Who Are You Trying To Delight?

by James Scott Bell

When my daughter turned eight my wife and I decided to throw her a major birthday party.

This was back in that window of time when laserdiscs were all the rage. Man, I loved those laserdiscs! The Criterion Collection, the great covers. Oh, how relentless is technological change. Now I stream TCM on my phone.

In any event, there was a video/laserdisc store near our home which had a small theater in the back. You could rent that place out for parties and the like. so that’s what we did. We invited five or six of my daughter’s best friends, ordered pizza and candy and popcorn and a cake. Our daughter was excited about the party of the year.

But what movie to show? My wife and I discussed this, and I practically insisted we show the Carroll Ballard film, The Black Stallion. I mean, come on. It had horses! Little girls love horses!

The party began.

Before the main feature, the proprietor of the store played a music video hawking the film The Addams Family. It featured MC Hammer before he was simply Hammer, and it was a hit. The girls stood up and danced around and laughed.

I sat back with a satisfied smile. Champion Dad, that was me!

And then came The Black Stallion. It’s truly one of my favorite movies of that era. Magnificently shot, wonderfully acted.

Dem-3 Photo. Helene Jeanbrau © 1996 cine-tamaris.tifBut also lyrically deliberate (translation: leisurely. Slang: slow). And, as I soon found out, not the right movie for sugar-buzzed eight-year-old girls who had just been bouncing up and down to the moves and music of MC Hammer.

It was only about twenty minutes into the film when the first stirrings of boredom began to vibrate. Girls started chatting with each other. Some went to the bathroom and took their sweet time coming back. My daughter’s eyes pleaded with me to do something.

Eventually I stopped the film and we got the owner to put on some cartoons. Then we moved on to cake and presents. Party saved!

But what had gone wrong? Something very simple. I had chosen a film that delighted me, that I thought everybody should like, especially a group of girls. But it was not a movie that delighted them. It was the wrong movie for the age group and occasion, which was a raucous get-together to celebrate a birthday and make some noise. They wanted to have fun and laugh.

In short, I failed to appreciate the needs of the audience.

Which is a mistake we dare not commit as writers. May I suggest the following principles be put in your mental lock box?

  1. Your value as a professional writer is directly proportional to your value to readers.

If you want to write what you want to write and don’t particularly care who reads you, that’s fine. You can be the local Starbucks laptop jockey. But if you are in this to be a pro, you must give thought to your readers. What are they looking for? Well …

  1. The overwhelming majority of readers want to be lost in a story in a dreamlike way.

Which means you have to know how to weave those dreams. That is why we talk so much about the craft here at TKZ. To do justice to readers means you take the time to figure out what they love and how to deliver it. You realize that all of us are wired to receive a story that has structure, involves characters we bond with, and creates unconscious delight in how it is told. That doesn’t happen by accident.

  1. You can challenge your readers, but don’t expect them to embrace your challenge.

It’s fine to write material that requires readers to expend mental effort. Art can be many things, and challenging is one of them. Just know that you can’t force readers to recognize your genius. And have the courage to ask yourself if you’ve crossed the border separating true artistic enterprise from self-indulgence.

  1. Don’t fall in love with your sentences

Beautiful words count for very little if there’s no story, no characters worth caring about, no real plot. There’s an old adage for writers that goes, “Kill your darlings.” Stephen King likes to quote it, and it’s attributed to a number of writers, like Faulkner and Oscar Wilde. But apparently it comes from a lecture on writing style delivered by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch back in 1914. He was warning against “extraneous ornament” when he said:

If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

You may, if you wish, read the full lecture series here.

So there it is, friends. Throw a party for your readers and don’t force them to sift through what you think they ought to like. Delight them instead.

23 thoughts on “Who Are You Trying To Delight?

  1. John Sandford recently started a Facebook “Book Club” page where he suggested a book, gave his commentary, and opened the floor to discussion. One thing he said (and it’s probably not acceptable to quote the passage, so I’ll try to paraphrase) is that when he writes, he wants the writing to be transparent. The reader sees through the words and becomes part of the action.

    What he doesn’t like (and everyone’s opinion is different), is a more ‘literary’ style where every word is chosen for its effect on the reader. As Sanford puts it, he knows what “inchoate” means, but it will pull him out of the story. He’s not interested in how smart the author is, or how big his vocabulary is.

    I like to think that’s my approach as well. Every now and then I’ll throw in a character who loves to use big, fancy words, but I, the author, leave them for my characters.

    • John D. MacDonald used to say he liked a “bit” of “unobtrusive poetry” in his style. The key word is unobtrusive, because he also liked to tell writers, “Story, dammit story!”

      I recently read a passage written by an MFA student, which was an expansion from a previous attempt. The second had many more words, lovely in and of themselves, but they lost the character completely, buried the poor thing under a mountain of verbiage.

    • I agree with Sanford. When an author tries to impress with something, be it big words or something else, it does remove you from the story.

