138. On-The-Nose Writing

Repeat it after me: my audience is at least as intelligent as I am.

Now write it on the chalkboard 100 times, just so it sinks in.

While there are writers who write things incomprehensible to the mortal man (see Mr. Danielewski’s House of Leaves; or any of Mr. Malick’s films), and there are writers who assume that their audience are morons, most of us strive for the golden mean: that delicate balance between sophistry and clarity, between cleverness and straightforwardness. As a viewer (I say viewer instead of reader because this seems to plague movies and TV more than it does books – or maybe I’m just not exposed enough in written literature), the most annoying thing is when the writing falls just short of that golden mean.

It’s clear that there is some great material going on. There’s a nice subtlety to the story. There’s wit in the lines. But somehow, a sudden insecurity gripped either the writer or one of the key decision makers (or all of them), and they decided that the subtleties should be made less subtle, because it’s the central theme of our story! What will we do if people walk away without learning this important lesson?

So the writing stumbles on that tightrope – not falling into the “viewers are geniuses” or “viewers are morons” trap, but not quite making the trip across gracefully either. At the end of the plot, the moral is summarized and explained. The point is hammered home. You know, just in case we didn’t get it.

This is called on-the-nose writing.

Amateur writers write whatever the hell they want to write. Some of them make good living that way (see any of Mr. Tarantino’s films), getting away with it sometimes because people are interested in what they want to write, and other times because their innate grasp of storytelling mechanics saves the day, whether they realize it or not.

Good writers write with a little more purpose. There’s something that they want to say through their writing, and so most of the time, their writing comes out lean. It packs a punch. It gets to the point. There’s something to take home after the story is told.

(great writers are basically good writers with a touch of genius; but because genius is hardly accessible, we’ll leave great writing to the people upon whom this gift is bestowed)

The struggle that the good writer faces is that of ensuring the message gets across. The great writer has nothing to worry about in this aspect, and the amateur writer just doesn’t care, so this becomes a unique challenge to those stuck in the middle. Viewers come from vastly different backgrounds and with vastly different levels of intelligence. What level should we write at? How do we estimate their intelligence?

Repeat it after me: my audience is at least as intelligent as I am.

If you’re writing for children about 6 years old, write for the child that you were at 6 years old. If you’re creating a story for a teenager, create the story for the teenager that you were. If you’re telling a story for people your age, tell the story that you would want to hear. Assume that the person you’re communicating with is smarter than you, because they likely are, and they’ll thank you for that.

Even if they’re not, they’ll appreciate the respect that you have for their intelligence.

Now go write it on the chalkboard another 100 times, so that it really sinks in this time.


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