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The Seven Levels of Attention - and What Writers Need to Know About Them - Part 6

We’ve been talking about Meaning and its relationship to Attention.

The basic simplicity is an equation: more meaning = more attention.

For the most part, as we have seen, the world at large ignores us as writers and as human beings unless we belong to the small class of the super-famous. Even then, the attention given is usually fleeting, or what I have called Momentary.

Much of the energy expended by those trying to attract attention in order to sell something or communicate a message is wasted on this huge category of people who have no attention on us: billions of spammed messages are generated each day of the year in an attempt to ‘convert’ zero attention into a purchase and/or something received.

The better way to proceed, we have seen, is to do so in stages: ignore the vast grouping we have called ‘Zero Attention’ and instead concentrate resources on those who give us Momentary Attention, with a view to turning that momentariness into Intermittent Attention - in other words, getting the passers-by to linger a little with us.

With those that then linger, we should attempt, if we want to get our message across to at least somebody somewhere, to progress to the next stage. I’ve called this ‘Captured Attention’ but that might be a misnomer. The reason I named it that was, well, to capture your attention. But it rather plays into an image which I am trying not to encourage, and that is the picture of the writer as a 'hunter' and the reader as the 'hunted'. This is a powerful and prevalent idea in the world at large - the notion that the writer’s (or seller's) task is to go out hunting for the reader (or customer), as though the writer was a predator and the reader his or her prey.

By far the better picture, I have argued, is one in which the writer is a farmer or a gatherer and the reader comes to see what is on offer of his or her own accord. This is a much more effective and efficient method, just as agriculture turned out to be more effective and efficient for humanity as a whole: instead of wasting time and energy pursuing the reader in the wilderness, the 'farming writer' instead cultivates things which the reader is seeking anyway, and draws attention in.

What is the reader seeking?

The short and simple answer is Meaning.

I have suggested that, in the heart of our work - all our work, no matter what our topic or genre - is a core of meaning, which, when plumbed, leads readers into Deep Attention, the state in which their desire to read what you have written is transformed into something stronger and more potent, something which can spill over and affect their lives as a whole, beyond the book. It is of vital importance, if this is true, that writers have some grasp of what that core of meaning consists of for them.

Of course, each writer is different. The core of meaning in the work of Dickens, for example, is quite different to the core of Hardy’s novels, or Steinbeck’s writing, or the screenplays of George Lucas, or the latest romantic comedy. But in each case, a work is successful both critically and commercially if it knows what its own core is, taps into that core, and communicates it effectively to readers or audiences. Deep Attention, in which readers and audiences are swept up in the work and have their lives changed by it to one degree or another, is the supreme goal.

But how does one isolate what that deep meaning is which results in Deep Attention? And how can the knowledge of that meaning affect those who give us Intermittent Attention so that they come closer to us, buy our books and read what we have to communicate?

In other words, how do we utilise Deep Attention to acquire Captured


We need to have a closer look at Meaning.

Meaning, at least as far as it is concerned with fiction writing, could be said to consist of four fundamental strands or types: sequential, vertical, contextual and embracive.

Without getting too technical, sequential meaning is simply the meaning that the human mind tries to find and likes to see in any sequence. Sequences can be straightforward, like one word following another in a pattern which suggests meaning, like this sentence, or one number following another as in counting or a mathematics puzzle.

In terms of writing fiction, sequences also include paragraphs, scenes, chapters and even whole novels in a series. It’s the sequence in something which produces Momentum, forward motion. Readers of my book How Stories Really Work will recognise that a sequence in fiction has much to do with the question ‘What is going to happen next?’ By carefully leaving gaps of some kind in a sequence, a skilful writer can pull the attention of the reader forward through a sentence, a scene, and eventually a whole story. Think of a cliffhanger: that’s a simple sequential device which compels readers to turn the page to see how things resolve in that particular sequence of action.

Remember, readers want completeness: they want connectedness, they want Meaning. A neat and orderly sequence is one form of that meaning, arrived at after an adventure through the controlled untidiness and disorder which is a well-constructed story.

Tomorrow, we'll take a look at other kinds of meaning and see how they not only contribute to an effective story but also help to grab more attention from passers-by.

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