person reading in bed

The Reader Comes First

I sat across from my client in a busy coffee shop. The table was littered with papers and notebooks, laptops and coffee cups. An ordinary meeting on an ordinary day until I decided to put my stake in the ground and my contract with my client on the line.

The reader comes first. Always.

She argued her point well, that her book was an homage to her mother, an immortalization in a small way, but I stood firm.

Story is the backbone to all writing. Through story we get an expository description of people and places and most importantly emotions, but that story is always told for the purpose of taking the reader on a journey. We read, watch, and listen to stories to see ourselves in the story, experiencing the lesson through the main character. The story is written for the reader.

Lisa Cron offers excellent advice on the neuroscience behind story in both books Wired for Story and Story Genius. Here is a quote from Story Genius:

“Scientists figured there had to be a damn good reason for it [story], or else natural selection would have weeded out those of us prone to getting lost in a story faster than you can say, ‘just one more chapter, I promise!’ There is a damn good reason. Story was the world’s first virtual reality. It allowed us to step out of the present and envision the future, so we could plan for the thing that has always scared us more than anything: the unknown, the unexpected.”

If we look at Lisa Cron’s description of the purpose of story, it is for the reader to live vicariously through the characters. As heroic as David was to slay Goliath, the story exists so that the reader can identify with David and believe that he too can outwit a giant—it was never really about David.

Who is the audience?

A few questions that all writers can benefit borrowing from the business and marketing world are: Who is the audience? Who are you wanting to inform, inspire or entertain? Who will be paying to read your book? Those people cannot be an afterthought they must be top of mind. One trick I have taught many writers I work with is to write at the opening of your manuscript “Dear [name of your ideal reader],” and write the book as a letter to them. This is the best way to keep the book written for the reader’s benefit.

Oh, and back to that coffee shop and the argument I had with my client. Fortunately, my client trusted me and my knowledge of both story structure and the industry to have conceded. I kept my contract and she is well on her way to a beautiful book.