So every author needs to pay attention to their audience. What comes after that?
Well, for the fiction author, it’s the story. Most fiction authors start writing so they can share stories with their friends, or because they have a story they love so much they just have to tell it, or perhaps even just because they love stories so much they want to be part of making them. So with all this love and dedication to stories flying around, it might be useful to pause and say exactly what a story is. After all, if people start writing them for different reasons, they probably have different ideas of what the end product will look like.
According to Merriam-Webster’s, a story is an account of incidents or events, a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question or an anecdote, especially an amusing one. When talking about writing his famous poem “The Raven”, Edgar Allen Poe adds that it’s wise to consider what kind of emotional impact you want your readers to walk away with, as well. Many other authors have also said that they try to consider the ending of their stories before they begin. So, let’s say for the moment that a story is an account of a series of events intended to leave a specific impression on the reader when he is finished.
Now, you may quibble with that. There is lots of talk in writing circles about plot driven narratives versus character driven narratives. Maybe you think to yourself, “But I just want to have a good time and share it with others.” However, even in character driven stories things still need to happen in a certain order for your characters to make sense. Having fun is still an emotional response, even if “fun” isn’t something we normally consider an emotion.
So, what exactly is it that we owe to the story? What do we need to keep in mind as we write?
First, all stories have a natural arc to them. Beginning, middle, end. Whether you’re looking at the life of a single character or the events of a single day, all stories follow this basic pattern. There’s a lot of good stuff out there written on this topic, and I’m not going to rehash it all here. Suffice it to say, if your narrative doesn’t have a specific plot point where things start and another where they end, you’re probably in trouble.
Stories also want to be unique. They cannot have too much in common with other stories. Try not to be obviously recycling plot elements from other stories you have written, or successful stories written by other authors in the same genre. Also, and this is a much more common mistake, try to avoid using the same character over and over. Audiences (and publishers!) love continuity and returning faces. It gives them a sense of familiarity and stability as they wade into a new, unknown story. But, as the Wolverine Publicity phenomenon suggests, using a character too much can result in burnout or cynicism. Some of the best uses of recurring characters that I’ve seen come from the Kingdom of Jackels novels of Stephen Hunt and the Clockwork Century novels of Cherie Priest. In these series, the setting carries most of the work of continuity, while the characters show up to remind us that yes, they’re still alive and still being awesome.
Finally, it’s important to make sure that your story’s length and pay off are balanced. No one wants to read a seven hundred page book to find that the entire story built up to a single one line gag, but an hour long TV show can handle that kind of thing occasionally. (See, “The Trouble With Tribbles“.) Another example is Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. While well written and fast moving, and featuring believable, almost-lovable characters, after over fifteen hundred pages the trilogy ends with many of the major plot points unresolved and the fates of several characters left to the reader’s imaginations. Not exactly a satisfying end to a story. While life isn’t always satisfying, part of the point of fiction is to get around that. Since Abercrombie has written other books set in the same world, it’s possible that we’ll see some of these characters again. But I’m not sure he needed three books just to introduce us to his setting.
In the end, your obligation to the story is more about not getting caught up in your pet characters, scenarios or causes and making sure that the story speaks to the audience as clearly and effectively as possible. If you’re not doing that first, then you’re failing your story and your audience and you need to take a hard look at what you’re writing.