The contemporary reader has a short attention span and we writers need to respect that. We need to write toward their preferences because they’re the folks who buy our books. How to shorten chapters, reduce paragraphs, decrease word count, and still write a book with intriguing premise, significant character development, and exciting plot remains a challenge. It’s a desirable goal achieved by being attentive to what you need to keep and what you can toss into the maw of the paper shredder.
We all know the basics – excise the wussy words – nice, that, very, tiny, big, thing, just – vacuous words freeloading on your manuscript. Loosen the formal voice only spoken by professors: I would have liked to inquire of you if I might be permitted to invite you for a repast tomorrow evening at the exceptional restaurant on Snob Hill Avenue. Crap, no one talks like that. Just let dude take dudette to dinner.
Slice and dice repeated words: They walked to the store, then they walked back to the apartment where they walked down the hall and walked into their unit. All that walking around, but nothing of any import happening in the story. Delete the entire sentence. Maybe start the story over.
One of my problems is running every idea straight into the ground by twisting and turning it to see every visible facet. If I can find one way to express an idea, relate an action, divulge a motivation, (see what I mean?) I can probably find another six, so why not put all of them into my story? Well, I can give you six reasons right there. If one solid sentence will do, one is likely enough. Move on, tell the story already.
My most favorite first sentence is from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The first time I read it I was eight, too young to understand the book. But I loved the first sentence so much that I memorized it: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…It goes on for another ninety-six wondrously evocative and poetic words, well worth the effort to memorize. It’s always presented intact, one paragraph in one sentence that establishes the spirit of lives lived as polar opposites in London and Paris in the moment before the French Revolution.
One hundred twenty words is long for a sentence, whether first, last, or somewhere between. It’s not recommended as most writers can’t convey such mastery, and most of us would end up with a tangled run on sentence of no merit. Imagine then my surprise when I spotted the sentence in a newer edition of the book, and found the iconic opener divided not only into four sentences but also four paragraphs. Blasphemous cutting and pasting of an author long dead and unable to advocate for his literary propriety. I can hear Dickens sob.
(Of course we all know that Dickens made little attempt at brevity as he was paid by the word for his serialized stories that first appeared in a local newspaper. But that’s another story altogether.)
But something clever had been done in the travesty: an editor, knowing of course that the work is in public domain and thus not liable for lawsuit, realized that breaking the long first sentence into four more easily accessible ones might attract the attention of readers who struggle with reading. Yet those readers might find themselves devouring Dickens’ book with less struggle in the reading trenches.
The lesson? Try it for your own stories, as I have. I’m not Dickens, neither are you. Drop the pretext of portraying a great author and figure out how to get your story across without bashing your readers’ noggins. Maybe chopping a really long sentence or paragraph into appetizer-sized tidbits will make your work more appealing. The concept may still endure in the shorter takes. It might garner more readers. As my wise mama would say, “It can’t hurt.”
Today’s readers are a quirky bunch of disloyal patrons. Out of college, most don’t ever read a novel again – the disappointing numbers are out there in the Internet. I’m not shooting arrows at them because I realize we’ve all got lots to do, some of them better than trudging through fifty ways to say, “I’m leaving you, love, got better offers down the road.”
We can wail and bemoan the footloose audience or accept that so few people count reading a book a delightful personal favorite habit to occupy free time, and instead find a way to attract a potential reader by making it easy on her eyes and brain. Yeah, we can all do that, and most of the time it will improve our stories at the same time. You know the metaphor, “kill two birds with one stone.” Gather rocks.
Think of the lady at the airport, waiting to catch her plane. Two hours in the airport lounge, max, then another two or five on the plane, catching up on business and emails, with maybe a half hour to devote to reading a book. How can we writers best gather our ideas and present them for that half hour attention span? Sometimes all it takes is kicking out the useless words, tightening those remaining, then breaking the whole shebang into short reading bites. Suitable for reading between perusing emails and gobbling the free pretzel lunch. Try it – it can’t hurt.
Riding a Flying Carpet, 1880 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov