Do I have a short attention span, or is this a bad story?

Has this ever happened to you? You’re watching a new movie or tv show that you’ve never seen before. Usually with a friend or a spouse. All of a sudden, you realize that you’re not watching the content you wanted to share anymore. You’re on your phone or tablet, scrolling social media and you’ve lost track of the storyline. 

Maybe this happens because you’re tired. Or maybe you’ve got a touch of ADD (Probably not. Everyone thinks they’ve got ADD.) Or maybe Instagram is actually more interesting than whatever you were watching.

If you’re anything like me, you probably beat yourself up over this a little. And if you don’t, someone else has probably done it for you. I’ve even developed a little pathological fear of watching anything new because of this. I mean, I’m a writer, and also thirty-five years old. I should have a better attention span. I should be getting into this story. Lots of other people love this movie, why can’t I focus? Am I a three-year-old, what is the matter with me?!?

Probably nothing. There is a really good chance that the content you’re trying and failing to watch is just not working. Today I thought it would be helpful to talk about some ways to tell if the story you’re watching is just bad, or if it’s a you problem.

Spoiler, it’s probably not you. 

Don’t rely on other people to help you with this. 

There are some movies, books, and tv shows everyone claims to love. Some are classics like Casablanca or The Godfather. Some are heavy thinking films like The Shape of Water. But this list could include anything you’ve ever been made to feel bad for not liking.

You must not have gotten it.

It’s too smart for you. 

This is bullshit. There are plenty of reasons you might not like a story that other people, even a lot of other people, claimed to enjoy. 

For one thing, people lie. And sometimes people claim that they like something because they think everyone likes it. 

We should have learned this lesson as children, but most of us struggle with it our whole lives. Do you remember the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes? No one wants to be the first to point out the Emperor’s junk is swinging free in the breeze.

Of course, just because you didn’t like something doesn’t mean it’s bad. For instance, I didn’t like the movie Last of The Mohicans. I get that lots of people loved it. But I found it boring as hell.

I am not wrong. The story isn’t wrong. We just didn’t click. 

Maybe it’s not the story for you at this point in your life

There are some stories we are just not ready to hear. And that can be for a ton of reasons. The most common reason is that we are not yet emotionally mature enough for it. 

This is why children are often said to have a shorter attention span than adults. Sometimes that’s the case. And sometimes they just haven’t lived long enough to emotionally connect with a story.

One great example for me is The Truman Show. I saw this movie when it came out, in 1998. I was ten, and I didn’t get it. I hated it. It was long, boring, and a real disappointment. 

It didn’t help that my expectations were way off base. I had seen Jim Carrey in The Mask and Ace Ventura. I wasn’t prepared for him to be in a serious role. 

Seeing the film as an adult, I loved it. I understood the raw rage Truman must have felt, realizing that his whole world was a lie. It’s a brilliant film, I’ve seen it several times since then. And I’ve never considered it too long. 

There’s nothing wrong with being too young or too old for a film. It’s just where you are in your life. 

Don’t listen to older people who tell you our generation has a shorter attention span.

This is the one that pisses me off. It’s the general Blame Millenials trope that I’m truly sick and tired of. It’s the theory that our generation, after a lifetime of cartoons and social media, just doesn’t have the attention span for a real story anymore.

Again I say Bullshit. We’re the generation that devoured Avatar, Titanic, and six Lord of The Rings movies including extended cuts. And I, who have the attention span of a stoned raccoon in a Twinkie factory, have no issue reading Stephen King novels the size of phone books. 

If a story is good, there is no such thing as too long. 

Often I find this argument used to defend classics. But what is considered a classic might need an upgrade. Frankly, I consider a classic any story that is still entertaining and/or relevant. People still read Frankenstein every year. To Kill A Mockingbird was so popular the publisher might have committed elder abuse to get a sequel.

TLDR- What can writers do with this information? 

None of this is any help at all if we don’t know what to do about it. Okay, so sometimes a story just doesn’t work for us and it’s not your fault. 

It’s enough to remove this guilt from ourselves, certainly. But as writers, we can do more. 

The next time you’re watching something and you go to reach for Instagram, stop and grab your writer’s notebook instead. Write down what you’re watching and what was going on when you lost interest. Try doing this every time a story loses you, and you’ll start to see a pattern of what doesn’t work for you. And if it doesn’t work for you, there’s at least a chance that it doesn’t work for other people too. 

Remember, a bad story can teach you as much as a good story. So if a story is boring you, at least you can learn something from it. 

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