Recently, author Nick Hornby (About Boys) offered this comment in The Telegraph:
“I have boys, and boys are particularly resistant to reading. I had some success recently with Sherman Alexie’s great young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian – I told my son it was highly inappropriate for him, and one of the most banned books in America. That got his attention, and he raced through it.”
Bribery? Perhaps. But sometimes that’s what it seems to take to entice pre-teen and teen boys to start a book and stick with it to the end. Research shows that when it comes to reading skills, boys lag a grade – and often more – behind girls, and while girls might have patience for lingering starts and slow moving plots, boy will often quit unless they’re embroiled in action from the get-go.
Brain chemistry complicates things even further. Boy brains are wired front to back with little cross-over between the right and left hemispheres. When reading, boys largely process information with their left hemispheres. Girls are hard-wired across the hemispheres, a bonus when it comes to interpreting visual or spatial clues. Girls also have a language processing center in their right front hemispheres that boys lack. End result? When it comes to sniffing out sensory details or to assembling visual-spatial impressions, girls leave boys at the starting gate.
So what’s a writer to do? Long descriptive passages are killers for reluctant boy readers, yet many boys need sensory details to fully realize the world that the writer creates. A quandary, n’est pas?
One solution is to multi-purpose scenes so that they do both simultaneously. By carefully choosing words that imply action while at the same providing sensory information, the writer delivers a double hit for action-craving, sensory-starved boys.
Here’s an example from Rick Riordan’s The Sea of Monsters:
“Another fireball came streaking toward me. Tyson pushed me out of the way, but the explosion still blew me head over heels. I found myself sprawled on the gym floor, dazed from smoke, my tie-dyed T-shirt peppered with sizzling holes. Just across the center line, two hungry giants were glaring down at me.”
The entire paragraph is bristling with action. Notice the limited number of adjectives: tie-dyed, sizzling, hungry. Notice the abundance of verbs: streaking, sprawled, dazed, peppered, glaring. Riordan carefully chooses verbs that not only denote action, but also embody sensory impressions. Readers can see ‘sprawled’. They can feel ‘dazed’. And that T-shirt ‘peppered with sizzling holes’ – now there’s a verb-adjective combination that readers can see, hear and possibly even smell.
Here’s another example, this time the opening paragraph from a non-fiction story called ‘Lynmouth’s Challenge’ that I wrote for At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times:
“On January 12, 1899, wind battered the tiny seaside village of Lynmouth, England, shattering windows and blasting doors. The fierce gale brought sheets of rain and tossed waves from the nearby Bristol Channel into the streets. Only the foolish dared venture outdoors.”
I find beginnings difficult to write. In a few lines, it’s my job to engage readers while also setting the stage for the rest of the story. In this case, I hoped to paint a scene, providing readers not only with images of the storm, village and villagers, but also of the fight ahead. Word choices like battered, shattering, blasting, and tossed all echo the intensity of the storm while enabling readers to see, hear and feel it for themselves.
Show don’t tell is an oft-repeated rule for writers. For boy readers, writers might need to go a step further by building a range of sensory impressions through carefully selected actions.