The Eleven Minute Rule

The Arts

howards-end

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.

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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.’

15 comments on “The Eleven Minute Rule”

  1. Martin Tolley says:

    I think you’ve hit on a common characteristic of how most of us “get interested” in something. Too many authors break Elmore Leonard’s second (?) rule of writing – Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword.
    In my academic days, marking student essays any length from 2k to 10k words I found almost inevitably, that I’d made my mind up about a grade two-thirds of the way down the first page; the first few minutes in. If it started good, it had to make a fair number of mistakes to go down, and if it started badly it had a lot to do to make it up. For so much of my time I found myself screaming (often aloud) – stop faffing, and telling me about things you want me to be impressed by – get to the point – answer the question!

  2. Rachel Green says:

    I love this rule. Thank you.

  3. Brooke says:

    Stupid rule.

  4. Bill says:

    You are very patient.I usually know by the end of page three whether I’ll bother with the book.
    With this blog I last about eleven seconds before changing to “No style” because of the grey text.
    Enjoy your R&R.

  5. admin says:

    I’ve been thinking about changing the grey text for something more readable – black?

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Gray? Doesn’t look gray to me.
    We were taught the same rule in children’s lit. If the author doesn’t get you right away he/she won’t get the kiddies either.
    The excessive complexity doesn’t necessarily drive people away but there must be a means to keep you orientated. George Martin does it by tieing characters to places in his Game of Thrones. The plot moves forward but the chapters jump from one place to another. I’ve found that fascinating. There are a few too many characters and they all have nicknames which you have to remember. Mental gymnastics.

  7. Roger says:

    By-and-large I agree, but there are exceptions. The Variations on a Nursery Tune by Dohnanyi begins with a very solemn – and tedious – post-Wagnerian introduction…and then! It is the opening that gives the effect. Mind you, it’s less than eleven minutes long.

  8. Allan Lloyd says:

    I like your eleven minute rule, and would agree with you with Hollinghurst and Sinclair, but there are always exceptions. I’ve just finished Ian McDonald’s first Luna book and really struggled to maintain interest with its huge array of characters for the first 100 pages. Then it got my attention as a fairly entertaining political thriller. Then something happened in the last third of the book (no spoilers!), and I just couldn’t put it down.

    I wonder how many readers he lost because of the slow start. He must have impressed some people as it has been picked up by American TV and is being sold as Game of Thrones in space, which it really isn’t. A very enjoyable book, though, and I can’t wait to read the next in the series, which is unusual for me.

    Allan

  9. Peter Tromans says:

    Could we re-write (invert) the rule to make it more acceptable to Brooke and others who don’t like it? If, after reading for 11 minutes, you, unaided by pre-set alarms, are aware that 11 minutes have passed, then the book has not won your interest.

  10. Peter Dixon says:

    Often had this one with music – buy a new album, usually a collaboration between someone you really like and someone you’ve hardly heard of, and after the middle of track two you know its consigned to Oxfam.
    The last one was David Byrne and St. Ettienne – oh how my heart sank.

  11. Brooke says:

    Re: grey text. I think it is Georgia font 9 bold. When I tested in grey moving one shade down toward black, the text looked better–easier to read. True black is very stark.

  12. Bill says:

    Re: grey text.If black is too stark,navy would look quite sharp.

  13. Matt says:

    I just find this new BBC production of Howards End annoying. Its like they assume you know the story and are happy to view the highlights. Of course I have to watch because Mother will be asking me all sorts of questions about it later…..

  14. Vivienne says:

    Well, I started A La Recherche and got bogged down, not sure if it took eleven minutes. The second attempt was no better but finally I saw that each book was only a sentence long, amazingly stretched out and tthen I was able to read it all at the pace it needed. Well worth it. But different commitment for different things, maybe.

    I like this Howard’s End.

  15. Annabel says:

    I started to fall asleep after about eleven minutes of the first two episodes of Howards End… the rule works!

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