Words, Emotions, and How Your Audience is Feeling

Many’s the time I’ve sat in readings and development workshops and been asked, “Who is your audience?” It’s one of my least favorite questions. What am I supposed to say? “People with good taste”? How do I choose to experience my entertainment? Based on what I want to feel. I suspect I’m not alone in this. When you pick up a novel, what makes you choose Bridget Jones instead of H.P. Lovecraft? (Or vice versa?)

I don’t know the traditional demographic features – age, gender, race, hair color – of an audience that will like my work. I have a pretty good idea of the kinds of books they read, the characters they enjoy, the stories and themes that stir their emotions. But their salaries? The number of kids they have? Isn’t that why market research was invented?

“Who’s your audience” is a reductive question. It assumes that once an audience is identified, the play will change to suit that audience. I would argue that during the development process, the goal should be to create the strongest work possible - then decide how to market it to the public.

Instead, why not ask, “How should your audience feel”?

This question asks a writer to focus on the core of their piece – a scene, a line, a play – the magnitude of the area under examination can change. When he says this line, how does your audience feel? When this plot point unfolds, how should your audience feel?” Consider the description of the desired emotion a writer’s “true north” – the dialogue, actions and scene blocking are the darlings one must kill to uncover the final version within one’s draft.

Try explaining emotion without emotion.

Feelings and language don’t always have an easy intersection. Remember on TNG when Data asked someone to explain to him what “Love” was? Nobody could do it without referring to other emotions.

This reminds me of a playwright’s task:

A playwright must communicate emotions, using only words – and written words at that, words devoid of intonation or inflection (these will be re-inserted later, by an actor). Playwrights have to write in such a way that the words “come alive” when performed. Our work requires not only a solid command of language, but also a keen sense of spatial relations and an understanding of the physics between two bodies, the way words hang in the air when spat or wailed or whispered from a performer’s mouth.

Playwrights must also understand how actors and directors read, understand, and speak language. To this end, if we want our work produced accurately, we must have an exhaustive understanding of punctuation – not how it is written in AP-Style English, but rather the way in which readers interpret dashes, commas and whitespace on a page. (How else to ensure that your precious pauses, interruptions, sighs and intonations are understood as necessary – instinctively – by your performers?)

In the end, a playwright must write a technical manual for an performance that they’ve never seen, and communicate their inspiration – their emotion – in such a way that the blueprint can be picked up by anyone in the world and that emotion (despite the game of “telephone” that has taken place) can be reproduced. Audiences respond to Shakespeare because they still feel the emotions he crafted into his plays, not because the literal thees and thous and therefores move them to tears.

It’s an artist’s goal – in any medium – to make their audience feel something. Whoever that audience is. However large, however small. Maybe it would be more productive – in drafting and development both – to treat the emotional journey as the underlying architecture of a story, then craft the superstructure of lines, scenes and characters around them.

After all, what do we tell a fellow theater practitioner when someone gets offended and storms out of their show? “If they felt that strongly about it, you were doing something right.”

Edit: For the record, if James Franco is part of my audience, I’m a happy girl. 

Other Edit: I tweaked the title of this post after publication.

4 thoughts on “Words, Emotions, and How Your Audience is Feeling

  1. The one-liner has a similar constraint. Amateurs think of the one-liner as the sales pitch, but it’s not. It’s the opening salvo, the first bullet in a clip. More importantly, a good one-liner is the most powerful description of your work. And if you can’t do it in one short sentence, you don’t know what your work is about. (But do try to be the exception; those sales pitches are the most exciting failures.)

    Writing effective emotion is similar. You have to know specifically what emotion you’re creating before you start to layer with action, dialogue, and even other emotions. Bob is angry. Sandy is ecstatic. The group is annoyed. People who hate outlines ignore the fact they have built an outline in their mind, the main difference being the mental outline can change unintentionally or be forgotten.

    I generally don’t write for an audience myself. I pick stories that have high appeal (not mass appeal). Stories that deal with core issues: love, betrayal, hatred. I often hear, “But my story is a love story.” And I reply, “No, you’ve got a Bank Robbery with people in love, or a Scifi Escapade with racist aliens.” Which means they started with Bank Robbery and ended with people in love. In the real world, even a fictional one, the bank robbery didn’t knock on the couple’s door. This couple fell in love, and then conspired to rob a bank. That’s the story. That’s always the story.

    • One-liners have always proven difficult for me to write; mechanically, do you have any tips that help you distill what you’ve written? Or do you start with the one-liner and go from there?

      Your paragraph on writing effective emotion is, I think, very closely related to what I was trying to describe in the original post. Questions about what your audience should be feeling are, I think, the sort of…photographic negative of whatever emotions your characters are experiencing, but the “colors” of each character’s emotions have to eventually blend into a holistic image (the scene) that affects your audience’s emotional reaction?

      This may be an odd question, but I take it you’re talking about stories where the characters have a pre-existing relationship, not ones where they’re meeting – did I understand you correctly there?

  2. Some thoughts on your comments about Shakespeare. You wrote about his writing emotions. I think he wrote about the nature of being human. To put that even more strongly he wrote the nature of being human. To my way of thinking, good theater is about the human experience. That includes emotions, and the good playwright works to evoke emotions in each member of the audience, but I think the good author knows that she cannot control what emotion will arise in each audience member and the good author knows the human experience is more than just emotions. Now, I would strongly agree determining what audience you are writing to is not a function of demographics. But I would propose that considering the audience could focus the writing in such a way that the specifics of that audience, and the specifics of the play, become universal. I would posit that Shakespeare wrote different plays and different parts of his plays with specific audiences in mind – who would be in the pit? who wuld be in the boxes, what would Queen Elisabeth want, and so on. And that through doing that the writing connects with most everyone regardless of whether they fit in the group he had in mind. To take this a little further, good writing, all writing, is communication – to yourself or to another. To whom is the play communicating?

  3. Rachel,
    Thank you for this; I am honored that you should say you wrote it in response to our Twitter conversation. Who says deep meaning can’t happen in 140 characters. Or at least in 140 characters back and forth. I am surprised that playwrights are asked for a demographic portrait of their prospective audience. That is such a business angle–and one I find difficult to answer even in a business context for the same reasons you describe. Readers have always seemed to me to be people who could imagine themselves across all kinds of boundaries and thus, by definition, not all collected inside the same boundaries. The limits of this grand idea about readers–the books readers will not read because they don’t “identify” with the protagonist–have disappointed the idealist in me. I will continue to mull over the ideas raised by you here and further discussed in the comments. How much might we aim to “control” or even impact the emotions of our audience, whether live or reader? I agree that I pick up a book (or choose a movie) for the way I want to feel, although, once I’m in the book (or movie), if it’s good enough, I’ll follow it to unexpected places or keep picking it up, day after day, even when the mood I sought has come and gone and I’d seek for something else, if asked.

    In the end–and you hint at this early on in the piece–we write, at least for a first pass, for how we want to feel or, more likely, for how we do feel, for the feelings we mine when we pick up the pen or turn on the screen. And then we shape that toward what we feel is true, to the story, to our own experiences. Finally, we ask the audience to be the audience we would have been if we hadn’t been the writer in the first place. We seek an audience who needed to feel what we felt while we wrote. And those most certainly won’t only be women between 18 – 32 who wear glasses and carry red handbags, but the marketing of the book might assure that only those people will buy it at the store . . .

    Thanks for a provocative post!

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