By Susanne Dunlap
Why do we write? There are so many answers to that question. But I am willing to wager that, contrary to what writers often say aloud, many of us are writing because we want our words to be read.
I’m sure we’ve all heard fellow writers say things like, “Oh, I don’t like to think about a reader when I write. I just like to let the flow happen and see where it takes me.” And there is certainly a legitimate place for this approach, especially if you’re journaling, generating or writing a discovery draft.
But if you want your book to be read—not just by family members or friends but by strangers—the honest truth is that at some point in the process, you will need to write with your ‘ideal reader’ clearly in mind. In fact, you can save yourself a lot of time and frustration in the revision stage by thinking ahead about what your reader expects/needs from your narrative.
What exactly do I mean by your ‘ideal reader?’
Oftentimes, you can strengthen both process and craft by imagining the type of person who will want to read your book. A man? A woman? A teen? An avid reader of literary fiction or mystery, or thrillers, or romance? The answer to this question is often fairly clear.
But there’s more to it than that. How can you create a full and satisfying experience for this reader? Are there genre conventions you need uphold? I guarantee that if you’re writing a romance and it doesn’t have a happily ever after, your reader will likely throw the book across the room! And then, how long should your book be? What about chapter length and tone? These are genre-specific matters as well. If you’re writing a YA love story and your chapters are 50 pages long, something probably needs to change.
Or, if you’re writing a memoir and want to strike a deep, universal chord in your reader, you will need to do more than simply relate a series of events that happened in your life.
Make sure your reader meets your protagonist on the right terms.
Perhaps most important of all to your reader is your protagonist. Are you creating the kind of character that your ideal reader will sympathize with? Are you telling her story (whether it’s fiction or memoir) in a way that draws the reader in, engages her senses and keeps her turning the pages?
It’s also vital to give that protagonist (or yourself) an arc of change that’s consistent and believable to your reader. And yes, even memoirists need to bear this in mind. Although life is never conveniently story-like, it’s your job as a memoirist to be present in your story in a way that will give your reader a satisfying experience and make a coherent point.
Once you’ve clearly understood what your reader expects from your protagonist, it’s important to make sure you’re giving her enough information, letting her see deeply enough into your protagonist’s motivations and desires, for her to forge a deep connection with the character. Because ultimately, your protagonist’s (or your) response to what happens in your story is what drives the narrative forward, not the action itself.
This is perhaps the most difficult, counter-intuitive part of being reader-focused. You know what you mean, you understand why your character did something surprising or said something startling. In memoir, you know what you were feeling when something big happened. But unless you tell your reader, make it obvious in some manner, you risk confusing your reader—or worse, losing her altogether.
In my upcoming online workshop on Saturday, July 11, Meet Your Ideal Reader, we’ll do exercises together that will help get you focused on not only identifying and understanding your who your ideal reader is, but how to captivate her with your work in progress and make her hungry for your next book!