The Audience is Watching

When people talk about elements of a story, it’s common to talk about plot, pacing, character arcs, adverbs and adjectives, conflict, characterization, and so on and so on. And all those things are important to a story, but one element that isn’t talked about often is Audience. Because every story has an Audience.

To clarify, I’m not talking about who a story is intended for. That is one definition of audience, and it isn’t irrelevant. Most stories have an audience in mind, even if that audience is only the person who is writing the story. And most commercial art has an audience it is aiming for. Whether it succeeds with that audience or not is often a measure of how successful it is. Generally speaking.

But I’m not writing about that when I refer to Audience as an element. I’m referring instead to the person outside the story that is engaging with the story. They don’t usually affect the story. Even something like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Story, while offering choices, is still limited by what the story will allow the Audience to accomplish. Yet the Audience can’t be ignored, and their experience is just as vital as anything about characterization or plotting.

I’ll use a clumsy example: It’s not uncommon in early Scooby-Doo episodes for the gang to be driving their way to some spooky location. A bit of set up is done for the plot of the episode, usually even a bit of characterization in case someone has never seen a Scooby-Doo episode before. (Hey, every episode is somebody’s first episode.) Then we cut away from the van, and with a flash of lightning, we see a monster lurking in the darkness. The scene ends.

The point of an opening like this is entirely for the benefit of the Audience. We’re introduced to the characters, the basic plot, the mood, and the conflict. It gets a lot done in a short time, but none of it is necessary for the characters or the story. Especially if we’re familiar at all with the premise of Scooby-Doo and his world.

Even weirder, if you ponder the nature of the show, it is absurd that a person in a monster costume is just lurking in the dark, staying in character, for no one to see. Except someone can see, and that someone is the Audience.

Yes, this is a silly example because Scooby-Doo is not the height of writing sophistication. But it does know what it’s trying to do, and it does know that the Audience is there and needs to be considered.

This sort of scene happens more often in fiction than you realize though. It’s a staple of many monster movies, for example, to the point of cliche. Several characters that are unimportant to the plot are introduced, have a minute or two of characterization, and then get killed by a monster. Then the title drops or the next chapter introduces the characters that will matter. The scene could usually be removed entirely without consequence to the plot of the story. But it’s not there for the story. It’s for the Audience.

This is why a lot of classic James Bond films open with that pre-credits action scene. Rarely does the scene have any relation to the plot in the rest of the film, but it’s a fun moment for the Audience, and it helps prime the Audience for what to expect. Later films, starting with Goldeneye, actually made effort to connect the opening to the larger plot. It didn’t hurt the films, but it wasn’t strictly necessary.

When writing a story, it’s not bad to think about the Audience. I’d argue that it is vital to think about because if a scene in a story doesn’t consider what the Audience gets out of it, then it will probably be a bad scene.

All those other elements whispered among writers, they’re all just versions of talking to the Audience. A chapter about characterization is really about enhancing the Audience’s understanding of the character. A scene about advancing the plot is all about keeping the Audience engaged with the plot. A satisfying ending to a story isn’t about a happy ending or a sad ending. It’s about finding an ending that will satisfy the Audience.

Writing about it like this, it might come across as cynical or commercial. But I want to sell books. Most writers do. And being commercially successful isn’t the same as creating uninteresting or shallow stories.

In even simpler terms, a scene that fails to connect with the Audience is a failure. Or at least needs a rework.

This connection doesn’t mean one thing however. It varies from story to story. Some stories are somber and depressing, meant to leave the Audience in an unpleasant place. Some are fun and frothy, meant to leave the Audience smiling. And there is every variation on that spectrum. Pleasing an Audience is more complicated than simply giving them what they want all the time, too.

But a great writing tip I’d like to offer is that when writing anything ask yourself what do I want the Audience to get out of it. It doesn’t have to be anything profound. It can be something as simple as helping them to like your protagonist more or hate your antagonist or to understand the plot or themes better. It’s good, even necessary, to see your story beyond characters and plotting and pacing. Because someone out there is watching, and it’s your job to engage with them.




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