Wednesday, August 21st, 2019

The Circle of Focus

When Jane Yolen speaks of ‘focus’ with respect to writing picture books, she specifies that it should be sharp and small.

There’s an acting term originally coined by the great acting teacher Stanislavski called “Circle of Focus.”  During his career as a young actor, Stanislavski often experienced tension on stage. He discovered that he could better focus by concentrating on a small circle – just himself and one other actor or prop.  Once focused on this small circle, he could extend his attention to a medium-sized circle that included more actors or larger props, and then to a larger circle, encompassing the entire stage, ultimately even the audience. This technique, he felt, enabled actors to achieve ‘public solitude.’

Dr. Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, teaches the concepts of Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence – thus leading to Circle of Focus.  He describes our Circle of Concern as encompassing all that is of concern to us, our Circle of Influence as all that we actually have any direct control over, and our Circle of Focus as where best to direct our energies for maximum effectiveness.

Young reader’s circles of concern are necessarily small, just as their world is. They do not yet have the ability or experience to cope with politics, history, tragedy or economics – items that are usually within the circle of concern of most adults. Young people’s circles of concern and influence are narrower and more immediate – home, family, friends, and school – and their circle of focus is generally trained on the daily challenges of growing up: learning to tie one’s shoes, for instance, or whistle, ride a bike, or apologize.

Picture books are most successful when they maintain the same small Circle of Concern and Focus as that of a child. It’s best to leave epic tales involving multiple characters or tackling large themes to the novels that will be enjoyed in later life.

Nevertheless, within that small circle of concern, we want to keep the focus very sharp. We want to minimize wide angles and zoom in on the important. We want to choose words, images and ideas that are clear, strong, and compelling – and to avoid the blurriness of excess description and unnecessary details. We don’t need to embellish. Too many characters, references or changes within a picture book will confuse at best, and bore at worst.

Keep it simple, keep it small and keep it sharp.


4 Responses to “The Circle of Focus”
  1. Joanna says:

    Your very visual development of this theme was helpful to me. I can now picture better Stanislavski’s “circle of focus” or my reader’s circle of concern. I can look at my protagonist afresh and strip off (once again) any of those things which aren’t embraced in that fairly narrow circle of his immediate life and concerns. Again for me it help’s to visualize looking through my central character’s eyes at how he perceives the now.

  2. Diane Tipton says:

    When I read this, I thought of the fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothse”. Everyone but one child concentrated on all the royal hype. That child had focus and in a small scope. He saw nothing the community said they saw. And, even more important, he mentioned it out loud. I think children are notorious for simplicity and honesty. They say what they think, and don’t really think about the impact of their words. As an author we have to think like a child, remember what it was like to be 5 years old, and then we can morph our minds into a childlike stance that will help us connect with the reader.

  3. Patricia T. says:

    Excellent article on Circle of Focus. Children live in the moment and what is happening. So what you offer makes so much sense — keep it simple, small and sharp! I think of “King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub,” and the child who simply pulls the plug. In writing children’s books we are dealing with one problem which should should be our guide to maintaining focus. I have appreciated your expanding upon Jane Yolen’s comments.

  4. Diane says:

    Thankyou again Emma for an interesting insight. I too liked your very visual effect which helped put it across to me so well and therefore better understand, what I need to do. Thanks.

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