Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 12/21/2023

Episode 42: Your Readers

This is the fourth chapter of "Fundamentals of Fiction Writing" by Arthur Sullivant Hoffman. Originally published in 1922, it is now in the public domain.

Fundamentals of Fiction Writing is finally once again available in print and ebook. And if you get the edition I linked to, you are supporting this site.

Readers of course vary in susceptibility to the illusion of fiction—vary in concentration, reading method, background of culture and of experience in life, familiarity with the ways and habits of fiction, critical attitude, imagination, particularly strength and quality of imaginative imagery, and in everything else that makes up mentality and individuality. Must the writer satisfy and hold all these from one extreme to the other? Yes, if he is to do perfect fiction. Possibly perfect fiction exists, but fortunately readers can be more or less divided into classes or types, each class capable of being very roughly characterized as a unit. The more classes reached and satisfied by a story, the better the story.

Be Clear as to Your Audience. —The fiction author can follow one of three courses:

(1) He can "just write," disregarding the question of who his readers may be and trusting that his style and methods may happen to be such as will win him an audience. This is an admirable method provided it chances to succeed. If it doesn't, he will have to abandon it for one of the others.

(2) Choose a particular class for his audience and aim directly at them. Naturally he will have to study his audience very carefully and know them rather thoroughly if he is to succeed. Limiting his audience, he limits the scope and therefore the degree of his success; a story satisfying the highest class can not be so good as if it satisfied both the highest and the next highest class or several other classes. It is entirely possible to do both, as Shakespeare and others have proved.

(3) Aim to reach as many classes as possible. Here, too, he must study and know his audience. Obviously it is a higher aim than the second, demanding more of the author. Having a larger audience to draw on, it is likely to attain greater success as measured by number of readers, though it is always a nice problem to decide in a given case whether more readers can be secured by playing for your share of the majority, against all competitors, or by concentrating on a minority, against fewer competitors.

Considering carefully these three courses, it is necessary first to know your audience and keep them very definitely in mind, unless you are willing to write wholly from the subjective point of view and go it blind as to your audience, taking the extremely long chance that your substance and style may happen to satisfy a sufficient number of readers. It generally doesn't. Second, it is advisable to reach as many classes of readers as possible. Your task, then, is to know and to consider constantly as many classes of readers as you can. And knowing them means much more than having a general knowledge of their tastes.

Fundamental Reactions Universal. —Some will straightway object, "But I prefer to write for only the highest class of readers." It is their right to do so, and their choice may be a wise one. But I maintain two points. First, it is not the highest aim. Second, the writer who prefers this aim is probably most likely of all to fail to know his audience. The mistake to which he is peculiarly liable is that of forgetting that the highest class is not a thing apart but merely all the other classes plus something more. His tendency is to believe that they have passed on beyond all the tastes and reactions of the other classes far more than they really have. Most of all, he is likely to credit them with having risen above the cruder, more fundamental tastes and reactions of the other classes. They haven't. They have merely piled upon the fundamental reactions a larger collection of refined—and often artificial—reactions than have the others. The fundamental reactions may become somewhat blurred and aborted, are certainly less consciously active and generally less active in fact, but they are still there and still operative and sometimes in full strength. That is as true as any general rule that can be laid down concerning the human mind and too much emphasis can not be placed on it.

The Target. —To reach any audience perfectly you must reach them at all points, satisfying all demands, overcoming all their inherent obstacles, allowing for the varying equipment ranging from the lowest to the highest among them—equipment of background, imagination, concentration, general intelligence and so on. And on each point you must reach those most gifted in it, most difficult to satisfy in that respect. It is not enough to satisfy those with little cultural background; your story must stand the test of those who have the most. It must reach not only those who set particular store by the delicate shadings, but those who demand a definite story interest. On any point you must aim to reach the individuals who are most difficult to reach on that point. In no other way can you hope to reach all.

It is not easy to do. In fact, it isn't done. But it must be the target aimed at. It is not easy to reach both the person who reads word for word, extracting the full flavor of each, and also the person who skips sentences, paragraphs and pages in mad pursuit of "what happens"; nor him who at a word or two from you reconstructs a whole scene in his mind's eye, and him whose imagination can vision for him only what you describe in detail. Yet, if you are to attain the degree of success possible to you, you must aim to satisfy in each such dilemma the extreme that for you is most difficult.

Study Human Beings. —First, last and all the time, success means study of the reader. That means study of human beings, not merely of opinions of them or of effects secured or apparently secured on them by other writers. The opinions may be mistaken; the effects may be there, but you and the other writers may fail to assign to them the proper causes. Strangely enough, the causes most often overlooked are the elemental tastes and reactions common to all normal humans. It is more "literary," and more convenient, to study lists of "best sellers," to read critical reviews and academic essays, to be given rules and standards by some one else—who got them from reviews, essays and "best sellers." But it is human beings who are your readers. Get your data at first hand.