by Hank Isaac
When our daughter was eight, she read Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. Yes, I said, “Read.” The film had not yet been made. Was this book aimed at an elementary school readership? I doubt it. Did she enjoy it? Yes, quite a bit.
My point is this: Writing to a specific demographic is stifling. Presuming a story must have certain elements and not have certain elements for a children’s audience, a teen audience, a male audience, a female audience… well, you get the idea… is foolish. There is no way of knowing for certain what it is about a character or story that will touch an audience. Filmed stories so often underestimate their audience that one begins to wonder if they’re written by accountants who’ve been stranded on a remote island most of their lives.
What’s important to me is to create the characters I want to create and then write their story. If I start worrying about whether I’m going to offend someone or scare someone, both my characters and their story risk being severely hobbled.
Is it me, or have audiences become so nervous about being out of the loop that they now demand to know everything as soon as possible? One of my favorite series was Lost. Now hear me out before you come down on me, because I’m going to tell you why I liked it so much.
But first, a little analysis. When the series first aired, I found a website where viewers could post reviews and rank the series on a one-to-ten scale. As a TV series writer I wanted to “get a feel” for audiences. Admittedly, a study like this is flawed – ratings come only from people confident enough to post their opinions, and therefore don’t really represent the larger public. Nevertheless, I paid particular attention to scores that were “5” and below.
As I read through over five hundred entries with those scores, a common theme began to appear. The common theme was: It’s confusing – I don’t know what’s going on.
It took a couple of seasons before the causes or sources of some things were revealed. And I have to tell you that when they were, I was disappointed. Not disappointed so much by what they were, but more by the revelation itself. Why? It was more fun not knowing. I stayed awake during each episode because my mind was always speculating (I almost always fall asleep during long repetitive action scenes.).
There was speculation – often humorous – that the series creators had no idea where the story was going. To that I say: What’s wrong with that? Stories are cause and effect. And as a member of the audience, I wanted the mystery to keep going as long as possible. I didn’t need to get a sense of what was happening or where things were headed. I was along for the ride.
The “need to know,” enhanced by endless behind-the-scenes footage and cast & crew interviews, the breaking of the “fourth wall,” the “lifting of the veil,” all to make sure the audience “gets it,” are to me the great destroyers of the mystery that used to make all of this so enchanting.
So the bottom line is: Will you write to please an imaginary audience or will you write to please yourself?
Next time: Is it even worth it?