If you’re one of my Goodreads friends, you’ll know that I’m currently reading SCENE & STRUCTURE by Jack M. Bickham. In this book, author Bickham breaks down story structure and explains about scenes and sequels, and gives tips on how to write scenes, pacing, interruptions, etc. His presentation is interesting and he makes some points about rules and when to break them that I’ll probably talk about another time. There was something he said early on, however, that challenged me:
There was a wonderful time, not so long ago, when a writer planning to produce a novel could start virtually with her main character’s birth, or at least as early as his early childhood, and simply tell almost the entire story of a person’s life. But readers today are more hurried and impatient–and jaded by swiftly paced television drama; they want condensation, speed and punch. [p.6]
Later, discussing pace and how to control it, he continues this thought:
Even a decade or so ago it was possible to write longer and more minutely detailed scenes than readers will accept today. Compare, for example, a classic best-seller of yesteryear such as HOTEL, by Arthur Hailey, with any of today’s novels by someone like Sidney Sheldon.
Hailey’s biggest books were long, fat, multiple-viewpoint novels with fully developed scenes, some of which ran eight or ten pages of book print or even longer. Because he wrote about several viewpoint characters, and developed his scenes to such length, the time span of most of his books was very short, sometimes only a few days, in AIRPORT only hours…
Sheldon on the other hand, does not write such fully developed scenes today. He condenses scenes to the minimum, skips sequels, starts scenes in the middle, and performs all sorts of other tricks to make the pace incredibly swift. He has as many or more viewpoints as Hailey ever did, but because he writes so tightly, the time span of some of his books is multigenerational…
Shedon’s structure is more in tune with today’s impatient readers. Most of us are struggling to learn ways to speed things up in our books, not slow them down. [p. 71]
I don’t disagree at all with what Bickham says here. Today’s readers are impatient, and while we enjoy reading classic novels, there is no way we could get away with writing like that in the 21st century. But this challenged me on an artistic level: is this right? If we’re having to tighten our prose and craft our scenes to appeal to the modern reader, aren’t we sacrificing our craft for the sake of being read? Isn’t this pandering to minds molded by Hollywood, writing “down” to our audience instead of trying to lift them “up” to higher forms of prose?
Then I slapped myself. Okay, not really, but mentally. Call it a psychological slap. A pslap! I have maintained on this blog (and probably on comments in other people’s blogs, where I also tend to get on soapboxes and ramble–sorry!), that the vast majority of writers write to be read. Yes, we feel compelled to write, it’s cathartic, etc. But ultimately, we want our stories to touch people, make them laugh, make them think, perhaps get angry, but hopefully mostly make them smile, or cry (in a good way), and even be changed by our words. This means we have to be able to communicate with our audience. Which, in turn, means tuning ourselves in to the reading habits of our culture. In short, if you want people–especially young people–to read the stuff you write, you have to present it to them in a way they’ll want to read. If people want the Sheldon-style novel, you can’t give them Hailey and expect them to want to read it.
Does this compromise our craft? I don’t think so. For a start, our stories, our characters, the situations we devise, the plots we form, and the worlds we build are unchanging. They reside in our imaginations and they transcend literary form. The only thing our culture asks us to reconsider is the way we tell our stories. And this doesn’t undermine our creativity, rather it challenges our creativity. We can’t sit back and rest on the way we might like to write. We have to think of ways to present our stories, characters, worlds, etc. that will grab our readers and keep them turning pages. We have to find ways of expression that might be new to us. But that should be okay.
It’s not a sacrifice of our art to write in a way that appeals to the 21st century reader. Indeed, to think in terms of writing “down” to our audience is completely wrong-headed. We are always writing to our audience. Quality is not a matter of vocabulary, or grammar, or syntax. Quality shines when words are expressed in such a way the reader is touched.
Okay, I’ve waffled enough. What do you think? Writers: do you find yourself editing your work to be more in tune with the way modern readers read? Do you think it compromises your craft to write to an audience in this way? Please comment!