By Paul Goat Allen
In the almost three decades that I’ve been a book critic, and the 50 years that I’ve been a hard-core reader, I’ve seen genre fiction—and fiction in general—evolve in radical and remarkable ways. Watching the rise of genre fiction hybridization (novels that blend together seemingly disparate genre fiction elements) has been glorious to witness as has the subversion of sexist and racist tropes and the advancement of #OwnVoices, particularly in MG and YA releases—but arguably the biggest evolutionary step in writing fiction over the last half-century is so much simpler—and so much more profound.
It’s the speed in which narratives progress, both in terms of content and structure. Everything is faster, more streamlined, built for those readers with the attention span of mayflies.
Consider the world we live in. Tweets of 280 characters or less, Instagram Reels and You Tube Shorts that last a minute or less, texting shortened forms of words or phrases to save time, scrolling endlessly through image after image…. It’s all about instant gratification.
According to a survey done by the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) in 2019-2020, the amount of young people who read for fun has declined from 35 percent in 1984 to barely 17 percent. And I’m sure that post-COVID, those percentages are even lower.
And we all know the reason.
Social media has impacted the way in which we perceive the world—and has influenced our ability to focus on anything that doesn’t hold our attention for more than a few fleeting moments.
As our way of life has slowly but surely changed many of us into a swarm of human mayflies, so too has the publishing industry changed to better serve the changing needs of the populace—which makes perfect sense as the various forms of mass communication seem to be directly shaped by its consumers.
Here are some things to consider as you’re writing, or planning to write, your next novel.
Books are getting shorter.
A study by Wordsrated in June of 2022 looked at titles that had made it to the New York Times bestseller list between 2011-2021. The results were telling: the average length of the NYT bestseller decreased by 51.5 pages from 2011 to 2021, from 437.5 to 386 (11.8%). Also, long books (more than 400 pages) are all but disappearing – the share of shelf-bending bestsellers went from 54% in 2011 to just 38% in 2021.
Books are structured more like thrillers.
Two decades ago, novels frequently took their sweet time getting to the hooks. Science fiction and fantasy novels may have been 100 pages deep before readers got to the hook. But, taking their cue from mainstream thrillers—which have hooks as close to the beginning as possible, sometimes even in the first sentence!—writers of novels in all categories have been structuring their works to mimic thrillers, that is to say highly palatable, fast-paced, page-turners that readers consume like potato chips. The indicators are evident in any category you read, be it romance, mystery, horror, or mainstream fiction. The hooks in recently released novels are now routinely very close to the beginning, frequently imbedded in the very first scene, which is usually action-packed or emotionally intense in some way.
The chapter endings are now often concluded with some kind of bombshell, be it a jaw-dropping revelation, a cliffhanger of a scene, a powerful statement, etc. This may not seem to be significant but cumulatively it creates a novel that readers literally can’t put down. It works!
The chapters seem to be getting shorter as well, although this isn’t as evident in categories like science fiction and epic fantasy, which still feature chapters that can be up to 50 pages long and longer. Shorter chapters give readers less opportunities to be bored—and, in theory, keep them on the edge of their seat.
Lastly, is the focus on intensity level, be it internal conflict, external chaos, emotional turmoil, etc. Regardless of category, an “utterly readable” novel in today’s market will have a high intensity level throughout the entire story—ideally tension of some kind on every page. If you’re a writer, you don’t want any extended sequences that are low energy—that’s the kiss of death. You probably shouldn’t embrace your inner Tolkien and spend 10 pages describing the attributes of a tree if your goal is to write a commercially successful novel.
Everything is shorter—except titles.
Not surprisingly, I’ve seen a marked decrease in the length of synopses, back cover copy, and review excerpts. Even press releases are getting shorter. Everything is more concise, more condensed, more to the point. The days of back cover copy filling up the entire back cover are long gone. Is anyone really going to read it? (Answer: No, probably not.)
I’ve written thousands of reviews for companies like PW, Kirkus, The Chicago Tribune, and BlueInk—and many of those review excerpts have appeared on book covers. While not a radical change, I have noticed that over the last decade publishers are using fewer words in these excerpts. Back in 2011, for example, HarperCollins released The Breaking by Marcus Pelegrimas and they used an excerpt from a review I wrote for BN.com. It was three full lines of text—21 words! I rarely see that any more on front covers. Nowadays review excerpts are generally just a few words: “extraordinary,” “A masterwork,” etc. While not a big deal, it is indicative of the trend towards marketing to mayfly attention spans.
And strangely enough, as all of these elements are decreasing in size, book titles are getting longer. An article published on towardsdatascience.com in 2019 found that fiction titles are, in fact, getting longer as the actual page counts are shrinking. The researcher who wrote the article calculated the title lengths of all New York Times bestsellers from 2011 and found that the average title increased from 2.5 words to 3 words during that time. The amount of bestsellers with seven or more words was also noteworthy: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, A Leaf on the Wind of all Hallows, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, to name a few.
So, what’s the takeaway here? As a writer, you should know your audience—or, more specifically, understand your audience’s attention span. Utilize the tools and techniques that will keep readers engaged and turning pages.
All you writers out there: ask yourselves these questions before you submit anything for publication:
- Have I trimmed the narrative fat off of my story?
- Is the hook as close to the beginning as I can get it?
- Do my chapters end with a cliffhanger or a brass knuckle statement, image, or revelation?
- Do I have some form of intensity powering all of my sequences?
- Is my synopsis and/or back cover copy focused and concise?
If you’ve actually read this entire blog post to its end, I suppose that’s a win for me—now you can go back to scrolling through Instagram!
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.