Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Long Form: Emphasis

Writing Wednesday

Now that we've talked about variation and rhythm, we can look at how to use these long-form tools for emphasis.

I've previously explored the idea that stories are models and that models have the property of not being a perfectly faithful representation of the original. This is a good thing. A map that represents the precise location of every pebble in a field would have to be as big as the field. Similarly, a story that faithfully represents every single, trivial thing a character does would be staggeringly boring.

A large part of the art of the storyteller is choosing the interesting bits and sequencing them into a narrative that evokes the times, places, and events without getting lost in the details. It's fundamentally no different that creating a model or map to express the most interesting aspects of another thing.

But how do you know what to select for your story?

Some things may be inherently interesting. But most of the elements of a story are interesting because the storyteller gives them emphasis.

Attention Budgets

From retinal structures in our eyes that detect motion, through subliminal filters, to the seat of reason in our frontal lobe, our brains are exquisitely designed to safely ignore most of the information flowing into them. Attention is our cognitive priority queue. To say that something caught our attention means that, at least for a moment, that thing was the most important element in our personal universe.

The act of selection--singling a particular person, place, or thing out from all the similar ones--creates emphasis by calling it to our attention. Similarly, dwelling upon something creates emphasis. Readers, for example, assume that the amount of text devoted to a subject indicates its importance. A common novice mistake is to give us a loving crafted description of a character, say, a waiter, who appears only once in the story.

Which brings us to:


I've heard it often enough to be willing to accept it as an advertising rule-of-thumb that a person must hear about something seven times before they'll take action. Fiction doesn't have to be quite so repetitive to create emphasis.

That said, I'm a firm believer in the Rule of Two: if it's important enough to put it in the book it--whatever it is--should appear at least twice. Think of it as a way of rewarding the reader for paying attention.

But repetition, in the long form, is more than just a tool for creating emphasis. In conjunction with variation, it enables us to explore a deeper issue: how does the significance of something evolve over time?

Image: Simon Howden /