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The Opening as Part of the Closing … of the Deal

30 June 2017

From author James Scott Bell:

It’s no secret we live in the age of the declining attention span.

How ’bout those Dodgers?

Where was I? Oh yes, attention spans. Declining.

We all know the causes. Phones, tablets, the infinite galaxy known as the internet, 24/7 social media, apps, games, noise, news, and the dopamine effect that comes from escaping reality in the blink of an eye or the texting of the thumbs. These multiform avenues of distraction come in small bites, too, like a bottomless bowl of Skittles. You’ve all been there. You’re chewing a red, it’s not even down the hatch yet, and you’re already reaching for the next one, or a handful of next ones.

. . . .

We’ve done a number of first page critiques here at TKZ, because everyone knows how important it is. Because of decreasing attention spans and the “need for speed” in everything we do, those first pages are crucial because they are one of the biggest influences on a browser’s buying decision.

I recall hearing about a study years ago of bookstore browsing habits. The typical sequence: a cover captured attention; the browser picks it up and reads the dust-jacket copy, sees who the author is, then opens to the first page. If it captivates them they are within striking distance of a buying decision.

It’s the same today online. A reader on Amazon is shown other thumbnail book covers that an algorithm has determined they might be interested in. A cover attracts, you click on it, get taken to the sales page where you can look at the description (cover copy). The page offers you a “Look inside” peek. You can also download a sample.

And there we are again, at the opening pages.

For years I’ve taught that the opening page and, indeed, the opening paragraph (and even further, if you can do it, the opening line) should be about a disturbance to that character’s ordinary world. Why? Because the reader doesn’t know who the character is yet. So what’s the quickest way to get them interested? Trouble.

. . . .

Okay, then let me suggest you alter your opening page so there is something disturbing happening from the jump. After the reader buys your book you can entrance them with your style all you like. But if you don’t engage their attention-challenged sensibilities immediately, you may not get the chance.

Link to the rest at Kill Zone

Here’s a link to James Scott Bell’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

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18 Comments to “The Opening as Part of the Closing … of the Deal”

  1. Ashe Elton Parker

    I don’t think it’s so much a declining attention span as it is people trying to escape boredom in the most convenient way possible. It’s far more interesting to most people to play a quickie game, browse the net, or text a friend on the phone than it is to gawk at the other customers while standing in a checkout line. Get these same “attention-span-deficit” people back home, and they can happily spend an hour or more watching TV or a movie, and another hour or two playing a video game on their computer or game console, or (gasp!) read several chapters of a book. In one sitting, no less!

    And it’s not attention-span-deficit that causes potential bookbuyers to decide “no” on a book after peeking at the first line or two of prose, either. It’s plain and simple, “This book isn’t for me after all.” In other words, the same old thing that has always induced me to pass up any number of books when I have a limited amount of money and time to spend reading something that didn’t hook me. And that kind of taste is as highly individual as book openings themselves are–what hooked me doesn’t always hook other potential bookbuyers, just as what hooked others doesn’t always hook me. It’s certainly never been because because I had/have a “declining attention span.”

    Please stop blaming a nonexistent phenomenon for normal everyday matters of personal taste.

  2. Though still ‘cover’ first to catch the eye ‘if’ you’re lucky.

    Another thing they see before going any further is the price. I know that’s made me think ‘they must really be ‘proud’ of that’ and think twice on if I want/need to look that much deeper into an unknown writer’s offerings.

  3. Even back in the 70s when I was first reading books about writing the advice was to have a “hook”, something in the first few lines at least (maybe you could push it to the first few paragraphs, but tricky) that made someone choose that book over all others.

    I’m not so sure that this short attention span thing is nonexistent, though. People have so much more competing for their time and their money that you have to grab them even more now than you did before.

    • Ashe Elton Parker

      The reason why I doubt attention spans are declining is because all of my working friends have limited time and money, yet they still manage to really focus on what they care most about doing for their leisure activities, whether it be reading, playing a video game, working on crafts, or watching TV/movies. I think that if there really was an attention span deficit, people would have a much more difficult time focusing on the liesure activites they really care about doing.

      Also, a deficit of attention span would, I think, also be very noticable in their work lives, so I can’t understand how so many people can have an excellent attention span for their job (where they’d probably be far more likely to allow their attention to wander to escape the chore), but have such a pathetic attention span when engaging in something they want to do for fun.

