The Eleven Minute Rule
I’ve been looking for patterns in reader satisfaction. Working on the Forgotten Authors project for so long has given me a sense of what proves popular, and it seems to me that readers are both open to originality and experimentation, and a good, simple idea well executed. What I think readers don’t like is over-complexity for its own sake.
I’m on the same page. There’s a reason why certain books become bestsellers and I think it may be to do with stories that strip away everything to the essential information, just leaving the parts which are a pleasure to read.
It’s a hard trick to pull off. Philip Pullman talks about ‘the path and the woods’ – the path being the direction of the story, the woods being the surrounding atmosphere and detail. His characters stick to the path and pull readers through the wood, but it’s very easy to lose sight off the path and become lost in the details. Roald Dahl, Saki, Kate Atkinson, Lissa Evans and Mark Haddon have the rare ability to stay on track. It often exists in children’s writers, perhaps because they understand the simplicity of intention to which a child responds.
Many writers do not have this ability at all. The key to holding interest is to start strong and late into the story. Ned Beauman’s latest novel begins with a bet about an octopus. You want to read on at once.
I have an eleven minute rule, and it applies to books, music, theatre and film. If I haven’t found something – anything – pleasurable in the first eleven minutes, the odds against me enjoying the work start to fall. In books, it’s a sort of linguistic soup that defies easy reading, as if the author is refusing to catch your eye.
I have this problem with most of Iain Sinclair’s books. His elegantly crafted sentences bounce off my brain like blunt arrows. For me the problem exists everywhere, from potboilers (Paula Hawkins) to literature (Alan Hollinghurst) but perhaps it’s just how my impatient brain works. I love Greene, Forster, Chesterton, Peake and Waugh but can’t drag myself through Austin or the Brontes.
Recently I watched Stephen King’s Netflix film ‘Gerald’s Game’, which like most King stories starts with a terrific pulp premise, but doesn’t have a clue how to bring the plot to a satisfactory conclusion. Sure enough, I got a strong sense of this at the eleven minute mark, and started mentally tuning out. I also watched ‘The Belko Experiment’, a gory B-movie about a corporate killing game, but knew within the same time that I was going to enjoy it, however much it was wrong to do so.
At the other end of the scale, the new BBC production of ‘Howards End’ has an awful lot to beat, because it will compared to the novel and to the superb Merchant-Ivory movie, written by one of the best adaptors ever to work in film, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. What did I see? An attention to behavioural details, well chosen shots, a sense that someone was smoothly and confidently in charge of my entertainment. In fact, the TV version (so far) feels oddly like an expansion of Jhabvala’s condensation rather than the novel, but such is the power of Forster’s storytelling that it will be hard to fail now.
The eleven minute rule is harsh, but it often marks the moment you start to care about a story. It can apply to intellectual German films, bestselling American novels, B-movies, comics – anything that tells a tale. The language can be rich and complex, or plain and simple, for the message is always the same; ‘Come, take my hand,’ the author or the director is saying, ‘I’ll be looking after you.’