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.

Or not.


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

And thank you — very much — for your attention.

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Jan 28, 2010

22 comments · Add Yours

It would be interesting to see you try and capture that posting into 140 characters or less. ha!


the ‘tweet this’ bit of code kept defeating me. bad code. bad.


I had an entire response written out, and then I read it over and remembered why I got into the hands-on side of things rather than criticism.

I’m a very hard sell on the page, because while I don’t write about my process, it’s constantly in my mind. If something doesn’t get hooks set within the first chapter, I will spend more time trying to figure out how I would have approached it than what the author is actually doing (that may be why I watch so much video — my critique-reaction to that format is gentler, allowing me to enjoy even the meh stuff).

Right now nonfiction is holding my attention, because there’s the dual layer of narrative and discussion happening at once: the events described, the lessons extrapolated, and my own experiences illuminated by the extrapolation. Give me multiple layers of experience and knowledge to unpack, and I’m happy.


I just finished “The Wastelands” (Dark Tower IV) by Stephen King. I’m sure you know, Justine, that it is essentially a “Prequel” to the story that the series tells. The major part of the backstory is intertwined with the plot of the series, but we know going in that the hero lives and the heroine dies (we just don’t know how). And the “how” is so gripping and compelling that I couldn’t put the novel down for any sane period of time.

We think the hero is making a mistake, but we’re not quite sure. He admits he made a huge error in judgement, but then we’re not sure that he did.

Getting into the characters’ heads is how King makes us care so much about these characters…even living in a different world, even knowing their fate in advance. Brilliant writing.

One aspect that I’d love to hear you talk about is the demotion and elevation of the reader in relation to the character’s knowledge. I think it’s balancing that and playing with it that King does so well.


I think it starts with compelling characters: complicated, contradictory, flawed characters. For me that is the hook that pulls me through those first few pages when I am not sure what is happening or how much I care about it all.


“Give me multiple layers of experience and knowledge to unpack, and I’m happy.”

I think I know what you mean — or at least it makes me think of that quality of memoirs and narrative nonfiction that I find so satisfying, to the extent that I’m trying to bring a bit of that to the book I’m working on now — it’s fiction, but it’s being ‘told’ as if it’s nonfiction by a writer/observer character who has certain things in common with me…That multiple-layers thing, the braided perspectives. Or something.

(Plus I want to create a fake blog for the narrator-character. I think that would be fun.)


Which is why so many people have tried to imitate King with so little success — they think his stuff is all about the vampires and gore and clowns in sewers and whatever, and part of it is, but it’s because he’s such an effective, realist writer with such a gift for characterization that the supernatural/horror stuff has the power that it does.

Plus he’s also so incredibly well-read, and takes his influences from such diverse sources.

Interesting point about playing with character knowledge — I’m going to mull that over, thanks…


Absolutely. A writing teacher once told me, The reader doesn’t necessarily have to identify or sympathize with the character, or even like the character, but he or she has to find the character INTERESTING….And complications, contradictions, flaws that the characters has to deal with, overcome — that stuff is interesting. And relatable.


I’m laughing to myself right now becuase the last book that held my attention for a long time was “A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man” by James Joyce. The prose had me spending 2 minutes per page just to make sense of it but I kept on trucking simply becuase as a “high literary tale” I needed to finish it lest I not be a man. Quite the opposite of what you were saying.

Books that I enjoy giving my attention to are ones that tell a tale and have deeper meaning, usually social commentary. For my to absolutely love an author and his books he needs to be a story teller, an artist, and a philosopher. Tales that tangilize thoughts tend to trap time. As a kid I favored fables over tall tales for the same reason.

If you ever create a dystopia I’ll pre-order the glorified adorned hardcover.


Yep. Exactly. Part of the reason his stuff, especially his early stuff didn’t do well on film. There’s nothing inherently scary about a hose or hedges (The Shining) or a Walkin’ Dude….it’s that he gets into that person’s head so well that we experience the fear. Live the fear. He writes out of that moment of fear.


What do you mean you’re not going to tell us why you find Orhan Pamuk’s writing compelling?


Compelling fiction must give a reader a reason to turn each page, then think about the pages when they’re not even reading.


“A writing teacher once told me, The reader doesn’t necessarily have to identify or sympathize with the character, or even like the character, but he or she has to find the character INTERESTING…”

Jumping in here to agree 100% with this! I recently RE-read a book I loved from 2009 for this very reason. Sarah Rees Brennan’s debut YA novel, THE DEMON’S LEXICON has a – on the surface – unsypathetic main character. The story is told in close-3rd person from Nick’s POV, and he is closed off emotionally and filled with rage against most people.

