Reflection source: Readers’ Expectations (Florida Writers Association)
As the FWA article explains, we writers are often told to write the story (or stories) that lie within us. To me, the difference between being a writer – I firmly believe anyone and everyone can and should write – and being an author – your stories published and shared – is whether or not you write a story with an audience of one (you) in mind or an audience of thousands.
Have you considered what meaning or enjoyment or resonance your story will have with anyone who isn’t a carbon-copy of you?
I think the key to creating a story that has wider appeal lies in discerning the active processes within storytelling. When the ancients were seated around a fire telling the story of the hunt to the tribe… When you’re sitting over coffee with a friend and telling them about something that happened to you… How often do you find yourself explaining the context of the situation, interspersing that with the details of what happened, setting up the moment that now, in retrospect, you can laugh at yourself. Or when you want sympathy, empathy, or support or anger from your friend to manifest on your behalf?
You choose among all the details and choose those that will elicit the response you want. You order the events, including when you will add background (“and this was all because X didn’t want to acknowledge what had happened yesterday”) Oh? what was that? asks the listening friend – after all, it must be important, right?
I recently completed a story while closely envisioning telling it to (at least) my beta. It came off a group prompt, so there were a few other people, but my beta was one of them, so I focused on how would I tell this story to her. I chose details, words, included reflective phrasing referring to past events both in the story (and in the larger world as this was a sequel) so that my beta wouldn’t come back with “why’d she do this?” or “wait, I thought this had happened. you’re saying that happened instead.”
There were some scenes where the point of view was going to be unusual. But I really didn’t want to lose her there. It was important that she feel the character’s confusion and how they managed their thoughts. So I found myself carefully choosing a specific type of first person point of view technique and paragraphing between the character’s many distinct avenues of thought. I also chose specific phrases to illuminate what perspective was forefront for the character at each moment.
By imagining telling this story to my beta reader and imagining her questions, I was able to fill in the details that would answer the questions.
I did also manipulate my imagined reader’s emotions. I aimed for an emotional moment, or created a comedic moment with word choices I knew would hit that reader particularly appropriately. I also began and ended scenes where I did to heighten anxiety or leave them safe/satiated along with the characters’ own anxieties or safe feelings. I was picturing their reactions when I wrote certain things and would change them if the reaction in my head wasn’t the one I was going for.
Did I miss the mark? Occasionally. My beta reader did have some questions I hadn’t anticipated, but she also included reactions at places where I had wanted to elicit them, showing me I had gotten mostly what I wanted: a less confused and more invested reader.
So I really do think it helps to envision an “ideal reader” for your story when you’re writing the draft. And if you’re not part of a writers or readers group of your genre where you can learn what readers expect and ask about the type of story you’re writing, you need to get into one as soon as possible.
But you can even ask yourself as you read a similar book (after all, you should be a reader/fan of the genre you write): what questions do I have? Is this what I expected when I picked up this story? Is the story answering these questions? Am I feeling this story at places? What wording is doing that? Is there a trope that made me pick this up? Is it executed in both familiar and unfamiliar/interesting ways?
Beyond the draft
While I’m talking about doing this during the draft writing phase, it is also applicable to directing your marketing later. What are the details that you really wanted your reader to connect with? What tropes or genres or cross-genre elements does your story play with? What do you want readers to get out of your story in terms of themes? These are the things that you should set up your marketing to attract your ideal readers. Because they’ll be the ones who search for those elements in the stories they buy and read.