  2. Hey JSB. Thanks for this great, quick hitting piece.

    I just trunked the third draft of my current WiP because it wasn’t good enough for readers. That 70K+ words was the hardest to let go out of any of my previously trunked novels. But I’ve reworked the plot and it’s WAY better (thanks to my amazing story coach Kristen Lamb). I’ll fast draft it starting later this month and I’m excited because I believe this updated story will give readers what they deserve.

    Thanks again for sharing your take every week.

    • Wow, David, it takes real writer chops to do what you did. And there is no doubt in my mind that the new draft (with Kristen’s great eye) will be miles better for it. Nicely done!

  3. Thanks for the great advice, Jim.

    I believe the first rule for speakers is “know your audience.” (#2 above – “To do justice to readers means you take time to figure out what they love and how to deliver it.”)

    And as for #2 – “…readers want to be lost in a story…” – when I ask readers why they like a certain author, or keep reading his/her books, that’s the number one answer.

    And as to the details of how to do that: Please forgive me, Jim, for plugging someone else’s book. And I’ve read all your craft books, keep them on top of my stack, refer to them over and over. But I am enjoying Larry Brooks’ book, Story Fix. It will challenge you (#3 above). But we writers are motivated readers.

    Thanks for reminding us of our goal as writers and for all your weekly advice.

  4. I first encountered the “Kill Your Darlings” advice in William Goldman’s “Adventures in the Screen Trade” (a fantastic book for novelists, as well). After coaching stories for several years now, I would add this: it isn’t just over-blown sentences that you should line up against a wall and execute… it applies to some story ideas and concepts, as well. This is tricky advice (because story ideas themselves seem to be “untouchable” relative to feedback – we can write whatever we want, can’t we? – but it’s also The Truth.

    This aligns with your advice today (#3) about not expecting our readers to take up our challenges, or more fundamentally, to love what we love. Which ties back to your #1 principle above: if you’re writing as a pro, then you are writing for your readers, not just yourself. Which flips the entire “I can write whatever I want to write” scenario, creating a sort of criteria bar for professionals versus poseurs. I’ve seen too many story ideas that need to be in that doomed wall line-up, as well.

    So how do we know? The choosing of our stories is one of the variables that gets us readers, or doesn’t. And like all issues of craft, it requires a certain story sensibility (what readers will respond to, what they won’t) and, like most issues of craft, keen practice that evolves with each effort. Goldman also said (in his novel “Brothers”) that the best advice a writer can get (or at least give to his brother, who is a writer, too) is this: “on to the next.” That isn’t cynicism, it challenges us to get better, to BE better, with every new project we take on.

    Thanks once again for a great post, Jim.

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  6. So true! Sometimes we get too full of ourselves and overlook our target audience. One of the pitfalls of the trade, I suppose.

  7. There’s a fine line, I think, between writing stories to engage readers and targeting an audience. The first is a noble aim (as you point out). The second is deeply cynical, as if you can almost hear the calculations that went into a writer’s attempt to hit a market or trend target. (ie: I’m gonna jump on the Girl on a Train gravy train!). Maybe it goes back to the advice that you should write something you’d like to read. That way you stay true to yourself as a writer but also honor the reader’s craving to be emotionally involved in your story.

    But I really like your point, Jim, about readers wanting to get lost in a dream. I know that’s what I look for, be it from good genre fiction or literary stuff. My current read is Stephen King’s “Duma Key.” It was slow going at first and at times I got a little annoyed at King sort of showing off with this odd hyper-intimate POV for his main character. It reminds me a little of his technique in “Lisey’s Story.” But now, about 50 pages in, I am LIVING on Duma Key in my head and ache to return every time I am forced to put the book down. It was the same for me, in the end, with “Lisey’s Story.” I had to be patient for the spell to take hold. But when it did…wow. “Lisey’s Story” remains vivid in my head ten years later.

    • Interesting, Kris. I could not get into Lisey’s Story, and set it aside at around page 100.

      I think I would use it to warn writers that a dream delayed is a dream denied.

      But based on your comment I may try it again.

      • I get it, Jim…about Lisey. Man, it was hard sledding for almost too long. And lots of folks call it his worst book. But there was something compelling about the story of that marriage that made me keep going. It broke my heart at the end. And I mean that as a compliment.

        I am a big believer that some books have their “time.” You need to be in the right place in your own life for them to hit you just right. This was one of them.

  8. I don’t think of my audience when I write, I am not actually writing to anyone but rather putting the movie that is playing in my head onto paper. I think that if the movie seems real to me, then the readers may get engaged too. Making movies in your head is not easy work though.

    Do you know how hard it is to sleep when Michael Bey decides to direct in my skull…sheesh that gets loud!

  9. Hullo, this is Berthold the Leprechaun. And I have to admit that I write to a very specific audience.

    The piskies that live under the mushroom patch in Basil’s yard. Because they turn my stories into nice musicals and dance about for me when they come out at night. My favourite is “The Night of Stars And Lager”, boy they did a good’n on that. Even made real telescopes out of rolled up clover leaves. I love those little piskies.

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