It is a narrative voice that I couldn’t identify with… and yet… and yet…. I loved this book so much. It’s my no.1 read of 2009. I read it twice. It is deceptively simple, and yet there is a lot of hidden power behind the ‘simple’ style. The book is clever… really clever. If you don’t know about it, I suggest avoiding spoilers about the ending. So, even though Nick is hard to like, I still ended up caring. I was… compelled to keep reading. There was something in his voice and in the narrative that drew me along, despite how unsympathetic he seemed. My heart ended up going out to him, even though he was thoroughly unpleasant much of the time. That boy… he was in so much pain.

Um… yeah, that’s my ‘compelling fiction’ nomination! :)


Depending on the kinds of readers you want to reach, there are several answers to how you offer compelling fiction. But I think there are some things readers look for in their experience of it.

Compelling fiction gives its characters permission to matter, meaning actions have consequences. Otherwise you have no stakes, which is something else compelling fiction has. There has to be something to gain and something to lose.

Compelling fiction also resolves, meaning the story has an endgame. A way for the storyteller to say, “I’m done.” At some point your narrative ammo is going to run out and you’ll be stuck with false tension and saw tooth storytelling.


The last book I read that held me captive was “Year of Wonders.” I was absolutely immersed in not only the story but also the questions of morality and integrity that were addressed within the context of taletelling. Also, I was enraptured by the vocabulary employed to set context in much the same way filmmaker uses a camera.

However, the book that has held my attention for years, that I have reread several times, and has not received the attention it deserves is called “Lincoln’s Dreams,” the story of a contemporary woman who appears to be having Robert E. Lee’s dreams. (Odd that both of these books are period pieces, a genre that does not draw me.)

Both of these novels seem to be much less than they are, and deal with important questions about existence while moving along clippity clip through engrossing plots.


Oh, I’m sure I will, just not at that particular *moment*.


You can read the review of Robin McKinley’s Chalice over at my Books blog (

Basically, I have to identify somehow with the characters. It doesn’t have to be the main character, but it helps. And identifying merely means that I have to understand why the characters behave as they do.

There is definitely something else, though; some other aspect to a book that keeps me engaged and makes me feel that the real world is the imagined one, and the world I’m reading about is the real one. It’s not description, as I tend to skip long paragraphs of description. I think it’s the writing style. Something fairly conversational seems to be my preference – so that I feel like the author is just telling me this great story that he or she cares about, watching my face to see if I’m smiling at the right places, enjoying my reaction to the surprises.

Yes, that’s got to be it – the feeling of kinship with the narrator, even if the narration is not in first person point of view.


Good points.

I like that — “the story has an endgame.” I had a conversation with James Cameron once (sat next to him at a dinner) and he made exactly that point, stressing that a lot of filmmakers don’t know how to *end* things well (he prides himself on his own endings).

a story should not only have something at stake, the stakes should probably evolve in some way — change, get higher, etc.

“permission to matter” — I like that too.


just goes to show you that plot can have philosophy (and vice versa)…:)


That’s a great way of describing ‘voice’ — and I think you’re dead-on. When I fall in love with a writer’s voice, I’ll follow that writer anywhere…A great voice engages you, even comforts you, makes you feel a sense of connection.


The most compelling novel I’ve read recently is the Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates.

I must admit to be a huge fan, particularly of her more lengthy novels. Her character development, trueness to period of history and place, and use of dialogue and narrative all make for compelling reading. I find that early on in this novel I developed a keen thirst for more information about the characters. I think that JCO sets up this intrigue at the start of the novel by revealing the personal narrative and personality of the main character in the opening scene. The author steadily adds small details like fine stiches to assemble a character of real richness and depth. For example in the Gravediggers daughter she describes the smell of the main character’s scalp!
She is a literary genius and a prolific writer and I am in awe of the amount of research she would have to conduct for this type of novel. I never took history in school, but I would have loved it to be presented in this way and I think it would make history come to life.


“The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell was compelling. I couldn’t stop reading it even though at the beginning the characters weren’t especially likable, and when I finished reading it, I recommended it anyone I thought would listen. Months later and the book still comes easily to mind.

I’ve never been a person to garner much attention, and most efforts at such feel like being the desperate person at the party. With any luck my fiction is compelling, although most agents disagree. I find it compelling for what it is worth.

And I find your blog compelling. Usually when I come by here to read one post, I end up reading three. And a few I read more than once.



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