Reaching a Non-Reader Audience
A Simple Question
When it comes to any art-form, it's never about finding the right answer, but always about asking the right question. This very methodology is what fuels scientists to constantly make new discoveries, and writers should be no exception to this curse.
So what is the philosophically complex question that will agitate our thoughts for the duration of this article?
Where the hell are all the readers?
Well to start, we're going to have to step away from the romantic appeal of novels, and observe it more with practical critique. So as great as novels might be to us, there's no question that the average reader population has been cut short in the recent decades.
Rather than simply blaming other elements for lack of novel appeal (e.g. social media, cultural degeneration, etc.), let's ask if the problem itself is within the current form of writing.
It's All About Evolution
Since the dawn of film, when the motion-picture was a series of strung images without color or sound, its industry has undeniably made progress (at least through a technological stand-point).
But can the same be said for novel writing?
Whether it was back when the printing press revolutionized the way we market novels, to now when aspiring and professional writers struggle on their Macbooks, the art of writing has remained relatively the same.
You start with an edgy title, pour your heart into words, structure them to make any kind of sense of it, and pray it becomes a best-seller. The art-form of novel writing is exactly how it was over centuries ago. Are we seeing the problem here?
Stepping away from the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' outlook, ask yourself: if films can evolve, why can't writing do the same?
How Can Novel-Writing Evolve?
Well, for one, I'm not talking about the audio book kind of evolution. What I'm talking about is strictly style and technique. So how can something as simple yet complex as writing become something more? Here are a few of my thoughts:
Don't try to compete with films by making your novel like one. Writers are often drawn to delivering over-the-top details to each and every environment, often distracting the reader from continuing further. Although there are plenty of people out there who adore these very details, remember that we're trying to reach for non-reader audiences here.
What does that mean? It means we're dealing with people with the attention span of a four year old at Disneyland. This, by itself, is not a bad thing; it just means you have your work cut-out for you. With the development of vines and memes throughout the decade, people are looking for the most amount of information, in the most condensed way possible.
Realize that you're not dealing with patient people. The virtue of patience has shrunk over the course of time. People want to see something and move onto something else—fast! So, spending a good page and a half writing the details to a landscape isn't exactly all too appealing.
If good attention to detail was enough to the average audience, everyone would be reading Hemingway. Instead, they prefer Michael Bay's explosions (and usually sleep through lit' class).
Focus on what your novel can offer that a film can't. I've always been a strong advocate of first-person, present-tense writing. Why? Because we already have a much more advanced form of third-person storytelling: film and television.
The good news? Even the best of films cannot compete with well written, internal struggle.
Consider the following sentences:
- Third Person, Past-Tense: "Her heart raced with every breath, wondering if the man ahead of her meant his own words. She remembered the father she never met—the one her mother would often describe. The only question in the depths of her mind was why this man made her yearn for someone she's never met."
- First Person, Present-Tense: "Does he actually mean that? Why am I—why am I thinking of him now? Mom always talked about him...about dad. She talked about he'd have this...presence...or something about him. Even now—God I feel like my lungs are giving out—why is it now I'm actually missing someone I never even met?"
Conclusion? Less description, more sensation. Focus not on environmental detail (what's she's doing, not doing), and more about emotional response. Every detail needs to be raw, active and to the point: exactly what the modern day audience craves.
Remember, characters in film and television are limited to an outside perspective. The universal motto for screenwriters has always been the same: show, don't tell. Unless you're watching an anime, films rarely pull off internal thoughts without feeling overwhelming cheesy.
That is film's weakness: it's inability to actively engage us within the recesses of a character's mind. Often, it's left to the actor to externalize internal emotion. What this means is that a character's emotion in film is limited to the performance of the actor. This is the key difference writers must capitalize on.
Of course we're all thinking to ourselves: what about Harry Potter and a Song of Fire and Ice (Game of Thrones)? Weren't those third person and became international successes? There are always exceptions to every rule. In fact, the key to becoming a successful writer is to know the rules well enough to break them.
The fact is that those two series both have incredible depth and rich story. When you have those two elements in any form of art, the last thing you'll need to worry about is another person's opinion. Either way, there's no harm in trying something different.
To understand is to become. Step away from being the all-seeing, all-knowing overlord of your stories, and try to be your character. Just remember, limitations are what fuel creativity. Happy writing.
“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
― Anaïs Nin
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