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The Seven Levels of Attention - and What Writers Need to Know About Them - Part One


It’s quite likely that a fair amount of science has gone into the subject of attention.

There’s the Zeigarnik Effect, for example.

Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik was a Soviet psychologist and psychiatrist who discovered the ‘Zeigarnik Effect’ after a study she completed in the 1920s in which she compared memory in relation to incomplete and complete tasks. Incomplete tasks, she found, are easier to remember than complete ones.

What has this got to do with writing stories?

Almost everything.

When you create an effective character in fiction you are not designing a complete, well-rounded figure whose life is under control and who then sets off on an adventure. I hope not, anyway, because such characters are usually dull and flat. You want your character’s life to be full of holes, gaps, threats, missing people or things - in effect, you want your character to be incomplete. This has the result, per the Zeigarnik Effect, of gluing your readers’ attention to him or her.

The Zeigarnik Effect has a great deal to do with marketing too, as you can read in my marketing handbook.

But Zeigarnik and her work are only part of the picture.

Perhaps the best way to look at attention without becoming too scientific about it is to use an analogy. Readers of my book How Stories Really Work will be familiar with the idea of thinking about attention as a kind of plasma, surrounding a person and more or less under that person’s control. A person could be imagined as walking around surrounded by a vague cloud of 'attention plasma’. In this analogy, your own act of reading this very sentence could be seen as a stream of your own 'attention plasma' flowing towards the screen.

What’s making it flow?

The vacuum between you and the screen, created by your desire to learn what is written here.

If we can accept the idea of attention as a hypothetical airy substance which people generate and to some degree control, then the next step would be to hypothesise that 'attention plasma' is susceptible to all kinds of forces around us.

It’s then possible to categorise the types of attention, particularly as they apply to our field of fiction writing. It turns out that there are at least seven distinct categories, as follows, which I plan to elaborate upon in this series of articles:

1. Zero Attention.

This means, as you might conclude, the null attention you get from people at large, simply because they don’t know of your existence or are not even remotely interested in your work. By definition, this appears to you like a solid, unflowing ‘mass’ of attention, not disturbed or agitated in any way by whatever you are doing.

Understandably, this is by far the largest body of attention. Later, we’ll look at what you should do with this and all the other categories herein described.

2. Momentary Attention.

This is ‘glance-in-shop-window’ type attention - the sort of thing that shows up in web analytics as ‘people reached’. In other words, something of yours has appeared in front of these people but has not caused them to move or do anything, as far as you can tell. To all intents and purposes, this is the same as ‘zero’ above, but it could theoretically include those who have actually looked, but not felt like clicking on anything or changing what they were doing.

This is the second largest category, and by definition the hardest to measure because you simply don’t know who has looked and who hasn’t - you can only guess. They sit there like Schrödinger’s cat, either there or not there.

3. Intermittent Attention.

Now you’re getting somewhere. The cloud of ‘attention particles’ surrounding these people has been acted upon effectively by something you have done, with the result that some of those particles flow sometimes towards you and your work. In the real world, this might mean that they have connected up to you in some casual way, joined your group on social media, ‘followed’ you in some fashion. They sometimes see your posts, sometimes get a glimpse of what you are up to.

How did you do that? We’ll look at what tools you must have used, knowingly or not, to get this far.

4. Captured Attention.

Pretty obviously, this is a key point. If you can grab some of the attention of others and hold onto it, all kinds of things can be accomplished. It is when some of the cloud of attention of another person acquiesces to being ‘owned’ in some way by you that you begin to succeed.

The ‘ownership’ point is key: just as you possess some of their attention, this is the point at which they purchase your book. Owning works both ways, you see.

Huge amounts of material have been written, spoken, and otherwise compiled about this exact stage, precisely because money is involved. If attention can be captured, so can money. Unfortunately, the vast bulk of what has been written about this is incomplete or misguided: it’s understanding the various categories of attention as a whole which really opens the door to success, commercially and otherwise.

5. Emerging Attention.

Think of this as the act of reading itself, especially when you are just beginning a book. Your attention has been ‘captured’ by a variety of methods used by an author, and you have purchased his or her book. Now you open the book and eagerly read, hoping to be entertained, enthralled, guided, amused and perhaps enlightened. A bad author can betray your attention and lose you at this point; a good one knows the methods by which you can be drawn along, right to the end.

6. Focused Attention.

Have you ever read a book and lost all track of time and space? And when you put the book down finally, it feels like coming out of a trance? This is the stage where your attention is so focused on the story that it ceases to be aware of much else. It is a condition devoutly to be wished by authors.

Oddly, perhaps, it’s not the final category in our whirlwind tour.

7. Deep Attention.

Great authors, and works which qualify as scripture - books with a genuine spiritual significance and power - not only entrance us, they have the capability of changing the way that we look at things outside themselves, even when we have finished reading and put them to one side.

These works have tapped into something deep within us; they have not only drawn in our attention but something even more fundamental about us. We are rapt in the way that these works absorb us, certainly, but on more than just an imaginative level.

These seven levels of attention are a key study for authors, both in terms of putting a story together and in marketing it. In this series, I hope to explore all seven and show you some of their strange and wonderful dimensions.


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