OKAY GUYS, WRITING RANT TIME! Buckle in for some CAPITAL LETTERS and also LITERAL FIRE!
For this rant, I have my day job technical writer hat on, but the general principle applies to fiction, too. It’s about knowing your audience. What does knowing your audience have to do with ACTUAL FIREBALLS? Read on and find out!
So there I am, trying a new recipe for zucchini tacos, and I am substituting the broiler where it calls for a grill, as I have done several times in the past with good results. Everything is going great until I flip my not-even-browned-yet tortillas and put them back in the oven for LITERALLY THIRTY SECONDS to try to get them toasty and suddenly SMOKE! SO MUCH SMOKE!
And I open the oven to try to rescue my tortillas in case they haven’t turned to cinders yet, and HOLY CRAP THE OVEN IMMEDIATELY SPAWNS A BALL OF FIRE!
SHIT SHIT THAT’S ACTUAL FIRE, I think, like you do, and slam the oven door shut on the INSTANT HELLMOUTH I have unwittingly created. Smoke is billowing everywhere. My ten-year-old begins asking me a number of pertinent questions from the next room, like, “Mom, is something on fire?” and “How much fire?” and “Should I leave the house?”
I pretend to be a calm and responsible grownup, saying things in a relaxed voice like “Yes, it’s on fire, but I have this under control, why don’t you go to another room to get away from the smoke?” when in fact what is actually happening in my head is that I am staring at the fire in my oven and realizing that there is STILL FIRE and I am the only adult in the house and it’s FIRE and I had better do something about it.
I figure okay, if I keep the oven door shut, that should starve the fire for oxygen, and it should go out, right? So I wait a bit, and sure enough, the fire seems to die down, so I open the oven again and NOPE MY MISTAKE FWOOSH STILL ALL KINDS OF FIRE IN THERE.
So I slam the oven door again, which does seem to help, and open all the windows and turn on the vent fan, and then for lack of a better idea I run to my laptop and Google “Oven Fire.” And lo, the internet delivers! Several articles appear titled helpful things like “How To Put Out an Oven Fire” and “How To Put Out Kitchen Fires.” Great! YAY THANK YOU INTERNET!
I click on the first one, very aware that there is likely still ACTUAL FIRE burning in the oven behind me, and I get like A FULL PAGE OF INTRODUCTION with scene-setting crap like (and I’m paraphrasing, here) “There are many reasons fires can start in a kitchen…” and “Cooking can be awesome, but also dangerous,” and “Let’s set the scene…picture this… you’re cooking, but you spill some grease…” and I am like NOPE and go to the next article, where I get MORE OF THE SAME. Paragraphs and paragraphs of flavor text before you get to anything like the promised instructions for how to put out an actual fire.
And I want to lunge through the screen and throttle the writers, because OH MY GOD THERE IS AN ACTUAL FIRE IN MY KITCHEN AND YOU ARE TRYING TO PAINT ME A LITTLE PICTURE OR GIVE ME RELEVANT CULINARY CONTEXT WHEN WHAT I WANT IS TO PUT OUT A FIRE.
Luckily, by the time I find an article where I only have to scroll down a LITTLE bit to find a clear numbered list of what to do, the fire in my oven is basically out, because in fact, in case you were wondering, closing the door and trying to starve the fire to death is apparently actually the right thing to do. (Note: I am clearly not an expert on things on fire, given that I was googling oven fires on the internet, so don’t listen to me.)
So here’s where this becomes a writing rant. In instructional writing, and for that matter in lots of other kinds of writing including fiction, one of the very first things you do is consider your audience. Who are they? What do they want? What are their interests and concerns? Etc.
Well, for an article about How To Put Out a Kitchen Fire, I would argue that:
- Your audience is PEOPLE WHOSE KITCHENS ARE ON FIRE.
- They want to PUT OUT THE FIRE AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.
- Their interests are AAAAH SHIT SHIT FIRE, and their concerns are FUCK MY OVEN IS ON FIRE HELP HELP.
They do not want paragraphs of lovely flavor text setting the scene. They want to PUT OUT THE GODDAMN FIRE. You can tell them the history of kitchen fires AFTER THE FIRE IS OUT.
So maybe you should put the bit about how to put out the fire RIGHT AT THE TOP, in a numbered list or bullet points that jumps right out at you, or maybe a nice graphic. JUST A SUGGESTION, INTERNET.
Now, this is super extra true for instructional writing—you always want the information people really need to jump in their faces right away—but it’s something to consider in fiction, too.
Who are your readers? Adults? Teens? Kids? What genre expectations do they have before they even open your book? What do they want to see first when they start reading?
Also, what’s going on in your book? Is now really a good time to start telling us your cool, detailed backstory or worldbuilding? If your main character is desperately fighting off a giant spider that’s trying to eat her face, maybe you can wait until the fight is over to tell us that she was trying to collect the precious silk of its webs, which the Y’Kreeth people have used to make the sails of their ships for thousands of years, and which is found only in the deep chasms of the Marimata Rifts that separate the North from the South, but only on dry days in autumn, and… yeah. Fight off the spider first (or the ACTUAL REAL LIFE FIRE, for example, not that I’m still bitter), and THEN tell us all about your amazing fantasy world.
It’s great to think about your characters and their arcs, but it’s just as important to think about your audience. Your readers are the invisible bonus character/fourth wall/fifth element/secret ingredient that makes your story real in their heads. So consider where their heads are before you put your story in it.
And here’s a tip: if their heads are JUST A FEW FEET FROM A FIRE, maybe get to the point a little faster.