Pay Attention to Attention

Pay Attention to Attention

After getting your reader into your character's skin by turning on their senses, you have to pay attention to your character's attention.

One of the fastest ways to yank your reader out of your character and out of the story is to force your character to pay attention to something that the reader would not, at that time, be paying attention to.

A novice writer several years back wrote about a man entering a room. The writer described the room in detail – certainly too much detail, but that wasn't the problem. The first thing he described was the eagle-head bust over the inside doorway. Think about it. You're walking into a new room for the first time; what is the first thing you take note of? Would it be something that is on the doorway behind you and above you? Do you usually walk into a room and quickly check the top of the door? The writer here was forcing his reader to turn around to do just that when the reader was really wondering, what and who is in this room?

This is ADD – Attention Direction Disorder. It happens all the time, and not just with scene descriptions. "Frank watched as Elissa took off her shirt and dropped it on the floor. It was one of those baggy, sweater things the color of a light rose. His neighbor had a whole hedge of roses that color, and Frank had always liked them." Um, excuse me, isn't there a topless woman standing in front of Frank? Unless that's part of the story, why is Frank's attention on the shirt and not on the nudity in front of him? If you were Frank, how much attention would you be giving that shirt? Unless your story is about how Frank is always a little disconnected from the world, you can't describe something that your character's attention is not going to be naturally on. If the woman strips out of her shirt, Frank's attention, and thus your reader's attention, and thus your attention, is going to be on the naked woman and what her nakedness means to your character. You have to write your descriptions in the same order they would demand the attention of your character.

Give your reader the presence of your character. By that I mean put them in the skin of your character so that they see, hear, smell, and feel everything the character does, but go beyond the senses. Go beyond the skin of the character and into the character's state of presence. What does he see, hear, smell, and touch, but also let his emotional state, and his natural attention determine what he sees, hears, smells, and touches.

The human brain takes in info from every one of your senses constantly, but it filters it down to the salient points so it's understandable to you. As an author, you are doing the same thing. You could describe every sensory perception in your world, but you have to filter out what to pass on to the reader (what is emotionally relevant to your character?), and in what order to pass it on (what is your character going to pay attention to next?).

Doing this gives your reader the feeling of presence that your character has, and as Bradbury says, once you've got your reader connected that deeply to your character, they'll believe (almost) anything.