Respect For Your Audience
Have you ever enjoyed a story for a time, only to have your favorite character or a great plot, absolutely ruined by a careless author?
One of the most overlooked elements of storytelling is the lack of respect for the audience. Surprisingly few authors have real respect for their audience. When an author crosses the line, people will not only close the book or walk out of the theater. They will get angry. So angry in fact that they may never open another book by that author again, or they may turn off the television, abandoning that show for good.
One of the best television shows in the last several years was LOST. It was extremely good for a time, but then it turned sour for many people. What went wrong?
My friend, George Clayton Johnson (author of 8 episodes from the original Twilight Zone) told me that they shouldn’t have introduced so many mysteries without giving out some answers. “Introduce a mystery and then don’t answer it. Introduce another mystery and don’t answer it either. Then introduce another mystery and … don’t answer it.” This kind of treatment caused many people to turn the show off, even though it was one of the best shows out there. In fact, they didn’t just stop watching the show, they got angry.
Respect For Your Audience
Writers need to gain respect for their audience. This is something I’ve learned over the last 35 years of telling interactive stories to live audiences. Never play obvious games with your audience.
While the goal as a writer is to cause trouble with your characters (this is the heart of drama), you need to understand that there is a fine line that you should never cross.
It all comes down to seeing the story through the eyes of the audience, who have become intimately connected to the characters.
Know how to play with the audience without abusing them. Do not irritate your audience. How many times have you gone to see what you thought would be an exciting war movie and discovered it to be a horror tale, too gruesome to watch? You should know what your audience expects from your story.
Respect For Your Characters
This is one of the most frustrating problems with writers today. How many times has a writer destroyed your favorite character, just for the same of adding some extra drama? Killing a character “for dramatic effect” does more harm than good.
More often, a writer will torture, rape or mutilate a character. While this may be fine to do within certain limits, this type of character abuse can leave the audience wishing they had never seen your story or picked up your book.
There are exceptions of course. If you’re writing a horror tale where everyone expects the characters to die gruesome bloody deaths, then its all fine and good. But if you plan on surprising your romance readers by chopping off the arm of the heroine, think again.
If the audience has grown attached to a character over several years of watching a tv show or reading a book, don’t suddenly chop off their head in order to get a cheap reaction.
As a writer you’re free to do what you want, but always bear in mind that you’re dealing with the emotions of your audience.
Never abuse a character without good reason. When considering the demise of a character, when thinking about raping, mutilating or humiliating a hero, ask yourself these questions:
1. What effect will this have on the audience? If you rape a cherished hero for the sake of “drama,” know that on one level, you’re also raping the audience.
2. Is it worth it? Take a close look at the harm you are doing, along with what benefits you might gain by destroyng an important character.
3. Don’t be a tease! As a writer, your goal is to play with the audience, but don’t go too far. LOST was a fantastic show, but it had a new (experimental) format. It was single a story told over six years!
4. Never do harm with good reason. Every story must have conflict, which means that the characters will be suffering in some way. But be careful when doing this and make sure that everything is done for a good reason.
What to do now
Take a look at your stories and try to imagine them through the eyes of your audience. Realize that everything you do will have a tremendouse effect on them.
In a sense, writers are all masochists. One of the main jobs of a writer is to do terrible things to the characters in their stories. But you need to draw the line somewhere. How cruel are you?
Quentin Tarantino is a genius, but some people think his stories are too “gritty.” You need to strike a balance as an artist. Throwing in a “surprise” may be a great idea for a tale, but be careful when you do so in order not to destroy your story, which may cause your readers to close the book and never return.
Its all about respect.
– Mark O’Bannon