Words, Death & Dilemmas: Privacy
What I’m thinking when I think I’m learning about my audiences (but I’m probably not)
I’ve just started a run of promotional events leading up to the publication of the new Jimmy Coates book (Jimmy Coates: Blackout) in June. So for the past couple of weeks I’ve been in and out of schools and libraries to talk about writing, creativity and my books.
I’ve done quite a bit of this over the last few years, since the first Jimmy Coates book came out in 2005. But some things don’t seem to change. For example, the questions.
There are 3 things I’m always asked:
– How much money do you make?
– Where did you get your shoes?
– Do you have any pets?
I can’t explain it, but I’m asked those questions almost everywhere I go. I don’t even have particularly silly shoes.
Today I was delighted to hear two totally new questions:
– Have you ever killed anybody?
But questions go both ways, and I like asking my audience all sorts of things. Almost every time, I ask: “What are the fundamental ingredients of a story?” or, in other words, “What does every story HAVE to have?”
I like to think I can tell quite a lot about my audience by their response and some answers crop up all the time. I’ve come to expect them, even though I find some of them a little bewildering:
Really? Punctuation?! Is that the first thing that comes into your head when you think of stories? Usually when a student says this there’s a teacher somewhere in the background nodding approval while my soul dies a little. Maybe I’m wrong, but this answer suggests to me that the students spend too much time on the tiny, irrelevant details and no time at all on the juicy creative stuff. When I’m coming up with ideas, when I’m planning a story and even when I’m actually writing it, I don’t give a second thought to punctuation. Maybe a long way through the process, once I’ve written and RE-written dozens of times, THEN I’ll notice some punctuation that needs my attention to make the story clearer.
I can empathise with the people who give me this answer. It’s the kind of ‘too-clever’ answer I’d have given at school. But words aren’t everything. Stories are told in images. Most of the time words get in the way. If you’re writing a story, SHOW me what’s happening by putting the images into my head, don’t mess about with fancy words.
It’s amazing how many people say this. Every story needs death. This answer, though clearly wrong, makes me philosophical: is it the underlying threat of dying, the knowledge that our time on earth is limited, is THAT what makes any story interesting? Perhaps. I’d need about a century to think about it, but I’ll be dead by then so I guess I’ll never know.
There are loads of other answers that come up all the time, each of which tells me a little about my audience: a setting, imagination, a title, a beginning, middle and end, speech, an introduction… It sometimes takes quite a long time before we get to the really good stuff, the things which really are essential to every single story, and the perfect starting points for coming up with ideas:
Bingo. It’s surprising how few people say this. Perhaps it’s too obvious. But it needs saying. Everything in a story comes down to character.
It’s a classy answer, this one. A real cracker. Strangely, it turns out that a lot of people who say ‘a dilemma’ don’t really know what a dilemma is when we talk more about it, so often all I find out about my audience is that they’re good at parroting what their English teachers try to drum into them. Still, it’s an answer I like. It gives us plenty to talk about.
I like this answer even more than ‘a dilemma’. It strips stories right down to the basics: a character + a problem. That’s it. There you have every story ever told. And until today I thought this was the best answer. But today, for the first time – the first time in 8 years of events – someone said the magic word:
A story is conflict. But only one person in 8 years of constant touring all over the UK and around the world has known the secret. It was a Year 8 student in West London – and the rest of his class seemed to know about it as well, which impressed me. In fact I wanted to hug their English teacher. But I didn’t. Instead I just smiled and told them all about how much money I made and that time my pets ate my shoes.
But if you want to know whether I’ve ever killed anybody, you’ll have to google me.