The Parable of the Audience
by A. Ferguson
The stadium was a sea of overpriced band tees and elaborate haircuts. Heavy metal music was being played, inappropriately, as quiet background music over the speaker system. Suddenly and without warning, the lights went out and the music abruptly ended. The hubbub of chatter and the friendly jostling of the crowd was replaced with an almighty roar as every eye turned to the stage. People pushed and shoved their way to the front, clapping and screaming to be heard above the crowd. A plastic cup filled with beer flew towards the front, showering the ravening crowd as it passed by but no one paid any attention. There was yet another almighty roar as the band ran out on stage and struck the first chord of their opening number: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major.
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A great number of the posts I’ve written on this site giving writing advice have come about as the result of me learning these lessons the hard way first. This week is no exception.
Every now and again I hear authors, publishers and other would-be writing gurus all saying the same thing: it is very important to know exactly who your audience is before you write. I don’t mind telling you that every time I hear that, I groan. I don’t like to be restricted by boring things like that; I just wanted to write my story. Let the publisher worry about how they’re going to market my story: I am creating a work of art, darling!
Believe me, if you ever feel that way, you’re not alone. But lately I’ve learned that knowing who your audience is is just as important to the artistic side of writing (the most important part, surely?) as it is to the boring business side of things.
Allow me to explain. I like to write because I like to read. The type of things I write tend to reflect my reading preferences – which is hardly surprising, I’m sure you’ll agree. Now for me personally, there are a few things I like and dislike. For example, I like speculative fiction in various forms especially if it is based on mythology or history, but I also enjoy historical fiction, murder/mysteries and literary fiction. I like a little bit of action and tension in my fiction, but I do not enjoy thrillers which tend to maximise action at the expense of substance. I like the narrative to flow with all the rhythm and expressiveness of poetry while still maintaining believable and natural sounding dialogue. I like complex characters. I don’t mind a little bad language in my dialogue (as far as it is necessary) but I do not like stories which overdo the foul language as a cheap attempt to add grit and I especially despise the use of profanity in the narrative itself except on very rare occasions (and almost all of those occasions involve a first person narrative). In short, I have a bit of a mishmash of preferences. When I finish a book (even one I really enjoyed) I will say something like ‘it was very exciting, but the characters lacked substance’ or ‘it was very thought provoking but needlessly heavy on the bad language’.
Unsurprisingly, when I started trying to write my novel, I brought these and all my other likes and dislikes to the table with me. You won’t find any profanity in my narrative, for example, and only the absolute minimum that is required in my dialogue. But I also wanted to write a story which would appeal to everyone, and needless to say as I continued to work on this story, I found that I was growing increasingly frustrated with it. I just couldn’t seem to make it good although I was having difficulty putting my finger on why… until it hit me:
Nothing appeals to everyone. It is not possible to write a story that will appeal to everyone and trying to bring together elements that would appeal to all audiences only serves to create a mixed up and inconsistent story that won’t appeal to anybody. In tone, my story would have primarily appealed to a YA audience but there were too many elements which didn’t fit to classify it as such. The biggest problem was the protagonist: a bitter ex-soldier in his mid-forties who was struggling to pay his taxes. There were bits of my story that would appeal to some audiences and bits of my story which would appeal to other audiences. Even I, as the author, only liked bits of it. In trying to create a work of art for every audience, I created something that wouldn’t really appeal to anyone, because nothing appeals to everyone.
So I went back to the old drawing board and asked myself just who did I want to write for?
I tackled this question artistically (after all, business and marketing are not my forte. If anything has the power to put me off being an author, it’s the thought of all that stuff but I digress). I asked myself what kind of thoughts I was trying to provoke and what kinds of feelings I wanted to stimulate. How gritty did I want my story to be? How funny? How violent? How sensual? How family-friendly? The more I did this, the more I came to realise what I had already begun to suspect: I wanted to write (this particular story, at least) for a young adult audience.
It came as quite a surprise to me, I can tell you, but nevertheless, I made a decision to go through my story with a fine tooth-comb and make it conform to standards which would suit a YA audience. For example, my protagonist is no longer an angry ex-soldier; he’s the seventeen year old son of an angry ex-soldier. I was a little nervous that if I started to fully young adultify my story, I would ruin it but in actual fact it’s had the opposite effect. Suddenly it works. It flows from point to point with a certain consistency that was missing before and it has made for a better story; not because I made it into a young adult story specifically, but because I decided who my audience was and constructed a story which would fully appeal from beginning to end to that audience. I could have probably done the same for any audience (within reason).
By writing your story for a particular audience, you aren’t stopping other potential audiences from also reading and enjoying your story, any more than being a Mozart fan prevents you from also being a Black Sabbath or Alice Cooper fan (I’ve been known to listen to all of the above myself). All you are doing is adding a consistency to your story which allows it to work and flow in a way which makes sense. Besides, nothing in this life appeals to everybody; therefore, be sure to make your story appeal to somebody… And if the result of all this effort is a more marketable novel then so much the better!