Much debate has raged on the topic of books.
Are print books dying? Are eBooks the digital wave of an increasingly digital future? Has traditional publishing become passé?
I think a new debate might be looming around the corner, and it may create as big—possibly bigger—an uproar as the Ebook revolution and self-publishing surge.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been researching the affect the Internet is having on our ability to concentrate.1 (Thank you college Capstone class.) What I’m finding is a lot of evidence pointing to the reality that people’s attention is more easily pulled away from one thing to another.
The Internet’s design promotes distraction. Such distractions abound—social media, texting, email—but the thing we don’t always think about or realize is the consequences. It’s also noteworthy that differences exists between the way we read text online and how we read it in physical books.2
I won’t go into the nitty-gritty details (though I’m happy to provide more info of what I’ve found for anyone who’s interested), but based on the patterns, I’m beginning to wonder if a major shift is headed down Storytelling Avenue.
Not in content so much as in style.
It’s a trend seen in movies that are shorter because people have a hard time sitting through 3-hour long films. And scenes in movies and TV shows constantly jump between points-of-view, often in rapid-fire succession.
I think the style techniques apply to books, too. Keeping the reader riveted is part of the story’s job, and with the increasing amount of distractions, that job is becoming more difficult. Over the past few centuries, writing styles have dramatically shifted toward shorter or incomplete sentences, snappy dialogue, and a quick pace to keep readers engaged.
Perhaps another change is in the making.
A New Style of Storytelling?
Last week, Ben Wolf, founder/editor-in-chief of Splickety Publishing shared a fascinating article in a writers group I’m part of. Written by a couple who were in the app-creation business, it tells the process they underwent to write a five-minute story in the format of a text message conversation. Their research and findings caught my attention, but one section in particular stood out to me:
People say that reading is dying.
But we refused to believe this. Storytelling is fundamental to humans; some believe it is the essence of humanity. The demand for great stories is ever present.
Fiction must evolve with the times.
Their specific target audience was teens. That’s key to this entire conversation. Young adults are growing up in a world that’s becoming more digitized by the day. Their brains are being programmed by their environment, an environment which, in many cases, is undermining key features of attentive reading.
Sure they might sit down with a book, but how long before the buzz of a phone or their favorite TV show pulls them away? Is it becoming more difficult for the average teen to read for long periods of time, even finish entire books?
That seems to be the case.
We Become What We Read?
Cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf has developed a theory about the digital effects on reading. The brain is plastic, basically meaning it has an ability to reprogram itself based on changes we experience. The concern Wolf has is that the flood of information available online presents a danger to developing reading skills by presenting a radically different context in which we absorb information.3
According to Wolf’s theory, the brain circuitry that enables attentive reading doesn’t have a default “On” setting. It’s something that needs to be nurtured, cultivated, expanded through time and effort. On the flipside, that means it won’t develop without intentional effort, and can even be eroded over time.
Plenty of adults—who are likelier to have developed the deep reading competence—still enjoy fiction, so I’m not saying the change will happen overnight.
But what about the next generation, one that has grown up consuming digital content more often than not? I think it’s highly possible the online lifestyle so prevalent today may be having the affects Wolf talks about.
- Less compression.
- Greater distraction.
- Decreased ability to become immersed in a story.
How people take in stories may become much different than what we’re used to, which in turn will influence how storytellers approach their craft.
The Future of Fiction
What does this mean for readers and writers?
First, don’t panic.
I’m not saying this to be the Eeyore voice of doom and gloom, but rather to draw attention to a fascinating topic that may become central to the writing profession in coming decades.
There’s plenty of evidence to support the ideas mentioned here. That said, I’m not a super-smart science person, so please don’t take my thoughts as iron rules. By writing about the possible changes, I want to raise the question and start the conversation.
Second, perhaps the time has come to investigate this matter from a storytelling perspective.
As writers, we must at some level cater to the popular demands of the day. If you write a long book with long sentences, static descriptions, and a slow pace, you likely won’t travel far down the road of success. We need to keep that in mind going forward.
Who knows? In the future, writing five-minute stories might be the best way to attract a generation accustomed to Tweets, brief text messages, and fragmented pieces of information.
A generation in which hyper attention4 has become the norm.
A generation that may well cause us to rethink how we tell stories.
Do you think storytelling techniques will adapt to accommodate shrinking attention spans? What ways do you see storytelling changing (or not) because of this issue in the coming years?
- For an intriguing exploration of the Net’s influences on our brains, check out Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows. ↩
- See Hypertext fiction reading: haptics and immersion by Anne Mangen. ↩
- Wolf talks about what she terms “deep reading” in her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. For online resources, check out the articles here and here. ↩
- For an explanation and discussion of hyper attention, see Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes by N. Kristine Hayles. ↩