The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Engaging People Is The First Hurdle

Posted by BigWords on September 28, 2009

Shovel in hand, I’m resurrecting an old (and I thought obvious) argument about writing.

What is a writer’s first hurdle?

When people talk about ‘writing’ they usually mean writing novels, or poetry, or artistically stimulating mediums that afford the author some artistic gratification which should be obvious in the reading, viewing or listening. It is a bit less obvious when the medium is not immediately engaged in a conversation or emotional attachment to the characters or situation, though the basic framework which governs any form of writing is still true in many of these other forms of writing.

On the borderlands of writing there are hundreds of small yet vital writing opportunities that may not – at first glance – be the exact same thing as crafting the complex plots and intricate characters which epitomise writing as an art form and mode of expression. There are the wonderful RPG books to consider first of all, because I definitely class them as closest to epic storytelling in their set-up. The fact that the reader has some input into the narrative is irrelevant.

They exist for the sole purpose of character building, storytelling, and the realization of worlds which don’t exist. Some rulebooks (the Dungeons & Dragons ones especially) are so complex that they must be viewed as a higher level of storytelling than mere novel-writing… How many novelists, if they had the ability in the first place, could cope with the balancing, levelling and complex threads of storytelling that run through the books? Not me…

I’ll admit from the out that I could never cope with writing one of those fuckers. I’ve read through enough rulebooks (and seen the covers of White Wolf #4 and #5 reprinted enough times in other contexts) to know that the creators of such tomes require a special kind of patience. RPG books are close enough to aspects of computer game writing that I would also include the creation of those games as great writing as well. I’m not going to trawl through which games have great writing, ’cause you should know them when you see them

Sometimes games can take on a life outside the initial release, and this is down to the writing. It might seem as if there are complex equations to be made in assessing which parts of the game are most important to which gamers, but good writing can save a game with poor graphics, or filled with glitches, or has an awful camera. Tomb Raider‘s success was as much down to the prevailing atmosphere of alt-history in the mid-nineties as it was due to Lara’s ridiculously large breasts.

The number of ways available to a writer to engage with an audience has become even more complex with the internet, and that is something which hasn’t been examined as seriously as other forms of writing. Is the format as good as paper-and-ink? Maybe or maybe not. The readership is slightly different, and – if I’m going to be completely honest here – there are an awful lot of spammish pages on the net. I’m not sure is Wikipedia counts as anything other than gifted insanity, but as a home of writing…

Minor diversion from the topic: People seem to think that making shit up about famous people is a reasonable way to pass the time. It ain’t. Neither is altering pages on history due to political or religious motives, both of which have been evident. There are a lot of people who take the idea of disseminating information to the masses seriously, and the scribblings of a few simple-minded morons has made the task nigh on impossible.

But I’m getting back to the point: Does the site engage a readership? The simple answer is yes. It is high on the list of most-viewed websites, surpassed by a handful of search engines and other essential sites. It is an amazing achievement, creating a popular and highly-regarded – in its’ theory if not its’ actual undertaking – website. The readership is there, therefore it is serious writing, if only because of the number of readers. It gets a passing grade.


This subject resurfaced from a comment I made about Salmand Rushdie’s writings. I like the ideas he throws around, but he has become one of the laziest writers around in the years since he turned in such memorable and engaging ad copy as “quote here” for company. He seems to have forgotten that the reader has, perhaps, better things to read than confused text which rambles rather than rattles, and that is where most people fall – the first hurdle. The first hurdle of a writer…

A writer’s first hurdle is to engage people.

Ad copy, which I haven’t touched on in a fair while, is as important in social media as any novel, and it reaches a far greater number of people than any novel. The words from a successful ad campaign can far outlast a bestselling novel in the collective memory of a generation, and influence artistic trends that most novels could never hope to. There are still references made, on television and in print, to the adverts of the sixties, when creative types threw away the rulebook and started to use tricks that nobody had ever seen before.

The introduction of a color supplement in newspapers might have been the focal point through which the lens of creativity was focused, but it was the accompanying words and ideas which fueled the boom in advertising. It was also the point at which newspapers began the slow slide into mediocrity and facile celebrity-watching which now dominates the industry, but for one shining moment, for one brief second of true artistry, the magazines and newspapers which had been in a rut suddenly came alive.

People bought newspapers for the ads as much as the non-news, eager to discover the latest campaigns. This is engaging with an audience on a level that strikes an immediate and lasting relationship, because they could then go out and purchase the products and feel part of a like-minded group. When readers of books try to do the same thing… Not so much luck, unless the book in question is a ultra-hyped product, replete with tie-in toys, games, films and other kipple.

If an audience isn’t engaged by a performance they tend to walk out.
If a reader isn’t engaged by a book they might not finish the text.
If a television series does not engage with viewers it is cancelled.
If a game does not engage with players it will be ridiculed by geeks.

If a comic does not engage with readers you get the situation Hawkman found himself in, bouncing between creators and mired in horrendous continuity issues that effectively killed off the character for the better part of a decade. Somehow, through luck and bloody good timing, the character was salvaged. Why? Because readers are engaged with the struggles that the character faces. They like the winged misery-guts, whose soap-opera history adds to the fun of his adventures.

Engaging readers in the narrative is hard.

The first duty of a writer is to engage is some manner, and the point of any writing – with the format, genre, medium, length and style being largely irrelevant – is this magical connection. Once you have people by the short and curlies you have them forever. You just have to get over that first hurdle…


5 Responses to “Engaging People Is The First Hurdle”

  1. Adina said

    You have such well written and compelling entries on your blog, it’s an absolute pleasure to read…
    Literature in its old classic form, the one I fed off in my youth, completely engulfed in the books from my parents’ library, seems to be a relic and that in itself breaks my heart.
    The reader gravitates to the movies faster than to the book store. The movie, feeds the need to have a visual setting for anybody’s inner thoughts or dreams. Trendy novels like “Harry Potter,” “DaVinci’s Code” or – Tolkien’s books are all movies. Tolkien, Rowling, and Dan Brown have that “something” making it easy to convert files directly into celluloid fantasy satisfying millions of otherwise very good readers.

  2. bigwords88 said

    I’m compelling? I thought I was rambling… I’ve been told I ramble on too much, and my wordcounts here have been gradually increasing in size…

    The main problem I have with Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer is the hype. The clunky sentences which mar Meyer and Brown’s books don’t help, but it is the hype which gets me every single time. People expect something they are not going to get from those types of books, and whenever I see somebody picking them up to look at in a book store the uncontrollable urge to point them in the direction of something more stimulating takes hold.

    It crept up on everyone too suddenly, but the acceptance of second best is here to stay.

    I remember the first time I read The Old Man And The Sea, and On The Campaign Trail, and even Snowblind. I remember where I was, and the excitement as I turned the page. Will the current crop of bestsellers have that effect on readers? I doubt it.

    They have their place, and it is essential they continue to be published, otherwise how would we know the truly great books if the dross wasn’t there to compare them with?

  3. Adina said

    well, in that case it could only mean I am a blabber mouth myself…

  4. Just wanted to tell you thanks for all the great info found on your blog, even helped me with my job recently 🙂 keep it up!

  5. Thanks for the information!

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