The Seven Levels of Attention - and What Writers Need to Know About Them - Part 10
Earlier we established that, to attract potential readers closer and get them to the point where they will actually acquire your book, you must magnify Meaning in those elements of a book which are visible externally - i.e. before buying the book itself. These include the cover and the blurb.
Meaning, as we have learned, is made up of four strands: sequential, vertical, contextual and embracive.
Let’s take a look at another blurb to see the four strands of Meaning in operation. This is the blurb for the best-selling book The Hunger Games:
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.
Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister's place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to death before-and survival, for her, is second nature. Still, if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
This blurb is a mini-story in itself, starting out with quite a plain description of the setting for the book. What pulls us along sequentially is both the fascination of a ‘ruined’ North America, when this is far removed from the current political and economic reality, and the ‘fight to the death’ between teenagers, which is also far removed from our cultural and moral expectations. The ruin and the death fight are both ‘gaps’ or ‘holes’ or ‘vacuums’ in our expectations. It is these vacuums which serve to pull us along, just as a normal physical vacuum would.
Heroine Katniss, we are then told, is going to be faced with choices between survival and humanity, life and love. Juxtapositions of opposites like this, oxymorons, are often used in blurbs precisely because of the ‘vacuum effect’ which they create, drawing attention in as readers seek to complete meaning and fill in gaps.
Vertical meaning is also active in the blurb, sucking our attention into the text at certain points to try to find out what is really going on. In common with many blurbs (and stories themselves, not to mention poetry) vertical meaning is often associated with individual words. In this case, names like ‘Panem’ and ‘Katniss’ draw our attention, as well as the mention of a 'shining Capitol’ with its outlying districts - even the fact that there are twelve districts has a symbolic resonance (twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples, etc.)
Contextual meaning is clear, especially given that the target audience for this book is teenagers. Katniss battling for survival as a teenager in what sounds like a dreadfully hostile world leads readers to look around at their own situations, consciously or unconsciously. Her choices become at least in part the choices of readers, drawing them right into the narrative.
Are these strands of meaning enough to create the embracive effect which should be their aim? Well, the book was a best seller and was turned into a hit movie, so that speaks for itself.
It might seem odd to look at blurbs in this way; it might seem odd to break down Meaning into component elements like this. But it is effective. There is hardly a blurb, a story, or indeed anything else which does not respond to such an analysis - and not only respond, but respond helpfully, opening our eyes to how our own attention is being manipulated.
To succeed as writers, the skills involved in using these elements need to be learned, not only for constructing blurbs and other marketing aspects, but for creating a story itself. We must become more aware of readers’ voracious appetite for Meaning, and how to utilise that.
How do we know that their appetite is so voracious? By examining it in ourselves. We look for Meaning everywhere too, all the time. And we look in sequences, in depths, in contexts and overall.
Capturing attention using Meaning moves us forward in our quest to engage readers. Enough Meaning presented to those who give us Intermittent Attention will result in some of them giving us more - they will buy our books and we will ‘own’ some of their attention, usually in the form of money, but hopefully more than that as they begin reading.
But things don’t end there, of course: the next category is Emerging Attention.
Here, the reader, having just bought your book, begins to read it, hoping to be entertained, enthralled, guided, amused and perhaps enlightened. Good authors know methods to keep the reader’s attention all the way to the end. These aren’t new methods - they have been used by master authors throughout history. Nor are they complex methods - they are simply extensions of those things that we have already been talking about.
As a writer, you want to be able to draw readers along, draw readers deeper into the text, draw readers into making connections with their own lives, and, in the end, draw readers into a close affinity with your work as a whole. This comes about when you master the secrets of Emerging Attention and Focused Attention.