Holding the reader’s attention—and really keeping it

“The writer's object is —or should be—to hold the readers attention.” —Barbara W. Tuchman

“The writer’s object is —or should be—to hold the readers attention.” —Barbara W. Tuchman

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard and read people give the advice that writers should write for themselves, and not for the audience. It’s a warning not to fall into the trap of trying to please everyone. It’s also encouragement to trust yourself as a writer. And I understand why both of those intentions are needed, but I think that in the process of hearing and trying to accept this advice, that some writers take it a bit too far. You’re not writing something for the individual audience members, that’s true, but you are writing to them.

We tell the story that we have to tell and we tell it the best that we can. The whole point of storytelling is to tell the story to someone, right?

So the audience isn’t superfluous to the process. A writer who thinks that the audience doesn’t matter—or even worse, a writer who holds their audience in contempt—is not doing the best in any way. Of course you don’t contort the story to cater to the wishes of every reader, but respecting the reader is not the same thing as catering to them.

I most often think of this topic when I find yet another example of queer-baiting. But queer-braiting is hardly the only way that storytellers show contempt for at least part of their audience, and I’ve been seeing a lot of examples lately in television (though it also happens in book series).

I understand that with a television series (or web series or movies or plays) you don’t have a single storyteller. It’s a collaborative process where the writer, the actors, the director(s), the designers, the show-runners, et al work together. But it is still storytelling. And just because it’s a collaboration doesn’t mean that no one is to blame when the reader is cheated, mocked, or otherwise abused. And when decisions are being made out of cynicism, that is what you’re doing to at least some of your readers.

You disrespect the reader when you mislead rather than misdirect. You disrespect the reader when you play on their feelings by raising hopes you intend to dash. Not every story has a happy ending, but you can tell a tragedy while still playing fair with the reader.

The usual counter argument is that the storyteller is simply putting the reader in suspense. ”We’re supposed to keep the reader’s attention, after all!“

The word people are missing there is ”keep,“ not just to the big reveal. The stories I love are tales I come back to again and again. Not because they always ended the way I wanted them to, but because they made me care, and the ending—even in the tragedies—rang true.

Yes, we focus on keeping the reader turning the pages until the end, but as artists we should want our stories to settle into the reader’s heart and make themselves at home. Stories don’t do that when the storyteller intentionally kicks some readers in the teeth then points and laughs at those readers.

If you can’t be moved as a writer to treat all your readers with respect out of artistic integrity, think of this: A reader who decides, midway through a story that it isn’t for them puts down the book and finds something else to read. They may never pick up another book by that author again, or they may simply wait to get recommendations from others before taking the plunge. But a reader who gets the feeling that the writer is cynically baiting them or otherwise comes to the end feeling mocked, used, and/or abused, is someone who will emphatically warn other readers away from your work for the rest of their lives.

So tell your story. Tell the story you want to tell. Tell it the best way you know how, but tell it truthfully. Build suspense honestly. Payoff the misdirections with integrity. Make the reader go, “I should have seen that coming! Wow!” or “What a great plot twist!”

Don’t treat reader as an enemy, and they won’t become one.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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