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.)
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.
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.
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?