The Seven Levels of Attention - and What Writers Need to Know About Them - Part 18


How does any author build into his or her work those factors which bring about Deep Attention, that level of attention which means that the book will change the way the reader sees the world?

Here are some tips:

1. Have a Big Theme.

If you’re planning to have a big effect, you’ll need to have a big theme. If you’re writing a romance novel, don’t just write about Jill and George and their foibles - write about Love and Romance and Relationships as grand topics within your story about Jill and George.

Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice opens with a sweeping, if humorously ironic, statement about life - ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird extrapolates upon its title to communicate a universal message about innocence:

Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’ That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. 'Your father’s right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

Both books are 'classics' for a reason.

No great book is about little things. It might seem to be - but that seeming hides the fact that master authors are skilled in making the small stand in for the large.

2. State that Big Theme in Various Ways Throughout the Work.

Virginia Woolf can include meaningful statements through characters - ‘Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind’ - but can also have them say humorous, though resonant, things: ‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.’

You can turn whole chapters into non-fiction treatises about life and God, as Tolstoy did in War and Peace, or you can comment on things as the narrative develops in such a way as to embed your message with readers. E. M. Forster has his character Professor Godbole, in A Passage to India, go through a mystical experience:

It was [Godbole's] duty, as it was his desire, to place himself in the position of the God and to love her, and to place himself in her position and to say to the God, ‘Come, come, come, come.’

Weaving a grand theme into a work shouldn’t be an afterthought: it should be what you are doing as a writer, if you want to create Deep Attention.

3. Have Your Plot Parallel Your Theme.

It’s probably not going to work to write a story and then to try to insert the above ‘meaningful statements’ into it. The whole thing will turn out looking somewhat contrived. But if your overall plot actually mirrors what you are trying to say, the reader will accept your embedded bits of philosophy on unconscious or semi-conscious levels.

In the case of Forster’s A Passage to India, for example, the author conveys, using the metaphor of the British in India, something of the mysterious nature of the universe. The characters end up perishing or fading or losing their grip or withdrawing from the emptiness at the heart of the world, as it is symbolised in the novel by the Caves at Marabar. But Forster’s Godbole, a Hindu, introduced to us earlier, appears in the latter part of the novel to act as a bridge for the reader, and his experiences are an attempt to convey an embracing of the meaninglessness portrayed throughout the book.

The plot, in other words, grows out of the theme, not the other way round.

4. Use Language Effectively.

Great books are sprinkled with powerful statements which sum up their themes, either made by characters or asserted by an omniscient author who has gained our confidence. Master authors use language poetically to convey a great deal in a few words.

Here are some examples:

‘I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.’ -Moby Dick, Herman Melville, 1851

‘Sometimes we get sad about things and we don’t like to tell other people that we are sad about them. We like to keep it a secret. Or sometimes, we are sad but we really don’t know why we are sad, so we say we aren’t sad but we really are.’ - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon, 2003

‘None of those other things makes a difference. Love is the strongest thing in the world, you know. Nothing can touch it. Nothing comes close. If we love each other we’re safe from it all. Love is the biggest thing there is.’ - Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson, 1994

‘We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, “Oh, nothing!” Pride helps; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our hurts— not to hurt others.’ - Middlemarch, George Eliot, 1874

‘Why can't people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing.’ - The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford, 1915

‘It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like, so long as somebody loves you.’ - The Witches, Roald Dahl, 1983

‘Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.’ - Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, 1818

‘We need never be ashamed of our tears.’ - Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, 1890

‘No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.’ - The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850

‘History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’ - Ulysses, James Joyce, 1922

‘Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.’ - Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1952

As you can see, economic use of powerful words to describe universal concepts is something that, if you want to bring about Deep Attention in readers, you will have to master.

You might not want to achieve Deep Attention. Perhaps you are content to sometimes create the Focused Attention that means that readers are really enjoying your story. But if you want readers to emerge transformed after reading your work, and then have the book grow accordingly into a classic, try to work with the above points until your fiction resonates with meaning and has a ripple effect on readers’ lives.

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