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The Seven Levels of Attention - and What Writers Need to Know About Them - Part 9

Earlier, I suggested that a writer must use sequences - and the ‘hook’ of something missing in expected sequences - to draw readers along, not only in stories themselves, but in the whole marketing process of attracting attention to his or her stories.

Blurbs are a primary means through which to do this.

Let me give you an example by looking at the blurb for one of the top novels for 2018: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. This was a debut bestseller, won the Costa First Novel Book Award in 2017, and is soon to be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon.

Here’s the blurb:

Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive - but not how to live.

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything. One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted - while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she's avoided all her life. Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than... fine? An astonishing story that powerfully depicts the loneliness of life, and the simple power of a little kindness.

We can look at this blurb in the light of any of the strands of meaning that we have been discussing - sequential meaning, vertical meaning, contextual meaning or embracive meaning - but let’s try to stick to sequential to begin with. What we are looking for, then, is the forward motion through the passage of the blurb, one word at a time. We’re looking for expected sequences which then have something missing or out of place - a sense of missed sequence, in other words. It’s precisely that missed sequence which draws in reader attention, as readers seek meaning.

Meaning equals completeness: if something is missing, the reader’s attention is grabbed, hooked, pulled in.

The process begins here in the first sentence, ‘Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive - but not how to live.’ Our expectation is that surviving and living should be equivalent; that they are somehow not is a skipped beat.

We then get a brief description of Eleanor’s life which suggests completeness. It’s even stated that ‘Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life.’ So far, so good. But the reader is drawn forward by the opposing statement: ‘Except, sometimes, everything.’ Completeness is juxtaposed with total incompleteness.

The blurb continues with these odd juxtapositions: a ‘simple act of kindness’ can apparently be shattering; Eleanor must learn to navigate a world which is normal for everyone else.

Then a big pull, as we hear about ‘the dark corners she's avoided all her life, before going back to the oxymorons: ‘Change can be good. Change can be bad.’

The blurb concludes with a straightforward statement of the book’s theme, heavily reliant on adjectives and adverbs to put across some emotional content: ‘An astonishing story that powerfully depicts the loneliness of life, and the simple power of a little kindness.’ Remove them to see what I mean: ‘A story that depicts the loneliness of life, and the power of kindness.’

Attention has been attracted through oxymorons, through the suggestion of dark corners, and only at the end is anything made explicitly emotional. Sequential meaning has been carefully interrupted in order to pull us in.

In effect -and note this vital point - our own desire for meaning is what moves us - a writer only has to causatively leave some gaps in the meaning and a reader will be compelled to read on.

The cover of the book (pictured) is interesting in this respect too. It’s very simple: a shape made out of matchsticks. But the simplicity is the key: it’s too simple. And the matches are all burned. Imagery playing a role in creating gaps to draw readers in - you will find it everywhere.

What about vertical meaning?

In looking for vertical meaning, we are not seeking things that pull the reader along but which pull the reader closer to the text.

Here, the name ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ itself draws us in: it’s odd enough to be quirky, a little like a made up name for a children’s story.

The language of the blurb is simple, unadorned, undramatic: ‘same clothes’, ‘same meal deal’, ‘same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend’. Repetition, especially of ordinary language, suggests dullness; dullness possibly leads to seeking escape in alcohol? Eleanor Oliphant’s life is ‘carefully timetabled’, but we discover that she has built walls around herself. Why? Why is she alone? Why has she chosen sameness? What are these ‘dark corners’?

Anything that draws our attention closer to the words in the page can be considered vertical in the sense that it is slightly different to the horizontal sequential meaning which pulls us along. Obviously, the two work together: the ‘dark corners’, for example, pull us both along and in.

Contextual meaning is a highlight here: Eleanor Oliphant's plight, her false and dull ‘happiness’ which is a façade, her ‘carefully timetabled life’ which is a delusion, her lack of courage and her dark corners are all powerful suggestions which resonate with the book’s target audience. This book is probably ruthlessly aimed at those who suffer the ‘loneliness of life’ and who are looking for a way of escaping from their own illusions. Reading the blurb in that light, one can immediately see how effective it might be.

By the time that we get to the end of the blurb, the emotive description of theme - ‘An astonishing story that powerfully depicts the loneliness of life, and the simple power of a little kindness’ - the target readers probably don’t need it said: they recognise that same sense of loneliness in their own lives.

Everything adds up to the embracive epiphany of ‘I must read this book’, and off they go to the checkout. How can I be sure that the effect results in people buying the book? The fact that it was a bestseller, even though its visible profile consisted only of this blurb, this cover and perhaps a few reviews.

Need more examples?

Stay tuned.


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