Friday, 9 October 2009

Connecting with the reader

Interesting, isn’t it? How as writers we rarely talk about our readers. Do we think about them enough? I’m not sure. Do I? Let’s see.

Of course in one sense I’ve always thought about my reader. I’ve imagined the thrill of having my words read by a stranger. I’ve craved an audience for my words, reading aloud to my little sister when we were children and lately falling into the thrall of internet writing, beguiled by the illusion (only sometimes a reality) of a ready-made audience waiting on my every word. But it’s only now, writing for business in my new job, that I’m really aware of giving the reader the attention he/she deserves. Because there is no way around it in copywriting. No hiding behind the words. No ‘this is just for me’ comfort-zone. I have to focus 100% on my audience, from start to finish.

Funny, though. That it should be as a copywriter I am most keenly reminded of the essence of storytelling: to create a dialogue, a conversation, and to keep it going. Understanding the reader’s hopes and fears. Manipulating the same.

Authors are, I think, allowed to take cautious pride in our powers of manipulation. Of course we must try to use those powers for good. But which author doesn’t feel a chill of delight when we set up an expectation only to dash it, or when we blind-alley the reader, or unmask a hero as a villain (and vice versa)? A healthy streak of sadism never hurt a good writer (goodness knows we need it to balance the masochism we practice, wittingly or unwittingly, in pursuit of being published).

Hooks. Twists. Surprises. Shocks. All story is conflict.

We’re taught these lessons from the very start. We’re not at war with our readers, of course we’re not. Rather we’re colluding with them. Taking them on a journey that pit-stops in places of danger, delivering vicarious thrills and frights as well as quiet moments of enlightenment, and perhaps joy. Even something as cosy and comforting as a light romance will sign-post disappointments and set up bush-tucker trials for its heroes and heroines before they reach their happy destination. In fact, by using ‘even’ at the start of that last sentence I am probably doing writers of genre fiction a disservice; they never stray far from the path of delivering the reader what he/she wants. By contrast, some literary fiction can feel as if the author has forgotten such a thing as a reader exists, other than as a plebian nuisance the author must endure en route to a prize ceremony or two.

“Words are dead until they’re read.”

This is a quote from John Simmons, a terrific business writer who has much to teach writers of fiction, at least that’s how I felt reading his book, We, Me, Them and It. However much we love our words, they only come to life when they’re read by someone else. The words are the dry ingredients but it’s the reader who brings the hot water, reconstituting our words into something which should, if we’ve done our job right, satisfy the appetite that brought the reader our way in the first place.

We hope to engage the attention and affection of our readers. Business writers work from this as a first principle. Maybe fiction writers should, too. Or more of us should more often, anyway. Simmons said something else that resonated with me.

Every time we engage with the reader we set up an expectation
As writers of fiction, we have the luxury of being able to pervert the expectations we set up. Most business writers can’t risk doing this. Although there are examples of copywriting coming close. Carlsberg’s Probably is a great example. Because what it’s actually saying, of course, is Definitely. The copy colludes with the reader. It shares their sense of fun. It’s self-deprecating; perverting expectations of brand advertising to plough a fresh furrow to its audience’s bloke-ish hearts.

As authors, we can pervert expectations but we must never lose track of them. If we do then the dialogue is broken; the reader trusts us a little less. If necessary, be boring and keep a list at the end of every chapter (or paragraph, in a short story; or word, in a flash piece). Ask yourself,

What expectation have I set up here? How I will deliver against that expectation in order to keep this conversation going with the reader?

Looking at lessons from business writing bibles may seem trite, or distracting, or vulgar. Perhaps we just prefer to think we’re better than that. Subtler, cleverer, more devious or more honest. We’re artists not exploiters. And yet - look at this list of key requirements from Simmons’ book on the power of words:

Be honest; Be distinctive; Be appropriate; Be consistent; Be personal

All right, so it’s not exhaustive. But it’s a damn good starting-place. And I don’t think I’ve seen it described so succinctly in any of the many books I’ve read about writing fiction. It had to come from a book about business writing. Didn’t I say it was funny?

I’m able to appreciate, finally, completely, why so many plots in fiction are linear, or simple, or both. And I see that it is because a novel’s density, its depth, ought to come from its interaction with the reader, not from the way it deploys words or even ideas. A reader’s expectations, and a reader’s responses, are complex enough. If we are always writing towards the reader’s hopes and fears, needs and wants, then we will write stories with real resonance and depth. The reader, after all, came to us because he/she wanted the same thing we want when we write: to make a connection, hopefully one which will last; certainly one which will enrich, while it lasts.

Of course the Simmons list above isn’t complete, for writers of fiction. I want to add,

Be surprising

For starters. I’m interested in the ‘rules of thumb’ other writers would add. And the lessons you’ve learned from unexpected sources? Please share...

6 comments:

belantana said...

Great to hear that your new job is offering you opportunities to further your fiction writing. :) I think the only writing advice I've ever read is the appallingly no-fun "write what you know". (I am super glad you don't restrict yourself to that.)

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, B. Write what you know is daft. There would be hardly any books written at all if writers followed that advice - and specifically no speculative fic, no fantasy, sci-fi, adventure, thriller fic - the list goes on.

Write what you feel, or write who you are, seem better attempts at saying the same point. It's all about passion, or depth of emotion, isn't it?

Samantha Tonge said...

I tried writing what i knew, when i started out, and it resulted in boring, derivative work that would have bored the pants off any reader.

So as a writer of chick lit, i'm very conscious of keeping the fun element alive for my reader.

Great post, Sarah.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Sam, I'm glad you liked it. It's great to have a perspective on our own writing - that tells us what will bore the reader, so we can put it right. Maybe we should add to the list:

Be entertaining

That's the essence of storytelling, after all.

Tania Hershman said...

This is great, thank you Sarah. It reminds me a lot of the Robert McKee book, Story, which is aimed at screenwriters but which taught me an enormous amount about "story" in any form. I would say, though, that for me as a short story writer, this isn't something I think I should be thinking about during the first draft, I should be getting it all down and then thinking about the reader, about what expectations I have set up and whether it's actually a good and gripping story. That's the theory anyway!

Sarah Hilary said...

I understand what you mean about not messing with your system, Tania, especially with short stories. A first draft should always be written from the heart, I feel. Maybe I should amend this to make that clear. Thanks for commenting - and congrats on the recent scoops on your own blog!