We can write in omniscient but we’re not omnipotent

I think one of the most important things any writer who is or is attempting to be published has to realize is that as soon as you share that story with anyone other than yourself, you not longer have control over its content. And that the more people read it, the less control you have.

That might sound counterfactual. After all, as the author you do control which words you have put on the page and which ones you haven’t. (You can argue that once we get into the editing stage that’s not entirely true, but ultimately any change even if pressed on you is one you accepted in one way or another, and besides that’s not where I’m going with this.) And the words are the content, right?

Except that they’re not.

The words are more like a guidebook to the story you want your readers to be experiencing. You are trying to tell them what this story’s about and how they should feel about it, but ultimately it’s their trip and they’ll go where they want to go with the maps provided. The content is the story that plays out in their heads when they read those words, which is a very different thing from words themselves.

You already know this is true. You have formed, at least once, an image in your head of a main character in a book you’re reading, only to be completely thrown when halfway through the author mentions that redhead you’ve been picturing is blond. You have commented to a friend about how noble character A was, only to have them scoff and claim he was clearly acting under selfish motivations. You have re-read a story you first read years ago, and discovered that the subplot you thought was so depressing is actually hilarious (or vice versa).

I wanted to say that authors and readers split control over the story about 50/50, but it might actually be more like 10/90. All we do is offer the best words we can come up with. Each reader brings to those words a lifetime of associations and experiences and knowledge and understanding that color and warp them, sometimes beyond recognition.

None of that means that authors shouldn’t try to write the story they intend as clearly and powerfully as they can manage. Even 10% makes a big difference, and the better you write it, the more of the story in your head is likely to get into the readers’. And it doesn’t mean that you should ignore feedback on your writing, because you know what? If nine out of ten critiquers are finding your incredibly sweet protagonist terribly obnoxious, the error’s in your guidebook, not their imagination.

What it means is, you will be a much happier person if you recognize that no matter what words you’ve put on that page, or how long you slaved over them, every single wrong turn a reader could make, someone somewhere will make it.

Someone will think that scene that brought others to tears is trite. Someone will say the story moves way too fast, and someone else will call it ploddingly boring. You can never include so much of X that no one will think it’s not enough, or so little that no one will complain you’ve gone overboard. In short, you will never ever ever be able to make every reader, or even most readers, love the story or any one part of it the way you do. And even the readers who do love it may very well love it for reasons you didn’t intend. And that’s okay, because that’s inevitable, and it’s the same for everyone who’s ever written down words for other people to read.

So just write the best guidebooks you can, and wish your readers well on whatever journey they end up on, and try to laugh instead of cry if they end up lost in a swamp instead of gasping at the awesome cliff-top view you meant to lead them to.


We can write in omniscient but we’re not omnipotent — 1 Comment

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