Storytelling Is Conflict Between Authors and Consumers
The one principle behind every story you’ve ever fallen in love with.
Recently, I read a quote somewhere here on Medium that went a little something like this:
The real power in writing is that anyone can live anyone else’s experience, real or fictional, if only for a moment, in their own voice.
The purpose inherent in story is transmission, the movement of an experience from writer to reader. Recognizing this truth unlocks an array of avenues for improving your writing, or, at the very least, appreciating when a story speaks to you.
In this transmission, inevitable conflicts between the sender and the receiver arise, as the two parties have interests that are diametrically opposed.
What is an Author? What is a Consumer?
In any given medium, an Author is whatever person, group, or entity is responsible for crafting the voice that tells the story. In the examples of books, this is straightforward: the author is the Author. In something more complicated, like a film, anyone who helps tell the story counts as a part of what makes the author. So not only is the screenwriter part of the Author, but the music team, and the actors, and the director, and the cinematographer, and the digital effects team, and so many more.
By contrast, a Consumer is any single person that consumes (watches, reads, skims, binges) media. Consumers consume media for an infinite number of reasons. Much of the time, it’s because something about the media, or its reputation, piqued their interest. But Consumers also exist because they’re paid to do so, or because they want to be a part of so-called “cultural landmarks”, or even because they’re looking for something to dislike. That last one is a special case, so you’ll forgive me for ignoring it in this piece.
Full disclosure, I’m borrowing ideas I develop more fully in one of my earlier works. I like words like these over, say, “writer” and “reader” because the latter give off the incorrect impression that writing is something that only matters when producing something with pages, like a book or a script. In truth, the great thing about storytelling is that it’s the same everywhere. Someone that understands storytelling could write an amazing book or tell a mean bedtime story to their kid all the same.
Authors must earn Consumers’ trust.
No matter how enjoyable a story is, consuming media is fundamentally an inconvenience to any Consumer. People have busy lives: work, school, relationships, and so much more. On top of that, media has never been more easily available in human history. Raise your hand if you have a backlog of books, movies, comic books, TV shows, and/or anime you haven’t had the time to finish or even start. I’d raise your hand along with you.
The fact is, Consumers have a limited amount of time and energy; they want media to make them feel a certain way in as little time as possible. A feel-good romance novel that delivers intense happiness in 100 pages will always be preferred to a feel-good romance novel that gets to that same level of happiness in 600 pages.
Authors, by contrast, want their story to hold the Consumer’s attention for as long as possible. Sometimes it’s just to get them to finish the book, but with the rise of ad-based revenue online, the stakes for retaining engagement are even higher. If nothing else, it’s a matter of pride. It feels good to work for months on a project and have an audience follow every last word with baited breath.
Thus lies the first key conflict between Authors and Consumers. Authors need Consumers to slow down and savor their work, while Consumers want to be in and out of a story at their earliest convenience. The key to stories that work is somehow balancing the two.
Trust is therefore a contract between the two parties — the Consumer sacrificing their time and attention to the Author with the expectation that the experience will be worthwhile — vital if an Author wants any Consumer to pay attention to the story they’re attempting to transmit at all.
Authors have a number of ways to build Consumer trust. That’s why there’s often talk of needing “hook” first sentences or starting a story in medias res or planting as many seeds and questions in the first chapter/part as possible. These are all just different ways of prompting the Consumer to ask questions, to tempt them with something amazing if they would only keep turning those pages or watching those episodes.
Consumers are greedy, Authors are stingy.
Both Consumers and Authors want to put in as little work as possible on their end of the equation. Consumers want to maximize what they gain from a medium, and minimize the time spent getting there. Meanwhile, Authors want to minimize the amount of story produced, while maximizing the time a Consumer spends with their work.
As a result, Consumers always want more from media they enjoy, while Authors stretch what content they do have as far as possible. In economic terms, the Consumer’s demand for story is usually much larger the Author’s supply. If it was possible to fit all the highs, lows, emotion, and adventure of the entire Harry Potter series on one page, Consumers would love that page more than the series. But, doing so is very hard to do, if not impossible. Thus, the Harry Potter series remains 7 books, 8 movies, and 80,000 J.K. Rowling tweets.
We call situations in which the Consumer’s demand for more story is far less than the Author’s supply “boring writing”. That’s the technical term, anyway.
Consumers crave instant gratification, Authors (should) know better.
If a story’s going well, Consumers want every flirty pair to kiss at the end, every princess to have her happily ever after, and every hero to slay the monster. Consumers understand that the resolutions to these conflicts is what brings the emotion they’re looking for in a story. They don’t always understand the work required to make each of these moments feel earned instead of flat.
This is not to say Consumers don’t enjoy having these expectations subverted; indeed it’s the Author’s job to understand which Consumer expectations to flip and play with to keep their story interesting instead of trite.
However, Consumers’ predisposition to taking the shortest path to whatever end-emotion they’re looking for leads them to, in the moment, desire the path of instant gratification. I’ve been in my fair share of fandoms, and I can’t tell you the number of times fans of a medium would clamor for such-and-such to happen right this instant only to be disappointed when it does finally play out. That’s not the Consumers’ fault by the way, the Author is responsible for managing these expectations.
Stories that deliver instant gratification too frequently are generally called cliché, while stories that never indulge the base desires of Consumers feel frustrating and deceptive.
Understanding the tension that drives storytelling leaves writers better equipped to take advantage of it.
With this understanding, planning a plot twist becomes less about grasping at straws to pull some 11th hour detail out of thin air, but recognizing what Consumers will believe they want from the story. Like a magician, you draw their attention away with one hand, and swap the circumstances with the other.
I like to tell myself that storytelling shouldn’t feel like magic. Well, it should for the person reading. But, for the writer, it’s more like a science. A creative, deeply personal science, but a science nonetheless with principles that can be understood and mastered.