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The Seven Levels of Attention - and What Writers Need to Know About Them - Part 21


In the course of this series, we have looked at Attention as a kind of commodity, and examined ways in which it can be directed. We have also come to see that Attention and Meaning are directly related and hopefully realised that Meaning of one kind or another is the thing that we are all seeking.

I broke down Meaning into four distinct types: sequential meaning, vertical meaning, contextual meaning and embracive meaning. These are just names, though. To understand what they mean, it’s important that we don’t lose track of what Meaning itself means. The word comes from Old English mænan, and is related to Dutch meenen and German meinen, from an Indo-European root shared by the word ‘mind’. What it means in practise is that when we look for meaning, we look for connection, a pattern of some kind, something which has significance.

Thus, using the sample of sequential meaning, what pulls our attention forward through a piece of text is a suggested pattern. A master author uses the many suggested patterns possible in a piece of writing to draw the reader on. Take for example this quote from Edgar Allan Poe:

It is by no means an irrational fancy that, in a future existence, we shall look upon what we think our present existence, as a dream.

The basic pattern here, as in most cases of sequential meaning, is the sentence which the reader expects to be structured and to finish properly - but Poe strings us along to the end of the sentence before the final word completes the pattern.

Vertical meaning draws readers into a text by suggesting patterns beneath the surface. Using Poe as an example again, take this quote:

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.

Darkness is commonly used to suggest vertical meaning - in other words, to invite the reader deeper into the text in order to fill in the ‘blank’ which darkness implicitly presents. Poe here magnifies that vacuum with the words ‘wondering, fearing, doubting’ and then hinting at a completed pattern designed to make the reader gasp a little.

Contextual meaning, arguably, is the most important of the four types because it takes what is in the text and hurls it outward into the world of the reader. Great authors make use of this all the time, whether they are fully aware of it or not - if they did not do so, they would not be considered great authors because their works would be considered largely irrelevant or trivial. That’s because contextual meaning suggests that what an author is saying on the page has something to do with the reader and his or her own life.

Trivial fiction is all about the story; great fiction is all about the reader.

Using a simple example from Poe again, contextual meaning can either explicitly or implicitly involve the reader’s own world:

Of puns it has been said that those who most dislike them are those who are least able to utter them.

The immediate reaction upon reading that line is for the reader to reflect upon whether he or she is able to utter puns. In other words, ‘Does the quote involve me?’ The reader may dislike puns, in which case the meaning of the piece is weighed against the reader’s own experience; the reader may like puns, and the same weighing takes place. Contextual meaning thus involves the reader.

This can be seen more subtly when an image or suggested pattern is used in a story which subliminally involves the reader. In this famous line from A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens, there is an indirect appeal to the reader:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.

Somewhere in the background of the reader’s thinking as he or she reads this line is a quiet calculation of the worth of the reader’s own actions in life and their triviality (probably) in comparison to the sacrifice being made by Carton, who is here awaiting his death by guillotine. For the sake of love, Carton has intentionally swapped places with someone else and in this quote is pondering both his own self-sacrifice and the fate of France. Contextual meaning spills outward to the world of the reader in some way.

All of these types of meaning interact and add up to the final kind, embracive meaning, which produces Deep Attention. But, as I have said, they are all just names for things which are occurring in most people’s minds when they read fiction: they are being drawn along by suggested patterns and purposefully placed omissions and gaps in those patterns; they are being drawn in by the same use of patterns; and they are perceiving relevance to themselves through the use of the incomplete and completed patterns.

Look at this example from Jane Austen’s Emma and see if you can spot how your attention os being directed in many ways by it:

He had never been an unhappy man; his own temper had secured him from that even in his first marriage; but his second must show him how delightful a well-judging and truly amiable woman could be, and must give him the pleasantest proof of its being a great deal better to choose than to be chosen, to excite gratitude than to feel it.

We are pulled forward by our curiosity as to why he had never been an unhappy man; we are drawn inward by the image of a ‘well-judging and truly amiable woman’; we are involved in the passage through its assertion of a general truth, that it is ‘a great deal better to choose than to be chosen, to excite gratitude than to feel it’. We reflect: ‘Is it?’ And we probably agree: ‘Yes, it is’. Austen has guided our attention and then captured it.

The conclusion? The text embraces us, the meaning consolidates, we are won over.

Try examining a piece of your own fiction. How are you drawing readers forward? How are you pulling them inwards? How are you involving them? Is it all adding up to holding their attention overall?

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