Your Audience is Smarter than it Looks

Posted: June 15, 2012 in Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

I decided to go with my original plan and finish out this two part post I have going on. Details of my road trip to Maryland will be up next week! (And because I’m long winded, a huge fan girl, and have tons of pictures, it’ll probably also be a two-parter.)

So, last week I talked about how you shouldn’t alienate your audience by talking down to them. I called out sci-fi writers for doing this especially, but I think there are these types of writers in any genre. Art snobs, theatre snobs, writer snobs – they all exist. And hey, that’s okay. Sometimes you know what you’re talking about and you deserve to let people know that. But there’s a time and a place. Just make sure it’s not hurting you in the long run.

But what about the flip side of that? Some people dumb down their work so much that it’s almost painful to read. A lot of writers are worried their audience won’t “get” what they’re trying to say. Actually, a fellow blogger wrote about this last week and pointed out some ways to avoid stating the obvious. It’s a lesson I’m still learning.

But there’s something else here. Something bigger than that. Something that a lot of people in the generation that came before mine just don’t get: young adults are smart. Like, really smart.

We might not look like it. Yes, we’re addicted to our phones. Yes, we play things like Mario Bros. that teach us absolutely no real world skills, except maybe that mushrooms can do some pretty trippy things to you. And yes, we often forget about the important things in life and worry about what kind of shoes make us look cool.

But you know what? There’s a lot more to us than that. And Steven Moffat, who is the current writer of both hugely successful shows Doctor Who and Sherlock, hit this very thing right on the head. The whole interview is right here, but this is the part that really stuck out to me:

Richard Bacon [reading a text from a fan]: ‘Please tell him not to give into pressure and dumb down Doctor Who.’ Are you under pressure to do that?
Steven Moffat: No, not really. No, I mean the show’s…I mean, I think that comes from the fact that some people are complaining that it was getting very hard to follow and they had to ask their children what was going on. But, you know, I think television should complicated. I think it should be demanding and the evidence would suggest that in the case of both Doctor Who and Sherlock that the audience flocks towards complexity. I think, you know, the audience is smart. The audience will always think faster than the writer, that’s the truth. I’m running to keep up with twelve year olds and failing all the time.
RB: I wonder if in a funny sort of way the kids embrace complexity more willingly than adults sometimes.
SM: I think that is absolutely true, because they will sit and watch Doctor Who while playing Angry Birds and tweeting about both of them and following them all perfectly while explaining to someone else and having a conversation. And my brain just doesn’t work that fast. And that’s the audience. That’s the next generation on the way. That’s what we have to keep up with. That’s who we have to entertain and engage, and the idea that we should dumb down is ridiculous. Don’t dumb down, just keep up.

This is a perfect lesson that I think all of us need to learn. And I know what you’re thinking: Um, didn’t you just tell us not to sound too smart, then go ahead and tell us not to dumb our writing down too much?

Yes. Yes, I did.

But, as with anything, there needs to be balance. You don’t want to write a textbook and you don’t want to write a children’s book (unless, of course, that’s exactly what you’re trying to write). Just go with your gut, and get lots of feedback. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that writing is a process. A really long one. And it’s not something you can do alone. And you know what? It’s not something you SHOULD do alone.

I know I tend to lean toward the complex – I usually read thick novels and I definitely prefer series over stand-alone books. Since I found Doctor Who I’ve come to the realization that it is one of my all-time favorite shows because it’s so complicated, intricate, and well written. But what do you think? Do you like short and easy reads, or the dense ones? Which ones do you usually write? Do you have trouble making your books smarter or do you struggle with making your stories understandable to the audience at large?

  1. LOL, I read it all. Sometimes short and easy is just the ticket. Sometimes I need the meat of a large novel or series. I am to write the story I want to read…which is probably why I’m having such a hard time nailing down exactly WHAT I write beyond the romance element.

    Interesting post Karen!! I’m with you on Doctor Who being one of my all time favorite shows…there’s a little bit of everything in it.

    • That should have been…I AIM to write the story I want to read…

      Where’s my coffee? LOL

    • Karen Rought says:

      I agree – I’m starting to read and write more short stories and novellas too. I think the most important thing is to just make sure that the style and length fits the story more than anything else. That’s why I don’t understand when people say, “This story is going to be around 60,000 words.” How do you know? What if the story needs more room than that? I just write until it takes its own shape. I’ve realized that my subconscious is oftentimes a better writer than I am. 🙂

  2. Julie Glover says:

    Give me layers or give me death! Not really, but pretty close to that. I dislike one-dimensional characters and plots that are too easy to predict. I don’t want a story to be disjointed, but some complexity is wonderful. (We are Sherlock fans in my house, by the way.)

    • Karen Rought says:

      I totally agree! Sherlock’s first episode was incredible, but I felt a little underwhelmed by the second and third. I haven’t made it to series 2 yet though, so hopefully it gets better!

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