Editing Principle 18: Arcs Are Good, Straight Lines Less So

A New Yorker article about sleight-of-hand artist Apollo Robbins delves deep into how to keep other people’s attention. (While human and unaided by screens and/or algorithms, I should add; an important distinction.)

According to reporter Adam Green, Robbins takes the basic principle that eyes follow movement and complicates it:

One of the first things that Robbins ever explained to me was his observation that the eye will follow an object moving in an arc without looking back to its point of origin, but that when an object is moving in a straight line the eye tends to return to the point of origin, the viewer's attention snapping back as if it were a rubber band.

In a tiny way this relates to the unshakable human preference for things that come in threes—rhetorical triads and stories that take us from A to C via B, as opposed to A to C non-stop. Green continues:

Robbins discussed his theory with [neuroscientists] Macknik and Martinez-Conde, who devised an experiment to test it. Subjects were shown two videos of Robbins performing a simple coin trick while lab equipment tracked the motion of their eyes. In one video, Robbins pulled his hand away in an arc at the crucial moment of the trick; in the other, it moved in a straight line. Sure enough, the eyes of the viewers followed Robbins's hand more persistently when it described an arc.

Movement in an arc implies—if only on a subconscious level—that there's thinking at work, the taking into consideration of other factors or actors. When the movement's in a straight line, however, we "read" that action as pure reaction or even reflex, like a hand yanking back from a hot stove. The resulting story becomes narrower, more focused on the fraught interplay between A and C as opposed to exploring broader themes or fresh waters.

The implications for writing, revising, and editing are interesting. Sometimes while looking over a early draft I get the sense that there’s something missing, and at times that something is the factor that would make the narrative move in less of a straight line. Sometimes a secondary character—using the term loosely here, as in nonfiction this character would be a real person—needs to be developed, and treated less like window dressing and more like someone with power, desires, and agency of their own.

Sometimes that something is a thing the author would prefer to not discuss, i.e. that it was left out of the narrative so far, even if via subconscious choice, is no accident. To me that highlights the importance of trust between editor and edited. If the editor is going to encourage the author to include this arc-ing factor, they have to know the psychological landscape surrounding it, and be sensitive to it.

Megan Hustad