      • Ah, but then their ‘cure’ doesn’t fix the problem they claim is there.

        The real ‘attention span’ problem is the ‘whatever’ problem. We are getting tired to death of having ‘hype’ thrown in our faces – to the point that most of us now ignore it any time we see it coming our way.

        I’m talking about things like those over loud TV and radio ads, overly bright billboards and signs, flashing lights and don’t get me started about the poor fool at the checkout that has to ask me fifteen ways if I don’t want to ‘upgrade’ my service with them (to not ask can and will get them fired by the way.)

        In order to function we’ve learned to ignore them, to the point that it’s hard to ‘promote’ something without tripping our ‘hype/ignore’ programming.

        Is there any one solution? No, because what trips you may not trip me (or I’ve already tuned out before it hits your threshold.)

        Best bet is to try to make it sound interesting without overdoing it (which everyone but sales agents already know – but that isn’t news.)

    • I am not one of AEP’s working friends, but their habits fit my own. I may flit from one website to another, often before I finish reading one article or blog post, and then circle back later. But those are written to be short and easily digestible, and I see it as no different than taking a bite from a cookie and leaving the rest for later.

      But a novel that I’m enjoying reading/writing? I may very well skip eating just to keep at it. Very similar to how I am with video games. I bring that same behavior to work, although in my case I actually liked what I was doing and I behave the same way for free. It’s just my temperament.

      Since I am a bibliophile I may have a lower tolerance for less-than-stellar prose, dialogue, characterization — all the aspects I’d judge a story over — but it would be a mistake to say that I’m not able to focus just because I bail early. It’s just that the story isn’t making the cut. The only reason I’d keep reading is to analyze where I think the author is going wrong, so I can avoid similar mistakes.

  4. Did anybody else notice that Amazon has changed the way they list ebooks. On the product page they use the phrase “digital book” rather than kindle.

    I think this just happened.

    • I think they might be doing some A/B testing. I just checked now, and Lois MacMaster Bujold’s Penric and the Shaman is called a “Kindle edition” and has its tabs labeled as “eBook, Hardcover, Audiobook, MP3 CG” in my screen view.

      • This may be specific to me then.

        I buy tons of books, but not ebooks. I like my paper books. HA!

    • Maybe they’re working on offering different formats; we’ll just have to wait and see where things go.

    • Felix J. Torres

      There has been some discussion over at the Digital Reader Blog and Mobileread on it. Some head scratching, some shrugging.

      It seems to vary depending on the browser/device you use and whether or not you are logged in as a repeat shopper.

      It could be as simple as Amazon looking to align their terminology. As in:

      – digital music
      – digital video
      – digital book

      Also, they might be testing to see if the Kindle branding might be hindering sales to trailing edge buyers who might think you need Kindle hardware to read a kindle book.

      They don’t stop trying to improve.

      • I noticed that on my iPad, Digital Book showed up. When I went to my computer, it said Kindle Book. So I confirm the device dependency.

        • I clear my cookies and cache every Friday, I suspect that’s why it showed up. If people haven’t cleared their cookies lately, then I bet they are seeing “kindle” vs “Digital Book”.

  5. I get a lot of newsletters in my email, trade stuff I want to read mostly. One turn-off is the old X ways to… If it’s up to 7 ways, I’ll open it, more than that (some say 20 ways or more…) and I delete. Not due to attention span but time management. Zon may want to see if Kindle rather than digital edition limits potential readership and devices. *shrugs*

  6. I think Mr. Bell is right about shortened attention spans. That’s why the novella is so popular these days.

  7. I too have heard the “start with trouble” or “have a hook” advise and while I think it is generally sound, it ends up like “show don’t tell” and “avoid adverbs” – pieces of advice far more nuanced than they sound that get misinterpreted and abused to know end.

    The key to the point being made was that in the opening lines of a book, I don’t know the characters

    Therefore having Max be “in trouble” may not help anything. If I don’t know him, I don’t care if he lives or dies.

    In fact if he is in some author’s books (cough, G RR Martin, cough) he might end up dying real soon anyway.

    • In my defense of the hideous spelling and grammar above I have a small phone and big fingers. Hence advise vs advice and know vs no.

      I stink!

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