The Seven Levels of Attention - and What Writers Need to Know About Them - Part 11
Earlier we saw some examples of how to pack as much meaning as you can into those aspects of a book which are visible to a passer-by, so as to entice him or her into moving close enough to purchase the thing and read it. If you can do so, then you will have gained a reader and acquired more attention: it would then be up to the book itself to retain that attention all the way through to the end.
A work of fiction is effectively an attention-capturing and manipulating device.
You may think, ‘This is all very well - but how do I use this information? Are you telling me that anyone who writes a blurb sits down at a desk and painstakingly constructs what you have called “sequential meaning”, along with “vertical meaning” and “contextual meaning”, in the hope of achieving overall “embracive meaning”?’
Well, no, not exactly. Some don’t have desks.
What I am asserting is that Meaning can be broken down into these strands. And when it is broken down in such a manner, things appear clearer about how Meaning operates to guide and control attention. And, if things are made clearer and operations are revealed when this is done, I am suggesting that there is something serious to learn here.
‘Sequential’, ‘vertical’, ‘contextual’ and ‘embracive’ are terms invented to describe aspects of Meaning - but the inventions describe things that are actual. You are reading this sentence pulled along by a desire to know how it ends; the significance of each of the words and the way they are put together, as well as any images or symbolic resonance which they might evoke, pull you closer to the text; the relevance of what you read to your own life and experiences outside the words invites you to apply any lessons to that wider world; and the overall result is that you learn or experience something.
These things happen: how we describe them or what terms we use to delineate them may change, but the phenomena associated with them are not inventions.
Given that that is the case, it might therefore be wise for anyone wanting to make a success out of writing fiction to learn more about what is going on here.
Meaning, of course, applies to everything in Life, not just fiction. And it’s an odd fact that the same way of breaking things down into aspects works on any facet of Life, not just fiction. Personal relationships, for example, have sequences, depths, contextual relevance and embracive overall results, as do occupations or group memberships or anything. Take any part of your life and look at it in terms of sequences, for example: where is it heading? How is it getting there? What is pulling you along?
Seeing exactly how these things operate in Life can be a little like seeing the code behind reality as in the film The Matrix: you can get some inkling, after a while, of not only how your attention is spread but also why; you can start to perceive, with practice, how actions that you take are guided by these factors in one way or another.
It’s all rather fascinating.
But to return to the matter at hand: how do we use what we are learning to improve our lives as writers?
Earlier articles have examined various groupings of people: the vast body of those who ignore us, the possibly-almost-as-large group of those who glance at us, and the smaller selection of those who pay us more attention. We have discovered how to use Meaning to attract the attention of that last group so that they become customers. The next stage is Emerging Attention: this is the group of people who have become readers and who have started reading your book.
Just about everything you need to know about what to do with these people is described in my book, How Stories Really Work. In there, I give a detailed description of how to build convincing characters, develop gripping plots, follow particular sequences, glue the reader’s attention to the page, and bring things to a satisfactory resolution no matter what genre you are writing in. Obviously, I recommend that you get that book, study its methods and apply them to your fiction writing. There are no further short cuts really: the book was written to be as direct and practical as possible about all of this.
If for some reason you don’t have my book or can’t acquire it immediately, you can study the master authors of fiction through history, as I did, reading famous classics, bestsellers, and works of note, as well as watching classic films and the latest blockbusters, to see exactly how they pulled you along through their stories, made sure your attention stuck to each particular page or scene, made each part of their stories relevant for you, and in the end how they created an overall effect upon you. Keep in mind that all of these things are being done to you, whether you are aware of them or not: the fact that you have read these articles (and possibly my book) and have some idea of what is happening when you read a book or watch a film or play means that you will have a much better idea of the mechanics of all this as you go along.
What you are doing with regard to those people who fit into the category of Emerging Attention is drawing them further along and further in. You want their attention to turn from an emerging state into a focused state - in effect, you are trying to put them into the kind of trance which we all go into when we are reading a good book. This is called Focused Attention. It is quite common in the world of fiction - but your own experience will tell you that it is also quite common to mess it up in various ways. You will have read a story which lost you at some point; you will have seen a film which failed to impress you; you will have put a book down, unfinished, disappointed, at some stage in your life.
Your next task, then, is to learn how to entrance your reader so that, having purchased and begun your book, he or she is never lost, never failed, and never puts the book down.