Patience & Attention Span

There have been numerous articles posted over the last several years about the shrinking attention spans of the average person, and a recent set of statistics from the Statistic Brain Research Institute suggests that the average person now has a shorter attention span than a goldfish. Millennials are purportedly easily distracted, easily bored, and lack the ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Naturally, this also affects their engagement with books, and the words “Give it time” are practically a kiss of death.

Once upon a time I was a patient reader. I didn’t mind if a story took a while to develop, and I seldom put down a book from disinterest. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. My expectations as a reader have changed, and I don’t have the patience anymore to hope that a book gets better or to wait for the story to get interesting. I want to be immediately engaged. I want a clear sense that it’s going somewhere, and that it isn’t just 300 pages of random stuff with no story. In Victorian times, authors such as Dickens got paid by the word. They also largely published in serial form, which meant that readers were only digesting small chunks of the story at one time. That isn’t the case anymore, and there is no excuse for long, rambling tangents, or needlessly bloating a story to make it a trilogy or to fill a word count.

I don’t want to wait 200 pages for the author to get to the point. As brutal as it sounds, I have a lot of other books on my shelves that I’m absolutely dying to read, and why should a book be something I have to stick it out through? I’m not suggesting that if the first page isn’t awesome I won’t keep reading, but I do need it to get to the point and fast. Give me a teaser or make something happen that piques my interest and my curiosity and then I’ll be more likely to trust that there will be a payoff in the end.

We blame television, the internet and social media for shortening attention spans, and to an extent this is true, but I think these mediums have also made us a more discerning audience. Television, movies and even internet content are about telling a good story, and the tellers know that they have a very short window to capture our attention. Perhaps, instead of condemning them for “ruining” readers, we should be thinking about how to tell a story that will attract their attention and keep it longer than your goldfish.

8 Responses to Patience & Attention Span

  1. jeffo Apr 24 2015 at 6:44 am #

    I see your point, but I also think movies and television in particular are training us to follow a formula. I personally find a show like “The Killing,” where it took 2 seasons to solve a crime, more interesting than the standard procedurals like “CSI” or “Law & Order.” Maybe I’m in the minority.

    I will say that I am less likely now to finish a book that I view as “bad” than I used to be. Maybe this is a function of getting older and not recognizing there’s less time to waste than their used to be.

  2. Jen Apr 24 2015 at 7:57 am #

    I’ve noticed this about myself lately.

  3. Rowenna Apr 24 2015 at 12:08 pm #

    I think that’s a fair point–that we’re more discerning audiences now and we have different demands of our media than years past. I also think that there’s a difference between a book with a slow burn and masterful build and one in which nothing happens for too long, or is bloated, or is just written in a dull way. Good writing can still be slow, but it won’t be plodding. Same with movies and TV, honestly–many truly wonderful films might read as “slow” to modern audiences who are geared up for explosions in the first five minutes, but don’t tell me Casablanca still isn’t an engaging film! It starts more subtly and it moves a little more slowly, but it does “hook” the viewer from the start and builds an emotional arc like a boss.

    To me, too, the writing itself matters. I’ll trail along for a longer time if a writer turns a phrase wonderfully or points out details in a way that makes me say “Aha!” The writing itself, not only the plot, can serve as a point of engagement. After all, haven’t people watched Mad Men for seven seasons? Don’t tell me that Mad Men isn’t often “slow” in terms of plot 🙂 !

    • Elizabeth Torphy Apr 24 2015 at 12:50 pm #

      Totally agree with you Rowenna. If something is written well, you want it to span out in time…not be rushed. I think too many times people are not fully characterized, relationships not developed, stories cut short due to “getting tot he good stuff.” But the build should be the good stuff! it is like life….it is not the destination, but the journey along the way that holds meaning and value.

  4. Marianne Curley Apr 24 2015 at 5:43 pm #

    Well said, Rachel.

  5. Luna Apr 24 2015 at 7:07 pm #

    I really agree with what you say about television and movies teaching us how to tell stories in a more effective way.

    I think that the ‘problem’ has just shifted, though. Maybe it’s due to my personal tastes, but these days I find that I’m able to read through more books (they grab my attention more easily), but out of the ones I finish, fewer of them – or at least a significantly smaller portion of them – actually make me feel satisfied at the end.

  6. Alexa S. Apr 27 2015 at 3:46 pm #

    I’ve definitely noticed the shorter attention span in my own self. I have a tendency to want things to happen at a fast pace, and find myself moving from one thing to the next if I don’t get any updates. In reading, I definitely think it’s made me more brutal about books – I give up if I don’t feel like it gets interesting after 100 or so pages. And I do feel bad, particularly because there are definitely some books written to be slow and steady in putting this world + story together. But for the most part, I definitely think that I want at least ONE thing to pique my interest and keep it steady 🙂

  7. Cristiano Oct 25 2021 at 6:27 am #

    You forgot to mention that along with a shortened attention span scientific studies are reporting a systematic decrease in people’s cognitive and associative abilities too. Translated, it means that we are all getting dumber and less capable of developing complex thoughts. So much for your statement about us being more ‘discerning’ readers. We just got stupider and less patient, and our brains demand that kind of effortless entertainment that comes at a low price, In a way, this mirrors the trend we are seeing in the culinary world, with a fast-food frenzy that started 30 years ago and never really slowed down. Your appetite for compelling, to-the-point literature is just another example. You see, I am a great admirer of the giants of the past: Balzac, Tolstoj, Dostoevskji, etc. Their works are unsurpassed and even thought they might have been paid by the word, they worded and described the eternal topics of literature (struggle of good vs evil, life, death, destiny or lack thereof) in an unsurpassed manner. So you keep your cheap, bestselling paperbacks that you will read and forget about the next day, I will stick to good prose.

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