You know that myth about goldfish? That they can live quite happily for years in a small bowl with perhaps a wisp of artificial seaweed, some colored rocks, or a plastic deep sea diver? Supposedly its because their memories and attention spans last only about as long as it takes them to complete one circuit around the bowl. That means that theyre swimming around, they pass the seaweed, rocks or the diver, and say “Oh, how pretty” or “Woah! Whos that!!!” and continue on their way and by the time they reach the beginning of their circuit again, theyve forgotten all about it.
This is a blog about attention span and how to keep our readers reading.
As a childrens book writer, this is something I think about a lot. You know those same people who seem to know so much about goldfish are also experts on children, especially children today. Apparently 21st century kids have attention spans only marginally longer than that of a fish- about two minutes give or take. So that means that we authors have to jump start our books with explosive action, taut plotting, cliff-hangers, 2 page chapters and not a whole lot of character development that cant be provided by action sequences. Im sorry but thats not the way I write. As a writer and a reader I like the lulls and breaks that a bit of dialogue provides, or a humorous scene or a bit when my main character has a long conversation with himself in his head. Id rather pull the reader into the deep water slowly than push him off some cliff. Not to say that its not something I tuck at the back of my brain while Im writing. I do, and I definitely did more with this last book than with the first one. I try to end chapters on a high note with a problem yet to be resolved, I try to keep things moving forward sometimes frenetically if thats what the plot calls for, but Im not chopping my chapters short- most often theyre around 8 pages but sometimes it takes as many as 17 pages to really get to the meat of the scene- and Im not trying to write a story as if it was a 30 second commercial for the latest action toy.
Im not a fan of the instantly digestible book; the sort you can consume voraciously and that then leave you feeling like youve eaten a bag of potato chips- unsatisfied and still hungry and vaguely disgusted that you ate the whole thing and licked the salt out of the bag too. The kind of book that takes an hour to read, and may include a likable hero, a moderately interesting plot and an ending that wraps everything up neatly or sets up the next five sequels, but is still sort of a waste of time. I read books over and over again and I think kids do too. I think they remember books that impact them, and they may return to these books throughout their lives, re-reading them at ten, and 15 and even 20 years old. I know I do. My favorite books have come along with me on cross-country moves shelved in more apartments and houses than I can remember, and I get comfort from them, and now having children of my own, I can barely wait for the time when theyll discover these books and others for themselves.
The works of J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Nancy Farmer, Eva Ibbotson, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Ursula K. Leguin all dispel the myth that kids today want instant gratification. These books are dense, smart and not patronizing in the slightest. They demand a certain commitment from their readers and the reward they offer in return is immeasurable.