Archive for 'attention span'

Long on Words, Short on Attention
by Our Guest on June 25th, 2009

Jessa, Sharon and Annette have all very eloquently explained the challenges of writing short. It’s not a skill I’ve ever been able to develop. I’m not even fond of jotting messages inside greeting cards. I know, that’s pretty neurotic…or is the word pathetic, especially since I’m supposed to be a writer? But give me 90 or 100,000 words to play with and I will certainly tell you my thoughts. All of them. Maybe too many, which is why I often struggle to streamline my prose and why my editor makes sure she has a sharpened pencil whenever she sits down with one of my manuscripts.

I blame it on my reading habits earlier in life. Oh, those 19th century English novels with their endless sentences and characters and oh-so-detailed descriptions. And have I ever mentioned that semester in college I spent reading a mere four books? They were War and Peace, Don Quixote, Ulyses and Moby Dick. No brevity there. None. We are talking an outpouring of words that went on and on. And on….. Kind of a spewing, really, albeit well-crafted, poetic and timeless.

Or maybe not. How many young people these days are racing to the bookstore to snatch up that sort of verbosity? Sadly, not very many. Of course the Harry Potter and Twilight series come to mind, but those are really the exceptions. The number one reason cited is attention span, as in people nowadays having extremely short ones. In our fast-paced world, things are generally supposed to happen instantly. Instant communication, instant entertainment, instant gratification. No one wants to hang around long enough for the gradual unfolding of emotions, relationships and story conflict. It’s “Tell me now or forget it.” Not a comforting notion for a novelist.

And yet… My daughter enjoys playing those video games like Mario and Zelda, where the character goes on these epic quests that last…well, they seem to go on forever. From what I’ve observed, there is absolutely nothing instantly gratifying about those games. They’re complex, repetitive and often teeth-gnashingly frustrating. Now that I think of it, they’re a little like a Dickens novel, or Tolstoy, with stories within stories and layers and layers of meaning and theme — like navigating through a garden maze gone wild. You’ve got to be focused and employ the patience of a saint to make through one of those puppies.


Is it because the games are visual that makes the difference? Or that the player in effect becomes the main character and is in control of all the major actions and decisions? If so, that would suggest, not the eroding of the modern attention span but rather an emerging need to be absorbed into the action rather than remain a passive viewer. Maybe the wave of the future won’t be shorter books — or no books — but interactive ones, undoubtedly read on an electronic device like a Kindle, where at each major plot point the reader is able to choose from several options which the direction the story will go. And then BINGO! The silver lining for us writers will be the salvaging of all those scenes we end up cutting because we deemed them unnecessary to the plot. Woo hoo!

Hmm. I really strayed off the main point here. Sorry, I’ve got an alarmingly short attention span. What were we talking about? Ah yes. Question: Given today’s schedules and stresses, are you content with traditional, full length novels or does the idea of shorter, snappier and maybe even high tech stories intrigue you?