Sequential meaning pulls attention forward; vertical meaning sticks attention downward or inward; contextual meaning ripples outward. If vertical meaning was centripetal, drawing attention into the words and images on the page, contextual meaning would be centrifugal, spinning meaning outward into the actual world of the reader. In the first, the reader finds meaning within the text; in the second, the reader finds meaning in Life because of the text. The two work together and overlap, naturally.
Contextual meaning - when meaning is so portrayed in a story that it resonates with a reader in terms of his or her own life, or Life as a whole, bringing about reflections about further meaning, insights, connections, epiphanies - can arise when a reader, pulled into an image or a concept on the page, realises that the concept applies to himself or herself.
Here’s an example from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms:
If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
Hemingway uses his usual matter-of-fact, no frills style to make a brutal point about Life. Counterpointing ‘courage’ and ‘killing’ in the first sentence hooks the reader inward; as he extrapolates on the point, the reader begins to see that there is a universal truth in the sentiment voiced: that the world does indeed seem destructively and remorselessly opposed to what we might consider worthwhile values. By the final sentence, the reader has absorbed the concept enough to evaluate reflectively upon his or her own place in this terrible scenario - is the reader ‘very good’, ‘very gentle’ or ‘very brave’? Probably not - and so ‘the world’ doesn’t even give priority to that death, which is a condition of affairs likely to be reflected in the reader’s own life.
Meaning arrived at contextually doesn’t have to be so devastatingly negative, but is by its nature often somewhat revelatory for the reader. In White Fang by Jack London, the dog begins to perceive a relationship developing between himself and his master
As the days went by, the evolution of like into love was accelerated. White Fang himself began to grow aware of it, though in his consciousness he knew not what love was. It manifested itself to him as a void in his being—a hungry, aching, yearning void that clamoured to be filled. It was a pain and an unrest; and it received easement only by the touch of the new god’s presence. At such times love was joy to him, a wild, keen-thrilling satisfaction. But when away from his god, the pain and the unrest returned; the void in him sprang up and pressed against him with its emptiness, and the hunger gnawed and gnawed unceasingly. "
Again using fairly ordinary language, the author introduces concepts which will ripple outwards into the reader’s own life, in all likelihood. Most readers will be familiar with the transition from ‘like’ to ‘love’ - indeed, most readers will have some inkling of their ignorance as to what love actually is. London then effectively creates the notion of an emptiness in White Fang’s heart - ‘a hungry, aching, yearning void that clamoured to be filled’ - which almost certainly will resonate with readers as such a thing is part of the human condition (as well as, presumably, that of dogs). White Fang’s emotions transform in the presence of his ‘new god’ and in his absence, a state of emotional fluidity probably familiar to most readers. So what on the page is a description of a dog’s feelings towards another character in the book become a kind of allegory of humanity’s experiences of love. The same passage, with the alteration of only a few words, could describe any loving relationship.
This kind of epiphany in fiction is what keeps readers’ attention focused in that trance-like condition that we looked at earlier: fiction yields such insights as almost no other art form can, walking readers through sets of experiences, gluing them to images and ideas, and then producing, as if by magic, revelatory insights which pertain to life outside the reading of fiction.
So in terms of the Seven Levels of Attention, we have proceeded from that null attention we get from people at large, simply because they don’t know of our existence or are not even remotely interested in our work, which we have called Zero Attention, to the Momentary Attention we get when someone, somewhere, for some reason, glances our way. Then we moved to Intermittent Attention, in which the cloud of ‘attention particles’ surrounding these people has been acted upon effectively, resulting in some of those particles flowing towards us less ephemerally -- and we have learned how to use the tools available to us to produce Captured Attention, at which point people purchase our books.
Emerging Attention, the act of reading the book, is when the reader is kept engaged with the story right to the end. This depends on a knowledge and application of the fundamentals of the craft of writing, as outlined in my book How Stories Really Work. If those principles are deftly applied, then the result is the kind of Focused Attention we have examined here in Hemingway and London.
But that is not the final category of the kinds of attention we need to examine as writers. The final seventh category is called Deep Attention. Focused Attention is a byproduct of great writing - the master authors throughout history have been able to create the condition in which it arises. That’s why they are master authors. A subset of those authors are capable of producing Deep Attention. This comes about in books with a genuine spiritual significance and power - they put us into the same kind of trance as Focused Attention, but tend to be so powerful that, when we have finished reading them and put them to one side, we are changed in some way.
We’ll look at some examples of Deep Attention soon.