…. okay, I’m back. On breathless pacing: Just read Wallace Stegner’s Shooting Star and James Agee’s Death in the Family. Both slow as molasses, and very good. Has the time passed for books like that?

    Thanks for the tips and the visit to the absurd. For the likes of me it’s write, goof, re-write, goof, until I finally get it right or get tired and die. Does keep me out of trouble, mostly. Cheers–

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    • Glad you like the new look!

      When I get all these great comments on my blog, I feel assured that there are at least a handful of readers who enjoy the same kind of fiction I enjoy reading (and writing). Gives me hope. And I am on the same writing/editing cycle as you. Let’s hope we get it right before the alternative presents itself.

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  3. I like a brisk pace but not at the expense of characterization. The plot won’t hold much interest if we aren’t invested in the characters who are navigating it. That being said, page-long paragraphs and pages of description will get me skipping ahead. 🙂

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    • Even my brain, steeped in academic literature via my undergraduate degree, is starting to rebel against those page-long paragraphs. I used to do fine with them but now find they’re harder to absorb. Or it could just be my advancing age.

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  4. It’s an interesting discussion. In the end, I think it’s all about the story, and if the style fits with narrative then the reader will be engaged. I’ve noticed a trend for long novels in popular fiction (The Goldfinch, for example) so perhaps we have longer attention spans than indicated?

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    • Thanks for joining the discussion. I agree: It IS all about the story. The increased length of some recent popular novels is encouraging, though I wonder how many actual readers they attract. Even a “runaway bestseller” these days sometimes sells fewer than a million copies. Those goldfish have a hard time getting to the bookstore or onto Amazon… no thumbs.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think it depends a lot on context. If, like today, I am keeping an eye on email and current events and not missing a moment of anyone’s fabulous life as depicted on FaceBook, it’s more difficult to dissolve away into a novel. But on a quiet day, in the evening, on vacation, or if I’m truly disciplined on a day like today, a good novel will suck me in and not let me go. The world will revolve around me, the sun will go down, and I will keep on reading. As long as the author is still giving compelling elements of the story, I’m all in.

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    • It all comes back to what sucks readers in. It’s different for everyone, but I hope it’s not the same as what keeps you checking email and Facebook–those dopamine squirts! Otherwise we might as well just do a download/dump of FB and call it a novel :-).

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Audrey, I’m with you on this one. I enjoy characters that I care about and plots need to give the characters things to do, respond to, and deal with in such a way as to help me care about them more. And above all, it all has to make sense in the end. I like to be able to think about a story afterwards and continue to get something from it. Being the only female in a family of four, I end up at a lot of action movies. Some have their points, and many have their moments, but I’m often shocked by how little I remember of the plots even a few weeks later. The phrase, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” comes to mind. I’m grateful that life does not (most of the time) much resemble an action movie, and deeply glad that a good novel doesn’t have to, either.

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    • Then you are my audience!

      To be fair, I think much of the advice doesn’t necessarily counsel bang-boom action on every page, but simply SOMETHING to keep the reader engaged–which might be a small emotional suspense like wondering whether or not the hero will get his girl. The problem, I think, comes when pursuit of that suspense becomes the only criterion by which we judge a work.

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