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YMMV: Manage Your Attention Budget

💵 Wanna Get With Me With No Money, Oh No...

My first job out of college was as an assistant manager at a retail chain you've heard of. I worked in a few different stores over the course of my 3-and-a-half years there, and at each one I ended up taking over correspondence for the store manager because I was just so much better at writing emails than anyone else. The bar... it was not high. During casual conversation, we were talking about education and one of my managers was shocked to learn that my degree wasn't in English/Philosophy but instead Math/Econ. All of this to say: I tend to think about writing very transactionally. And you should too...

The Attention Budget

This is one of the fundamental principles at the heart of my entire writing philosophy. This isn't actually a rule that's all that counter-intuitive, but it's going to fuel a lot of the things I have to say that are, so it gets its own post. The core idea isn't all that complicated, but it's one that The Discourse™ tends to miss. Instead you hear things like: "You're not just competing with other books, you're competing with movies, streaming, and video games." And that's true, I guess, but it's not exactly useful, and I like things that are useful. So here's my model instead.

A reader has a certain amount of attention that they are willing to invest in a story. It starts small. As they read your story, they are spending their attention budget. If the story engages them, then that engagement becomes more attention. As their investment is rewarded, their attention budget will grow. Your job as a storyteller is to make the best use of that budget possible without ever letting it dip below zero. Ultimately, you want them to finish your story with a surplus of attention--enough that they'll be willing to invest more of that attention into your next story.

That's it. Well, that's it in the abstract. Let's turn this into something a little more concrete. And in the spirit of the economics classroom, we're going to do this by assigning arbitrary values to our concept and pretending like this math actually means anything!

Let's invent a unit of currency called the Attentile*. Let's say you've written a book, and based on the excellent title and cover art, a reader has cracked it open and has a budget of 1 or 2 attentiles to spend on your story. One attentile gets them through about twenty-five words or so, so by the end of the first paragraph, they've spent their initial budget. If by this point, you have not convinced them to keep reading... they'll stop reading. In the terms of our model, if your story has not delivered 5 or 6 more attentiles worth of interest (in both senses of the word**) to them, then they're not going to keep investing their time and attention in your story. But if you have, then that's probably enough to get them to the bottom of the page.

By they time they reach the bottom of the first page, they will have made a decision about whether or not to turn to the second. By they time they get to the bottom of the second page, they will have made a decision about whether or not to read the next few pages. And then to the end of the chapter. And then to the next few chapters. And so on and so on and so on...

Now, because we're belaboring an analogy, let's talk about attentiles and what kind of properties they have as a currency. First, they're liquid. That is: attention is easy to spend. As such, the budget can deplete very quickly. Fortunately, it's also very easy to earn. But! This is economics, so you have to contend with diminishing returns. Which means the things you do to earn attention are less effective the more you do them. If you do something a reader likes once, you get a good return of attention. If you do it again, you get less of a return. If you do keep doing it over and over, you'll start earning negative return. This also applies to things the reader doesn't like. The more you do it, the less they will like it with each iteration. Finally, you have economies of scale. Big returns require big investments. Big reveals and elaborate plot developments require setup. Also, you need to build up tension in order to get a truly satisfying release, and that requires more investment in your story than a typical reader has budgeted at the outset. Unless you already have a surplus built up from previous stories. After all, lots of people will read the next Stephen King novel because it's the next Stephen King novel and are willing to put up a huge investment up front based entirely on past performance.

You, however, are not Stephen King. (Unless you are, in which case... call me.) You are an early-career writer who has to earn your readers' trust with every new published piece. So your basic storytelling model going to involve using your opening to build up a little bit of the reader's interest, spending that down in order to deliver something worthwhile, and then constantly spending more in order to earn more--raising the stakes so you can deliver a really satisfying finale.

This is a concept I'm going to return to a lot over the course of this series, so I want to keep things relatively high level for now, but I think it's worth spending a little time to talk about the kinds of things that can affect your reader's attention budget. The first question that probably leaps to mind is "How do I earn more, and does it involve explosions?" And the answers are "it depends" and "for most readers, probably not." What earns you more attention is going to vary reader by reader and genre by genre, but broadly speaking your audience wants to read about characters they like who struggle to overcome a relatable obstacle and ultimately succeed, probably, but only after making some kind of personal sacrifice. And readers, as a rule, know how stories work--and they like how they work--but they also want to be surprised. So you want to meet their expectations while also being kind of unpredictable, but not in a way that feels like you're cheating. Like I said, we're keeping this high level for now, but over the next few months we're going to be going into various mechanisms to accomplish these things.

What I want to talk about for the rest of this post is the kind of things that deplete your reader's attention budget. Anything that your reader has to go back and re-read, for instance. Or anything that breaks immersion. Or anything that strikes them as completely implausible. Look there are lots of different things you can do to tell a story badly, but they all amount to the same thing: adding undue cognitive load.

So let's talk about undue cognitive load. Basically, that's a fancy way of saying "making the reader use their brain too much." And right now someone of you are about to get on your high horse about how the youth of today have everything handed to them and nobody's willing to write anything challenging and books are supposed to be an opportunity to learn something, so of course you have to engage your brain, and by the way when you were a kid you had to read uphill! In the snow! Both ways! But before you get too far into that tirade, let me just say a) calm down, and b) no, seriously, calm the f**k down. I'm talking about undue cognitive load. Because I agree that books should challenge the reader. I agree that reading can be an opportunity to learn something. It's absolutely fine to make a reader work a little for a reward. It only becomes undue when the effort is wasted.

To wit, if reading a paragraph once costs 1-2 units of attention, then reading it twice will cost 2-4. Therefore, if the reader doesn't understand something and has to go back and re-read it, that's wasted effort that has doubled the "cost" of that paragraph. If they have to go back a third time, then that's going to more than triple the cost because of diminishing returns--remember, if the reader doesn't like something and keeps encountering it over and over again, their dislike increases with each repetition. For this reason, I always recommend that you write for clarity first. Sacrifice anything else that might impede you from getting your point across.

Or to take another example, consider scene breaks. Whenever you change the scene in your story, be that a shift in location, time, or even just POV, that introduces a small amount of cognitive load because the reader then has to reorient themselves in the story. Does that mean you should never have a scene break? ... I'm going to table that specific discussion for a later post, but for now, let's say "It's okay to have scene breaks." They are useful, but they come at a cost, so if your story is absolutely littered with them, then that is introducing extra cognitive load that will detract from the story.

This also applies to immersion. Any time the reader's immersion is broken, they then have to do a little extra work to get back into the story. This can be anything from typos to factual errors to winking meta-references to offensive humor, and anything in between. And that's just the things that you have some control over. You know what really breaks immersion? Your 12-year-old screaming for his 9-year-old brother to get out of his room, but that's not something that any author can affect at all. Which means it's doubly important to very closely monitor the things that you can affect.

Now, in terms of applying this to your own writing... like I said, this isn't advice so much as a guiding principle. We'll get to specific applications soon enough. But for now, I think it's worthwhile to keep in the back of your mind a sort of cost-benefit analysis of the prose you're laying out. What burden are you placing on the reader by telling the story this way? Have you earned enough of the reader's trust that they'll see it through to the payoff? And, perhaps most importantly, will that payoff be worth it?

*For those of you who don't remember Econ 201, "attentiles" is a joking reference to "utiles", which are the made up unit of currency used to measure consumer utility in econ textbooks.

**I promise I'll stop making these jokes soon, but for now I'm still finding them hilarious.

Next week we're going to apply this first principle by acknowledging: First Sentences Are Overrated.

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of a authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.