Writing Excuses 9.50: Writing for the Enfranchised Reader
Key Points: Great writing works at multiple levels, for multiple types of readers. Be aware that books may be read by new readers, and by those who are steeped in a genre. One trick is to use a common, well-used plot as the backbone, while mixing in other plot arcs. Another way to surprise the enfranchised reader is to use tropes they are less familiar with, borrow from other genres. You can also trick or subvert a trope, with care. Don’t wait too long, and don’t slip into boring the readers because you are working up to the trick. Feedback from writing groups can help. Mix it up — multiple characters,arcs, plots, and ages.
[Brandon] This episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by David Farland’s Writing Workshops. Go to www.MyStoryDoctor.com to find out more.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 50.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Writing for the Enfranchised Reader.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] And I totally saw that coming.
[Brandon] And these are our students.
[Brandon] We are live at the Writing Excuses Retreat 2014, and writing for the enfranchised reader. I can-of-worms’ed this from the last episode. But I knew I was going to, because Mary had already pitched this episode to me.
[Brandon] And I thought this is bigger than one episode. Something I have been thinking about a lot is the idea that writing… Great writing works on multiple levels. A lot of great stories work for multiple types of readers. A great example of this for me is the Wheel of Time. Wheel of Time is one of those series that I was able to read as a young man and be really thrilled by the coming-of-age quest story of the young protagonist. As a journeyman writer in my early 20s, I was in awe of the use of viewpoint and the world building. Later in my life, I actually got to write on this series. So I have three distinct phases of my life on it, and the Wheel of Time work for me as an enfranchised reader as well as as a new reader. Some of the books I loved when I was younger did not work for me as an enfranchised reader. I knew the plot structure too well, everything went by the numbers too much for me, and I was not able to enjoy the series any longer now that I’d grown up. I want to talk about how we do that, how we write for the enfranchised reader. Both how we can give them interesting extra bits, and how we can fool them, or anything else the podcasters want to say regarding writing for people who know what… Who know their genre really well.
[Mary] Well, one thing that I want to kind of flag about Wheel of Time is… And with a lot of older texts is that sometimes it’s not necessarily that the reader has gotten older, it’s that… It’s not a difference between the age of the reader, it’s that a lot of times a text is groundbreaking when it comes out, but too many people have copied it. When you hand an older text to a reader, that it sometimes feels like it is not groundbreaking.
[Brandon] Yes. That’s a different issue entirely, but similar to this. I know the film John Carter of Mars had a huge problem with this in that it was groundbreaking as a book when it first came out a century ago, but now it’s been copied so many times that the film felt derivative.
[Dan] Well, a similar problem that exists though, that I think does have to do with enfranchisement, is kind of the gateway books. Books like Eragon that… I have read that story so many times in so many other books. For an entire generation of readers, that was the first time they’d seen it. So it was all incredibly fresh and new to them and it worked in a different way.
[Mary] This is actually one of the points that I wanted to bring up about this is that genre is a conversation with itself. So that’s one of the things that will happen when you have an older text, when you have new readers coming in… Being aware that your text is not necessarily going to be read by someone who is familiar with the genre. But it may also be read by someone who is deeply steeped in it. They will have completely different reactions, depending on where they are on that spectrum.
[Dan] I got a lot of that with the Partials series. Because it’s post-apocalyptic science fiction, and much more science fiction-y than a lot of the YA genre is right now. You read something like Cinder by Marissa Meyer, which I adore, but it is not a science fiction book. It’s an adventure book that has robots and spaceships in it, and there’s a difference in the way that it uses the tropes. So a lot of the audience, the YA audience, doesn’t know what to do with Partials. Whereas a lot of science fiction readers read it and then don’t know what to do with the YA elements.
[Mary] I get that with Shades of Milk and Honey that people come into it expecting Regency romance and then they hit this magic. I’ve seen reviews that said, “This book was fine until she introduced Glamour and I think she just made it up.”
[Mary] It’s like, “Well, you caught me.”
[Brandon] Pretty sure Glamour’s in chapter 1.
[Howard] Wow. Wow.
[Howard] One of my favorite… I watch a lot of movies. I don’t get surprised often by the form. But one of the most recent and delightful surprises for me was in the movie Meet the Croods where, right up until the point… I don’t know how many of you have seen it…
[Mary] I haven’t even heard of it.
[Howard] There’s a… It’s the caveman movie with Nicholas Cage as the voice. Anyway, the… We are following the teenage daughter who wants to get out from under her father. That is the story, and we come to the part where Dad has to throw the family across the chasm. That is his moment to save all of them. Then we follow Dad back through the wasteland instead of following them forward. I remember looking at that and thinking, “Oh, my gosh. This is a story about Dad saving his family and then going back with nothing and having to ask himself if he can change.” Completely, completely floored me. You watch it a second time and think, “Oh. Oh, they telegraphed that. Oh, they telegraphed that.” But that’s this experiential thing. Once you’ve been through it once, once the ground’s been broken, it feels obvious.
