There’s a book I’ve been reading for class, called Brain Rules, and I would highly recommend it. Breaking the scientists-aren’t-good-writers stereotype, John Medina writes about twelve rules to improve your home and school life, things like get enough sleep, stress isn’t good for you, etc. And it all comes with scientific proof!
The chapter I read this week that I would like writers to know about is “Attention.” And this seems more and more important, based on what I’ve heard. People have told me chapters have been shortened so that readers feel like they accomplish more reading in short amounts of time. People have widened the margins so that readers feel like they cover more pages. In all aspects, publishers have made it so readers with short attention spans feel more accomplished when they read a book. And since not everyone will be laying out their own novels or stories, let’s discuss what everyone can do as a writer.
As Medina wrote, our attention is grabbed through a variety of sources, all of which are dependent on the individual. In the case of your memory, “you use your previous experiences to predict where you should pay attention” (107). For writer’s, we can still use this, just as Medina did in the beginning of this chapter.
It was about three o’clock in the morning when I was startled into sudden consciousness by a small spotlight sweeping across the walls of our living room. In the moonlight, I could see the six-foot frame of a young man in a trench coat, clutching a flashlight and examining the contents of our house. (105)
We all learned from an early age that people will have the inclination to rob each other, where, in most cases, they will try to do it when they assume the family isn’t home. This means that seeing someone at 3AM at your house is probably not a good thing. This is something we focus on because of our prior experiences or learning.
Another rule that Medina wrote is that, “If you have an interest in a subject or a person, or something is important to you, you tend to pay more attention to things related to that subject or person.” For authors, this is why it’s important to make a connection between your characters and your readers. If there’s no interest in that character’s life or pursuit, then there will be no press to keep reading.
A good way to keep interest is to charge it with emotion because “emotionally charged events are better remembered – for longer, and with more accuracy-than neutral events” (112). This means that you should be including actions, and reactions within your characters. They should be feeling emotion in order to instigate some reaction within your reader as well. We should be feeling love, hate, at least some emotion for your protagonist!
Medina said it’s common to pay attention to things like a threat, reproduction (sex), and patterns because it’s what our brain has been programmed to focus on, where we mostly have our ancestors to thank (113). To see these rules in action, look at the above example from Medina, and let me continue it.
As my sleepy brain was immediately and violently aroused, it struck me that my home was about to be robbed by someone younger than me, bigger than me, and in possession of a firearm. Heart pounding, knees shaking, I turned on the lights, went to stand guard outside my children’s room, called the police, and prayed. (105)
That should make everyone feel for him. He’s about to be robbed; there’s a guy with a gun; and his children are in danger. This is filled with emotion, weaving in common focuses like threat and reproduction (in this case his children – though you could argue that’s self-interest in his family).
This shows these rules are easily translated to writers. If you want a book to hook your readers, include some form of threat (conflict), some sort of romance (sex), and create patterns within the characters lives. Readers feel brilliant when they notice one between one past and present event, it’s all repeating.
To summarize, the goal of our writing is to capture the reader’s attention, and if we’re not doing that, then we’re technically failing. After all, if they can’t pay attention, they can’t read our story.
Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Seattle, WA: Pear Press, 2014. Print.