The Bag Means Your Mind

A delightful mix of insightful comments and ignorant assumptions about screenwriting... and such.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

1. Know Your Audience

I've been away a long time. Too long. In my attempt to come back and do some regular posting I thought I'd just jump right into the heavy stuff and start writing about my grand theories of screenwriting and storytelling. Every writer has their own (I hope) and these are mine. These posts are more for my personal posterity than to zealously scream my thoughts as the truth and the way. Since the line that divides my private/public life has all but worn away I figured I'd share and maybe drum up some discussion in the mean time.

1. Know your audience

I've struggled with whether to put this one first, but in the end I think it belongs here. More than just about any other medium, the audience is why we write. Screenplays are written to be produced. Movies get produced with money as an investment and a gamble that the investment will be recouped with ample dividends. It's the stark reality of the situation. We write so that others can see and enjoy our work. For my taste, the more the better.

And size is where we start because need to know the size of your audience. You shouldn't write a 300 million dollar fantasy film that appeals only the the art house crowd. This seems fairly obvious, so I won't waste any more space on the matter.

Moving on. The audience makes all the rules. Those rules spouted by charlatans like McKee and more honorable people like Aristotle are observations about what audiences find pleasing. We are playing their game and if they don't like what we are doing, they will take their ball and go home. What are the rules? That's another post, but I will say that there are a sparce few that feel concrete, the rest are up to a fickle audience who are free to change them without filing an amendment with The Guild.

Now you must write to your audience. What does the audience want? They want it the same, but different. This is a round about way of saying, know your genre and its conventions and create something fresh. Why didn't I just say that? Because I think it's important to acknowledge the base from which everything springs. And in the end they are the final arbiter. You write to please the audience. End of story.

DO NOT PANDER TO THE AUDIENCE! But Tom, that's exactly what you've been advocating. No it isn't. It really isn't. Just like in interpersonal relationships, the audience can tell when they are being sucked-up to, coddled, or patronized. It's kinda like. No, it's exactly like talking to the most beautiful woman in the room. You've got to be confident that what you have she wants and you have to show her that you're different than the gaggle of other guys vying for her attention. Do that and you might have a chance to get divorced somewhere down the road. But I digress.

I know some of you (maybe all of you) are saying that you have to write for yourself, that you can't write to the audience, that you shouldn't write to the market. And believe it or not I agree. First off you can't write to the market, because the market is today and not tomorrow. You've got to write what you feel is interesting and relevant to your audience.

So how can you write for yourself and the audience at the same time? That's the key isn't it. I think that if you are a writer and storyteller (two distinctly different things) then your ego says that you know what the audience wants because YOU are the audience and what you like many others will also like. That's not a license to write anything you want. Well, depending on the size of your ego, perhaps it is. I'd like to think that the good screenwriters understand where the lines are drawn and use their knowledge of themselves and the audience to weave a story the thoroughly satisfies both. I write stories that I want to see and specifically stories that I feel haven't been expressed properly on the big screen to date (as remembered by the collective conscience). Am I a good screenwriter? Ask me in twenty years.

Now all of this isn't really something you think about consciously. It's something you acknowledge and move on. I think it comes into focus more during the editing phase, when you are trying to make a sequence work or taking a calculated risk when straying from the path.

At any rate just respect the audience. It keeps you grounded and honest. Think about pro sports. The athletes that get it have a slight humility about them and know that without an audience they cannot play a game for a living and be paid handsomely at the same time.

The ones who don't are arrogant jerks.

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