Friday, April 13, 2012

Writing: The Audience is Everything

When you write, the audience is everything.

The biggest problem with not only beginning writers, but writers in general, is that they forget to be readers. There's always the risk of falling in love with your own words, of congratulating yourself for how clever you are. And maybe you are clever. Maybe you've written a fantastic metaphor, or a great description, but great descriptions and metaphors aren't a story.

There are millions and millions of books and short stories for people to choose from. The reader has chosen yours. This doesn't mean your book is the best they could choose, but for whatever reason, they chose it. There is a lot of emphasis in commercial writing on "the hook," the simple high concept that pulls the reader in, but the hook, isn't the story. A good hook is not what makes a story compelling to read, it's what compels the reader to pick up the book in the first place, to choose your book. This is valuable in selling a book, but not necessarily the most important way to engage the reader.

The beginning of a story is an invitation, or at least, it should be. That doesn't mean that it should be expository. That doesn't mean that it should be "the hook," though it doesn't hurt if it is. A hook is a promise, and the story is the fulfillment of that promise, but all stories don't begin with a bang. The best stories don't necessarily pull the reading in, but lead them. You give them a trail to follow. Once you've invited them, it's time to let go and give the reader something to do, but giving the reader too much to do too early on intimidates them. You're requiring them to work too hard, which isn't particularly generous. In the beginning, work for them, don't make them work for you, but after that, try not to do all the work for them.

Too much exposition is hand holding. The common maxim that you hear over and over is, "show, don't tell," and in the beginning, what you choose to show them should be what makes them want to read on. If you don't give enough in the beginning--and I don't mean exposition--you put the reader out to sea. In the beginning you need to anchor them. Sometimes anchoring the reader means putting them off balance, but not so much that you lose them. When I say, "putting the reader off balance" I mean leaving something for them to do, such as leaving out information that will make them want to continue in order to discover more, but you still have to put them somewhere grounded. Maybe it's an actual place, and in describing that place, the reader is intrigued. Maybe it's a piece of dialogue that implies, but doesn't reveal. But whatever the implication, the place or piece of dialogue has to be given context, and relatively soon. The more you wait to tell the reader what's going on, the more you leave them out to sea.

Don't Give Up All Your Secrets 

When I write, I think about one person, and I'm writing to that person. Of course that person is always me, even if it's a letter, not because I'm selfish (well, maybe a little), but because when I write, I'm alone. When I write, I have to fool myself into thinking that I have this intimate relationship with this invisible person. I don't assume that they can read my mind, that they know what I intend, but I also try not to underestimate them. I assume they are smart, that they will get my jokes, that they will be able to infer what I imply, as long as they have context to do it. I want to engage them, so I don't give them everything. I hold back. I carry secrets. I know more about the story than they do, and when I can, I suggest, rather reveal. If you're writing about characters, all characters have a secret inner life and a history, and these are aspects of the character that the reader can never know fully. If the reader knows everything they can possibly know about the character, if they know everything you know, you give up your secrets, and deny the reader their imagination. What we imagine is more compelling than what is true, but the writer still has to know the truth so that they can suggest it. Give the reader hints, but don't give up all your secrets.

Fantasy and Science Fiction: Showing and Not Telling when World Building

This is often the problem that I have with sequels. Often with a sequel, the writer runs out of implications, and all their secrets slowly unravel until there's nothing left for the reader's imagination. In the fantasy and science fiction genres, there's this concept of world building. What some writers think this means, is to explain as much about the world they invented as they can. When I was a kid I loved the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, but most of all, I loved The Monster Manual. It was a catalog of monsters for the game, and featured a description and a little story about each character. These stories were by their nature incomplete. They told about what the character could do, and what their habits were, but the story they inhabited was entirely left to your imagination.

So in a fantasy story, the writer fills in that blank, but if they fill in all the blanks, we're back to that essential problem: they've revealed all their secrets. Star Wars was best when we didn't know exactly how Darth Vader became who he was. We were thrown into a story that had a million implications, and given just enough to imagine a much bigger world. When Lucas made all those sequels, he began filling in every gap, exposing all his secrets and in effect, killing the viewer's imagination.

And why is the audience everything? Don't some writers say that they write just for themselves? I never believe people who say this. Even if they're their only audience, they still are writing to an imaginary person. If it's a diary, that person is your future self, even if you never read it. Writing is language, and language is a vehicle for communication, but communication is only communication if it is received. So even if no one ever reads it, even if you don't read it, At one time you were writing for an invisible person, for an audience, for your future self or whomever you imagined might read it, but it's always for someone. So be generous. Be gracious. When you write, you imagine that somewhere there is a person who is willing, out of all the choices that they have of things to read, to spend their time reading what you've written, a real person instead of an invisible one.

You Are the Reason I Write. 

So thank you for being that person. You're smart, and you get get my jokes and you make me feel understood. You really contribute quite a bit to my self-asteem. So thank you, thank you, thank you. It's good to be alive.

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