Why The Audience Is More Important Than You
By TIM SCHILDBERGER
Originally posted at https://scriptmag.com/screenplays/why-the-audience-is-more-important-than-you
The audience – not the ‘industry’ – matters most. Your ability to get them to laugh, cry, be scared, angry, whatever – is the real key here.
I saw a video clip recently, where a very earnest actor/writer insisted creators should ignore the audience, and write what pleases themselves. Because if you don’t satisfy yourself with your work, you won’t satisfy anyone else.
So basically – if you are really good at self-pleasuring, you will obviously and naturally be really good at pleasing others. Right?
This line of thinking – shut out all the other voices and just focus on your own – is not entirely wrong. But it’s woefully simplistic, and easily misinterpreted, which leads to some truly awful, wildly self-indulgent scripts.
The self-pleasure advice is a response to the concept of writing what you think will sell, or what you think the ‘industry’ wants right now. It’s aimed at the writer who is trying to figure out how to stuff their science fiction rom-com idea into a vampire movie, because a trade magazine says Hollywood loves vampires right now. That’s entirely understandable, given the sheer volume of horrible advice floating around.
But that’s not the definition of ‘audience’ you ever need to worry about. That’s seeing ‘audience’ as the market for your work, and trying to deliver to that market something you think they want.
Here’s an easy tip when you find yourself mentally wandering in that direction. Don’t. It’s a waste of time, for two reasons. One, the ‘industry’ is not uniform, minds change constantly, and no one will ignore a great script, whatever it is. Two, at no point in this headspace are you thinking about the real audience. The people in the movie theatre, or on the couch, desperate to be entertained. And if you aren’t thinking about them…then what the F**K are you doing?
Let’s step back for a moment, and think about why we spend so much time writing, reading about writing, and thinking about writing. Is it for global respect? Hahaha – try novels. Is it to exorcize our own emotional demons? Sure. But we both know the real reason, don’t we? Lurking within is a deeply held belief we may actually earn some money doing this. Maybe a lot of money. It’s OK – no shame in that.
If money is not one of your stronger writing goals – then writing is a hobby, and you can safely ignore this entire article. And every other article. Just write whatever the hell floats your boat. Self-pleasure all the way.
But if you harbor dreams of being a professional – your job is to entertain strangers. Ideally with something that resonates with you on an emotional level, so your work will have an authenticity that cannot be easily faked.
So as you think about your work, and pleasing yourself, never forget the strangers. When you hear/read the old chestnut ‘write what you know’ – please finish the sentence. It should be – ‘write what you know…but make it accessible to strangers.’ It’s those strangers who will give you the opportunity to earn money. Not. You.
I confess there is a bit of a tightrope walk here. Entertain but avoid pandering. Staying true to what emotional space you want to occupy/explore, but keeping an eye on giving your audience a satisfying experience. It’s hard to know if you’re succeeding – which is why you show drafts to people, rewrite, and watch your script evolve.
The audience – not the ‘industry’ – matters most. Your ability to get them to laugh, cry, be scared, angry, whatever – is the real key here. Blindly shutting them out of your creative process is at best self-indulgent, at worst just plain stupid.
Pleasing yourself with your script is a great, and important start, obviously. You shouldn’t be writing something you don’t connect with. But it’s just the start.
I read too many scripts where a writer seems to be the only one pleased with their words. Or where the writer thinks more about telling their story, than about the experience for the strangers expected to watch it. Or even…when a writer has done extensive historical research, or is super passionate about something specific – like a war, a social issue, or a moment in time, and shares it all without thinking about ways to make it interesting, or accessible to someone who doesn’t have their obsessive passion.
As you write, keep asking some basic questions. What’s in this for strangers? Why do I want them here? What do I want them to feel? To care about? To take away with them? Am I doing a good enough job expanding this idea/characters beyond my own self-interest?
No one gets it right all the time. Even James Gunn seems to think oceanic creatures becoming villainous monsters is always hilarious to strangers when it really isn’t. And I know there is a certain degree of self-confidence needed when putting pen to paper and you don’t want to get lost second-guessing everything.
So if you feel you are making a choice between what you think an audience will like, or what your gut thinks should be in the scene – go with the gut at first. But if you haven’t had that internal conversation…then go back and have it. And please, be open-minded to your gut not being right all of the time.
There’s no template for this. No quick fix. It’s a constant battle. But you can help yourself if you are clear on the ‘audience’ definition, clear on your goals, and clear that sometimes simplistic advice from someone in a quick video is garbage.
Pleasing yourself is great fun, and very satisfying. But if you think it guarantees you will be able to please strangers…well…I think we both know the answer to that one.