the attention economy and the case for compelling fiction: what it is, why you need to write it
Writing fiction in the digital age means dealing with the realities of the attention economy.
Content is everywhere. Information is everywhere. Attention, as Michael H Goldfaber points out in WIRED magazine remains limited. There are only so many minds per capita, and each mind pays attention to one thing at a time (just like you are paying attention to this blog post right now).
If economics “is the study of how a society uses its scarce resources”, then the scarce and desirable something that “flows through cyberspace” is attention. It is “the natural economy” of the ‘Net.
We are right now engaged in an attention transaction: you are giving your attention to me, and in exchange I am giving my attention to you (and, hopefully, some insight or knowledge or diversion that makes the transaction feel worthwhile). It is an unequal distribution since, as the writer, I am (hopefully) getting attention from other readers as well, while you are getting what is kind of an illusion of my attention.
To paraphrase that obnoxious t-shirt, He Who Dies With The Most Attention Wins. We are entering an age of stars, celebrities and microcelebrities: they are the rich (with attention) and will get more so (attention begets attention). Anonymity will soon equal poverty — and powerlessness.
This is depressing, I know, but that’s not my point.
The question for writers becomes: how to keep the reader’s attention when that attention is more scarce and hence valuable than ever, and when so many other forces are actively competing for it?
It’s more important than ever to write compelling fiction. To keep the reader turning the page.
‘Compelling fiction’, I think, is a loaded and slightly dangerous term, because so many people hear it and think: Mindless plot-heavy Hollywood-movie fiction. They think: hackwork, commercial, selling out, pandering to the masses. Maybe because ‘compelling’ seems to equal ‘plot’, and ‘plot’, in the age-old (and increasingly tired) war of literary vs genre, is equated with ‘genre’.
Genre is supposed to be plot-heavy (and badly written).
Literary — and hence ‘good’ fiction — is supposed to lack plot and move slowly (and be boring).
Thus, compelling fiction = bad fiction.
People, people. Pardon my bluntness, but this is horseshit.
Compelling fiction isn’t about making things blow up. Compelling fiction is about making the reader worry over the fate of the characters. Which means that a) they have to be emotionally invested in the characters and b) they have to have reasons to worry.
(This is why, for example, it’s a bad idea to open a story with a a description of someone in pain, or a description of an explosion. Description is static. And although it seems to be describing something of interest to the reader, that’s not the case — because we don’t know who the people are being affected, or why we should care. We don’t have reason to worry.)
You ‘hook’ the reader through presenting them with a question they want to see answered. It doesn’t have to be a big world-shattering kind of question. Will 15 year old Jana get to tennis practice on time (otherwise her stepdad will kill her)? Will Michael get up the nerve to approach that hot woman standing in the American History section of Barnes & Noble? Did Horatio really see the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and how will Hamlet react?
Emotional investment doesn’t happen all at once, so you draw the reader in through arousing his or her curiosity. Plot is not a series of explosions, or other mindless happenings, which is why so many Hollywood action movies are so freaking boring. Plot is a series of interesting questions presented to the reader that are asked and answered in a way that causes them to weave together and build on one another, culminating in a climax that resolves the story’s deep, central, and overarching question. This question could be: Will Stacy and Kevin escape the clutches of the evil oil barons in time to save the rainforest? or Will Gunther overcome his suburban existential angst? So long as both those questions are handled through effective and artful storytelling, they can each be compelling.
It’s always been my goal to write deep, rich, compelling novels. So I’m intrigued by this idea of what it means to be compelling, and I’m thinking I’d like to do a series that investigates the elements of compelling fiction.
Which means I could use — and would love — your thoughts and insights. What’s the most compelling novel you’ve read recently, and what makes it compelling to you? What makes you want to keep turning the page?
Right now, I’m reading Orhan Pamuk’s THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE. Pamuk is, by anyone’s standard, a deep and serious writer, the kind of novelist who puts a capital L in Literary — and this novel hooked me from page one and has kept me riveted since (I’m about 300 pages in to its 500-page length). The book and I are having a relationship. I’ll think about it at odd moments when we’re apart (because I don’t have it on my Kindle and keep the bulky thing at home). I feel a connection to the characters. I want to know how everything turns out. To me, this book qualifies as compelling reading, and I could go on about why I think this is, how Pamuk has accomplished this hold on my attention, but I won’t.
I would rather hear from you, either in the comments section below or at email@example.com.
And thank you — very much — for your attention.