Focus

It's not just for cameras anymore.

I had a conversation with my husband the other day about reading slush, and common failure states in the slush we have read. One of the things he mentioned that made me go YES THIS was “lack of focus.”

I generally think of it as lack of narrative control, or lack of control of the line of direction, but it all boils down to the same thing. Specifically, one muscle that apprentice and intermediate writers really need to exercise is the ability to control where the metaphorical camera and therefor the reader’s attention is pointed, and move it smoothly from one item of information to the next.

(When you hear writers bitching about transitions, this is one of the things we mean. We also mean emotional transitions, and chapter transitions, and prose transitions, and just little linking bits of business to move from one important part of a scene to the next.)

Let me give you an example of control of focus done well. Since I was joking about this book in a recent newsletter, this is the opening of chapter 18 of Watership Down by Richard Adams, a chapter also titled “Watership Down.”

It was evening of the following day. The north-facing escarpment of Watership Down, in shadow since early morning, now caught the western sun for an hour before twilight. Three hundred feet the down rose vertically in a stretch of no more than six hundred – a precipitous wall, from the thin belt of trees at the foot to the ridge where the steep flattened out. The light, full and smooth, lay like a gold rind over the turf, the furze and yew bushes, the few wind-stunted thorn trees. From the ridge, the light seemed to cover all the slope below, drowsy and still. But down in the grass itself, between the bushes, in that thick forest trodden by the beetle, the spider and the hunting shrew, the moving light was like a wind that danced among them to set them scurrying and weaving. The red rays flickered in and out of the grass stems, flashing minutely on membranous wings, casting long shadows behind the thinnest of filamentary legs, breaking each patch of bare soil into a myriad individual grains. The insects buzzed, whined, hummed, stridulated and droned as the air grew warmer in the sunset. Louder yet calmer than they, among the trees, sounded the yellow-hammer, the linnet and greenfinch. The larks went up, twittering in the scented air above the down. From the summit, the apparent immobility of the vast, blue distance was broken, here and there, by wisps of smoke and tiny, momentary flashes of glass. Far below lay the fields green with wheat, the flat pastures grazed by horses, the darker greens of the woods. They too, like the hillside jungle, were tumultuous with evening, but from the remote height turned to stillness, their fierceness tempered by the air that lay between.

At the foot of the turf cliff, Hazel and his companions were crouching under the low branches of two or three spindle-trees. Since the previous morning they had journeyed nearly three miles. Their luck had been good, for everyone who had left the warren was still alive. 

Wow. Probably forty years since I first read that, and it kind of blows me away more every time. There are books you read young and then reread later, after learning to write—and then you realize that you were an uncritical reader then and they’re not very well written.

The passage above, for me, is the opposite. The more I learn about writing as a craft and an art, the more impressed I am with it. The more things I see it doing, and the more awe I feel.

Watership Down is the book I used as a model, when I was teaching myself to write omniscient. Omniscient gets a bad rap these days, but frankly that’s a matter of fashion, and Richard Adams shows in this passage how effective it can be when handled by a master. This passage, which brings us from a sweeping overview to a point of view that’s down among the grass stems and then back up into the sky with the larks before ending firmly grounded in a character, never loses the reader in the weeds, even when there are literal (fictional) weeds to be lost in.

It’s common for inexperienced writers, or writers who aren’t paying attention, to kind of throw details at the page without really thinking about whether each one leads to the next, or whether they are of use to the reader in building the scene. When the reader’s attention is forced to skip from thing to thing as if trapped in an 80s music video, the lack of a guiding line can be exhausting , confusing, and boring. (A confused reader is a bored reader.)

So HOW is Adams controlling the flow of information above? What are the transitions that control our attention and keep the scene in focus for us?

First, he uses the time of day to introduce the slanted evening light. That light illuminates the escarpment, the fields below, and we follow its rays down into the grass and dirt and among the insects. The insects then take us to a new vehicle: sound. In a virtuoso fugue of onomatopoeia, they stridulate and buzz into the sound of birds. The birds take us to the larks, and back up into the sky we go in their point of view into the sky again, back up over the land we’ve just swept through like a stooping hawk.

Then, with the transition of a prepositional phrase—”At the foot of the turf cliff”—Adams brings us to and grounds us in a specific place in the panorama he’s just described, and puts us into the head of his main protagonist, and turns us with another transition from description back to narrative. And narrative with a twist of rising tension, as the threat of mortal peril is so very casually introduced.

And that’s how it’s done. It’s not about limiting yourself to only immediately necessary information (though certainly effective books are written that way—check out C.J. Cherryh’s brilliant The Pride of Chanur, which I just reread) because the passage above is certainly lush. It’s about making sure the reader doesn’t feel that things are coming at them from all sides, that they’re incomprehensible and difficult to follow, and that nothing makes sense.

It’s about using the tools of rhetoric (in the classical sense) to bring the reader into and through the story, at a pace the author controls, and to direct the reader’s attention so they feel comfortable and supported along the way.

I hope that made sense and was useful.

Best,

Bear