Short Attention Spans: Fiction Writing Style in the Early 21st Century
Those of us who write fiction today face a lot of competition among story-telling formats. Not only do we have movies and television (and movies on television), but the internet now offers any number of entertainment formats still evolving (including movies and television on the internet). These many formats lead to a near overload of choices, and that leads to audiences with shorter and shorter attention spans.
Before the 20th Century—before movies and later, television—books offered one of a few story-telling mediums for people. The theater was available, but on an irregular basis, as a special event. If a person wanted to immerse into a new story, having heard all the stories from family and community enough times, a book was the best way. Long descriptions of setting and character were welcomed by readers. The book could very well be the best source for information and images, the best passport to exotic places and fascinating people. Readers appreciated a good book that would last.
The expanded set of story-telling choices today offers a special problem for writers of historical fiction, because exotic settings and unfamiliar people and time periods require more exposition at a time when long expository passages run the risk of losing the reader quickly. Modern writers are told to “show, not tell” to address this situation. (Does that mean the art of turning a clever phrase is lost? No, but a writer is advised to turn that clever phrase describing dramatic action or within dialogue, not as part of a long narrative expository passage.) This maxim is difficult for the writer of historical fiction, writing in a genre that requires more stage-setting than a novel with a modern setting. Many times, readers will say a book “starts slowly.” This is usually a sign of a lot of narrative exposition—telling not showing— to set the stage for the dramatic action to begin. Historical fiction runs that risk more than other types of writing because setting the historical stage is important—essential—to the genre.
I have developed my own style to address this situation, a style I have applied to my historical fiction (The Swords of Faith, 2010, published by Strider Nolan Media and the upcoming sequel, The Sultan and the Khan), as well as to other writing (The Election, 1997; Dying to Heal, 2011). I read as a suggestion somewhere that a writer should start a scene in the middle of the action. I like that idea. I think it creates a quick pace, and constantly engages the reader. I like to give a caption, with time and location, at the beginning of the scene, then start right up, most often with a piece of intriguing dialogue. I offer a few lines of exposition/description to orient the reader to the scene, then let it unfold, in real time, with as much dramatic action per word as possible. I like to burst into a scene, to energize the pace. Because movies and television permeate our world, readers have seen many exciting and exotic locations on screens of one sort or another. It doesn’t take many words to put them in the locale. Impatient readers often skip those paragraphs anyway.
Whether my methods have been successful will be decided by readers. But I know I enjoy this sort of story-telling—I enjoy reading books with a good pace, characterized by less narrative exposition and more dramatic action. I am a product of the times I live in; so much to do, so many things to read and watch and absorb. My attention span is no doubt as short as that of the readers I have been describing! So, I write with that in mind.
Richard Warren Field is the Scribbler's New Voice in February. He is the author of Swords of Faith, available now, and a dear friend with a gift for writing authentic historical scenes.