The Seven Levels of Attention - and What Writers Need to Know About Them - Part 7
We're looking at four kinds of meaning: sequential, vertical, contextual and embracive.
All readers - arguably, all human beings - are seeking Meaning of one kind or another. Combining these types of meaning produces not only a successful story, but attracts attention from the marketplace at large.
Earlier, we looked at how meaning occurs in sequences like words in sentences or numbers in mathematics.
The next type of meaning I have termed ‘vertical meaning’. Just as sequential meaning relates to Momentum or moving a reader through a story to the end, so vertical meaning relates to Mystery, or engaging a reader’s attention by asking the question ‘What’s really going on?’
Why call it ‘vertical’? Because, if we imagine sequential meaning as a straight line, proceeding horizontally through a sentence, a scene, a chapter and so on, then vertical meaning is at right angles, compelling the reader to look closely, observe detail, and seek meaning beneath the surface.
Take as an example this segment of dialogue from Dickens’ classic short story, ‘the Signalman’:
He directed a most curious look towards the red light near the tunnel's mouth, and looked all about it, as if something were missing from it, and then looked it me.
That light was part of his charge? Was it not?
He answered in a low voice,--"Don't you know it is?"
The monstrous thought came into my mind, as I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man. I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind.
In my turn, I stepped back. But in making the action, I detected in his eyes some latent fear of me. This put the monstrous thought to flight.
"You look at me," I said, forcing a smile, "as if you had a dread of me."
"I was doubtful," he returned, "whether I had seen you before."
He pointed to the red light he had looked at.
"There?" I said.
Intently watchful of me, he replied (but without sound), "Yes."
"My good fellow, what should I do there? However, be that as it may, I never was there, you may swear."
"I think I may," he rejoined. "Yes; I am sure I may.”
Line by line, the story moves us forward by asking us in tiny ways ‘What will happen next?’, Dickens purposefully leaving out complete answers as we move along.
But there is also vertical meaning here. Dickens creates Mystery by making us wonder what on earth is really going on here: the conversation does not at all proceed through conventional social pleasantries, but leaves so many questions unanswered: ‘a most curious look’, ‘as if something were missing from it’, ‘part of his charge? Was it not?’, ‘Don't you know it is?’, and the suppositions that the man was not a man at all but a spirit, that he had ‘infection in his mind’, ‘monstrous’ thoughts, dread, doubt and unspoken fear. The passage is a good example of a master author using vertical meaning to create Mystery, to glue us to the page even as he moves us forward to some hope of resolution.
J. K. Rowling’s chief talent was also the use of Mystery to prompt readers to stay attentive, to seek for the vertical meaning in events, not just what was happening on the surface.
In that way, readers remain entangled in the narrative, all the way to the end, and don't just 'skim read' along the surface. This also means that people who are giving us Intermittent Attention, by being part of our writing group or our email list or in some other way 'hanging out' with us, can be attracted further and more of their attention can be gathered.
Contextual meaning is the next broad category. In this, readers track along with a protagonist or some viewpoint within the story, and are given illusory choices as that viewpoint is presented with moral choices to make. Should Jane Eyre seek out Rochester? Is Luke Skywalker right to try to rescue his friends? Does any protagonist make the 'right' choice?
If this is done properly, using characters that have attracted our attention, then vicariously, we make the same choices as the protagonist, and are therefore involved in the same level of meaning. If the context has been carefully crafted by the author, the choices made by a protagonist reverberate in our own lives: when Frodo fails to destroy the One Ring on the edge of the Cracks of Doom in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, for example, there is something universal about his failure, something that speaks to us about the human condition; when Scout overcomes social prejudice and appreciates another's viewpoint in To Kill a Mockingbird, we are encouraged to do so too.
Obviously, whole libraries could be written about these different types of meaning - and probably already have been.
For the sake of simplicity, what we need to keep in mind as writers of fiction is that we are seeking the Holy Grail of Deep Attention. That comes when all of the above kinds of meaning weave together to result in the final sort: embracive meaning.
This is when the reader, only partially conscious of how it has occurred, finds himself or herself affected on a spiritual level by a book: sequential, vertical and contextual meaning have interacted to produce a catharsis of some kind, a revelation, an epiphany.
This can be on a grand scale, as in a masterwork of literary fiction, or on a small scale, as in a well-crafted comedy sketch.
What does all that have to do with moving our readers from giving us Intermittent Attention to us capturing or isolating some of that attention in the first place?