[Brandon] I would say that there are a couple of tricks you can do. That’s a great one. I actually had that same reaction to that film, where what was going on is… And I’ve done this in a number of my books, is there is a very common and well-used plot archetype to run as a through line through the book for… To kind of in some ways act as the familiar, that you can then mix other less common and more in some ways more… I don’t want to say challenging, but definitely different plot arcs through in order to give both levels. This is gonna… Not just for enfranchised versus non-enfranchised readers. For the reader themself… Any reader will look at that and be like, there’ll be this familiar through line of a plot that okay, I know basically how this one’s going to go. That’s comfortable to me. I’m loving that. Because there’s so much other bizarre stuff going on, I can latch onto that. The example I use is The Way of Kings, in which there is a s… There is an underdog sports story which is the running through line theme of this, and it hits all of the major points of the underdog sports story and works very well as a cohesion for this, while I’m doing very bizarre things with some of the other plot through lines. In a very big book like that, it’s given a lot of different people different things to latch onto. It’s worked beautifully for making the book stand for different people at the same time.
[Dan] Now… Go ahead, please.
[Mary] One of the other things about that is you are bring… The underdog sports is a trope that is from outside science fiction and fantasy. I think that one of the things that you can do to help surprise an enfranchised reader is to use tropes that they are less familiar with.
[Brandon] Right. Or that they’re familiar with, but they don’t expect to find in their fantasy book. They don’t expect to get that. Ender’s Game is an underdog sports story. You don’t expect to get underdog sports story in a war book about alien invasion. When you do, you… A piece of you know is how that story is going to go, so you can anticipate the beats and love them as they come, but it’s happening in such a fresh way that you’re also engaged by the wonder of it.
[Dan] Yeah. I wanted to point out that sometimes you can use a reader’s enfranchisement against them. Which is great. My favorite example of this is the movie Scream, which sets up its first series, and really what they’re doing is presenting a character as the main character. Drew Barrymore was the most famous person in that movie at the time it was made. She was the biggest face on the poster. The plot trope presents her as this is the first step of a long arc that she’s going to have to overcome. Five minutes later she’s dead. That, in a horror movie, is a really effective way of saying all bets are off, I just tricked you. It works well. You have to be careful though, if you’re using a trope specifically to subvert it, because if you do it wrong, all it will do is make people mad.
[Brandon] Right. The reason it works in Scream so well is they’re going to a movie wanting to be tricked. That’s the type of movie… They want to have the twist ending, they want to have slasher film, they want to see people dying in unusual and surprising ways. So when… It’s almost less subverting the trope and one upping the trope. Saying we’re going to go…
[Brandon] Even a step further than what you wanted. So people go into that movie and love how it happens. Now, you can’t do that anymore because now it’s…
[Dan] Because it’s been done.
[Brandon] Well, and everyone knows now. But when it came out, like you thought she was the hero of the film. It was on all the publicity promotion materials. It was really shocking.
[Dan] Well, so the Takeaway for that then is you can go and find those kind of tropes and use those kind of things to trick your own enfranchised readers in some other way.
[Brandon] We’ll get back to this in just a minute because I think this is a very important one. But let’s go ahead and stop and talk about David Farland’s Writing Workshops. Dave is the person that Dan and I took a class from that really kind of jumpstarted our writing careers. Wouldn’t you say, Dan?
[Dan] Absolutely. He was… He was the one who… Both Brandon and I grew up wanting to be writers, but not really taking it seriously. Dave was the one that convinced us we could do it for a living and make it work, and taught us how.
[Brandon] We both took one of his classes. It was offered at the university at the time. It was the single most useful class I took in my university career. Counting grad school and undergrad, hands-down. The writing advice he gave, I still use as writing advice and I still use when I teach my class. I think it is excellent writing advice. His career advice was also really good. So when he came to us and asked if he could sponsor a podcast, we gave an enthusiastic yes, because this is something we can endorse. He does a lot of writing workshops now. You go fly to his home and you stay with him and you work on your writing with him. There’s more information at MyStoryDoctor.com.
[Mary] I want to sign up for this.
[Brandon] Dave’s blurb says that each class provides instructional videos, followed by writing assignments where Dave gives you his personal feedback. So it looks like he’s doing some online courses as well. In addition, you’ll take part in an online meeting so that you can ask Dave any questions you want. Okay. So this is for an online one. But he also has ones you can fly to his house and do. I know he’s doing those as well. So all across the board, Dave’s advice is fantastic. I would go to do MyStoryDoctor.com if I were you, and look into this. He offers a free book on writing if you go to the website.
[Brandon] So, I wanted to get back to this idea of subverting a trope, because there’s also a big danger here which I have raised before, but I want to raise again. In that if you wait too long to subvert the trope, you have the danger of being bland at the beginning, and losing the very readers you’re trying to get or alienating the readers who like… Who are the new readers. It’s not that it’s bland, it’s just that it’s not fresh for the enfranchised reader. This is the danger you have here, is that you want your book to work for multiple audiences. You don’t want the person who’s never read a fantasy book to pick it up and be completely lost most of the time. If you’re Steven Erikson, then you probably do and it’s okay.
