Monday, September 24, 2012

Write to your audience's expectations.

OK, color coding:  Blue = updates, comments.  Yellow = stories.


I recently wrote a short story, "The Countdown," in which the National Debt clock was running backwards.  The national debt was somehow mysteriously vanishing, as throngs watched in expectation.  Well, when the debt clock reached $0, at midnight, everyone jumped up and down, and chanted "We're Free!  We're Freeeeeeeee!"

I presented the story in this original form to my readers group, Redmond Roaring Writers, so it could be critiqued by my fellow writers.  They faulted the story very heavily, on the basis that the debt clock could NOT reach $0, and that even if it could it would not do so at midnight but during regular banker's hours.

"No, you are missing the point," I complained.  "Is it really necessary to the story to explain how the debt clock reaches zero?  The point is to describe the consequences if it did."

"Yes," one of my readers said.  "We ABSOLUTELY need to know how the debt clock reaches zero."

"But this is like an FTL - Faster Than Light.  You hop in a spacecraft, you zoom off to another planet.  It isn't necessary to know how the engine works."

"Yes, it is!"  they insisted.  But this gave my readers another, better idea:  "What if this is not the debt clock in America, but a debt clock on another planet?  Yeah, that would make more sense.  The debt clock here could never reach zero, the debt would never be paid off.  Even if it was, we would still have to pay taxes."

I was wrong, all wrong in my approach.  I agreed with my readers - the National Debt could never be paid off, not in thirty of our lifetimes.  But that was not the POINT I was trying to make.  All of my readers - ALL of them - missed the subtle point in my story that the debt was NOT PAID OFF.  Only the clock was changed.

(Of interest:  The original National Debt Clock on Sixth Avenue could not run backwards, but only forwards.  This clock was replaced with a clock that could run backwards in 2004.)

So, the point of my story, that someone was just using the clock to deceive a lot of people into thinking the debt was dissolved and that they were "free," which I thought to be so obvious, was completely lost on my audience.  The problem was I did not deal with my audience's expectations, which (in this case) seemed to be fueled by certain ideological and scientific principles and assumptions, such as:  The Federal Reserve system is a necessary evil; Debt is not servitude; we are not being deceived.

So my readers, raised in this sea of assumptions, would find both premises completely unpalatable, to the extent that they could only accept this story set on another planet:  The debt clock could never run backwards (we must always have debt), and our government (or the Feds) would never intentionally deceive us!  Either way, whether they got the point or not, the story was unpalatable.  They could not read it.

A story with no audience is a DEAD STORY.  It does not count if no one reads it.  I've since struggled with how I might fix this story so that "someone" might find it palatable, but I don't see an easy, clean solution which both accomplishes this and leaves the original concept intact.  I've since moved onto writing a less ideological story, about a Norselander fighting brutish Barbarians in a hopeless quest at the Edge of the World.  Blah blah blah, no real content, blah blah blah.

The point to be learned from this:  Know the expectations of your audience!  Write to them, at their level, dumbing it down where necessary (but not too much), and playing to their ideology and belief system, or you risk playing the game of solitaire.  Sad, but true.

More to follow.

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