[Brandon] But most of… For most books, you want them to pick it up and find something to really latch onto, and you also want the enfranchised reader to pick it up and very early on say, “Oh, wow. This trope is really getting subverted in an interesting way. I feel like this entire book is going to be fresh to me, because of that promise, and I can enjoy it.”
[Mary] Yeah, you don’t want them to be feeling like they are waiting for the trick.
[Mary] Sometimes I see… I mean, sometimes I feel myself fighting that in an outline. But I’ll see that in submissions where it’s clear that the author has had this geewhiz idea and they’re like I need to put in my time before I can pull the really cool thing. So the characters are all just kind of going through their paces, and there’s no conflict, there’s nothing at stake really, it’s just… It’s a waiting game until they get to the really cool trick. That’s when things start taking off.
[Brandon] The instinct to delay the trick is not necessarily a bad idea. It could be. But what they need to do is be making that first part as interesting as the trick.
[Dan] Yeah. The horrible recent example of that was the TV show Agents of Shield which was dreadfully, criminally boring for about 22 episodes and then they finally played their hand, and it was riveting for like three. That’s not because the show required that trick in order to be good. It’s because they didn’t allow the characters to really do anything interesting until that point.
[Mary] I would be… And this is going to include spoilers for Agents of Shield, but I would be really interested to know if they told the actor who was playing Ward that he was a double agent, because he is so bland all the way up until that moment and then once that happened…
[Dan] At which point he’s an absolutely magnetic character, once he turns.
[Mary] Clearly a really good actor. So I think that he must’ve known and was playing it.
[Dan] I think you’re right. And I think that that is an empirically terrible decision on the part of whoever did it, because it made the first part of the show so boring.
[Brandon] So. Other tips on doing this. I’m going to throw out one… Oh, go ahead.
[Howard] I use my writing group a lot. I ask them when I’m a third of the way through the current Schlock Mercenary… Two thirds of the way through the current Schlock Mercenary book, we have a writing session, or a critique session, in which I ask them, “Okay, up to this point, what are the promises you felt like I’ve made, and what are the ways in which you personally would resolve those?” Sometimes what I’m asking for is please help me find an ending. Sometimes what I’m asking for is please tell me what not to do because it’s obvious.
[Mary] [inaudible – I do that too.?]
[Howard] The information I get from Sandra and from Bob and Dan and my brother Randy is absolutely invaluable. I come home with two pages of notes that totally inform Act III.
[Mary] I did that in Valor and Vanity, I had… Tell me what you think is going to happen next? Someone said, “Well, so-and-so is clearly totally going to walk into the next scene.” I was just like, “Actually, so-and-so really was clearly going to walk into the next scene. But not anymore!”
[Brandon] I would say another quick tip is diversify your portfolio. Meaning that this… You don’t have to do it with every book. Putting all your eggs in one basket can be very effective. But what I mean by this is multiple characters with multiple arcs, multiple plots and multiple ages. One of the reasons the Wheel of Time, bringing it back to that, worked so well for me is that as I aged, I began identifying with different characters at different stages in their lives who had different plots from what was going on with the other characters. As I had read the books the first time, I focused on one thing. As I read the books as an enfranchised reader, I had a completely different set of characters to latch onto. Now, the danger of this is that you may have readers dislike one group of characters and like another. That’s kind of the whole diversifying, that’s what happens in economics too. You may have one go poorly and the other one go well for a while. It overall makes the story stronger. But there are books where you just focus really, YA does this a lot, on one character with one plot very dynamically. If that doesn’t click with the reader, well, that’s not going to be a book for them. That’s okay.
[Mary] You can actually do that even with a single POV character.
[Brandon] Yeah, you can.
[Mary] So I don’t think that you suddenly have to have a cast of… A POV cast of thousands.
[Brandon] But you could also, I mean, done very commonly… This is why the love triangle… It’s become a cliché, but why it’s good is that having two separate romances going on at once allows you to do two different styles of romantic storytelling to grab two different types of audiences and have two different plot arcs going on at once.
[Mary] I actually…
[Dan] And get one of those audiences mad at you.
[Brandon] Yes. You’re going to have one of those audiences mad.
[Mary] I actually think that one of the reasons that the love triangle came up was to get around the problem of… If there’s only two people, of course they’re going to wind up together at the end. So I think that that was probably something where someone was attempting to subvert by having to love interests, and then it became a common trope.
[Brandon] All right. We’re out of excuse… Out of excuses? We’re out of time, [and excuses].
[Howard] We still have plenty of excuses.
[Brandon] Well… We do.
[Howard] We have all the excuses.
[Brandon] Howard, you’ve got our writing prompt.
[Howard] I do. Take a mentor character and find a way… Just in outline form, give yourself a 100 word outline. Find a way to take the mentor character and not kill them off so that they don’t save the day. Do something different with the mentor character. I don’t know what it is, because you’re going to do it and it’s going to be different.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.