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Making your writing approachable (In-depth guide)

Making your writing approachable (In-depth guide) Making your writing approachable (In-depth guide)
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    Making your story approachable (sometimes referred to as “accessible”) is a core element of successful Commercial storytelling. Making your story approachable doesn’t mean making it artificially simplified; it means effectively guiding your reader into the world of the story. A story is approachable when it does not require a lot of specialized knowledge for a reader to understand the story and connect with it. When specialized knowledge is required for the story, it is introduced in an easy-to-understand manner that brings the reader into the world of the story.

    Approachability refers to how complex the setting is—that is, how easy it is to understand the story’s world, how it works, and why it matters to the protagonists. This often comes up in sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal stories where worldbuilding is more important to the genre, but it’s actually relevant to all stories.  A contemporary romance set in a North American high school is a very approachable setting. The author doesn’t need to do a lot of explaining to get the reader on board with the rules of how the world works because we all basically already understand. Even if the reader didn’t go to a high school in North America, they’ve probably watched enough TV and read enough books to have an idea of how it works. We understand why the characters go to a different room when the bell rings, and don’t need to have that explained to us. This is the type of setting that doesn’t need much explanation. Whereas if the story is set in high school, but the main plot is about, say, the world of high school Latin competitions, you will need to do a bit more work to bring the reader into the world—how the competitions work, what the stakes are, what this setting means to the characters, and so on, because most readers don’t automatically know how these kinds of competitions work. If it’s going to be meaningful to us, we need a bit of onboarding to figure out how it works. 

    Example: Out of His League

    This is an example of a contemporary story that does a great job of making the niche setting approachable for the reader. The sports setting is super important to the story and to the development of the relationship between the characters. Your general reader likely has some knowledge of baseball, but may not know the ins and outs of the rules, and how the leagues are structured. The general reader needs to be brought into the world. But rather than info-dumping how pro baseball works before the start of the story, the author brings us into the world of the story through the characters’ Goals, Motivations, Conflicts, and Stakes. We grow to understand how the world works because we understand how and why it matters to the characters. By the end of the story, the general reader may not be able to watch and explain a full baseball game, but they don’t need to be able to do that in order to enjoy the story. What the reader can do is understand the story events and how they affect the characters. The author focuses on the details that are most important to the characters and the story to create an immersive reading experience with a detailed but approachable world that draws us in. 

    The approachability of a setting is extra important in genres where worldbuilding is part of the genre expectation: sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal. Worldbuilding that is extremely dense, containing a lot of details, history, and technicalities, gives a reader more chance to bounce off these potentially important details if they’re packed too closely together. Of course, some readers like really dense, technical lore, but overall Commercial storytelling asks for worldbuilding to be grounded in the characters’ present experience in the story. The emotional impact of the story can be enhanced by lore, but should not be defined by it. If your reader needs to have an encyclopedic knowledge of your world’s history in order to understand what is happening in the story’s present moment, we’d say that that kind of storytelling is not approachable.

    How to make your setting approachable

    Don’t info dump

    It seems a little counterintuitive—if the world is complex, info-dumping seems like a good way to get readers on board by giving them all the info upfront. But it usually causes readers to bounce off because it’s a big chunk of information that we don’t have enough context to understand or retain.

    Start slow and ramp up

    As your reader is getting accustomed to the world, give them little bite-size chunks of information about the world, surrounded by enough familiar information and emotional content to give them something to grab onto. 
    Keep it focused. Only give the reader as much information as they need to get what’s going on in the scene. As you get deeper into the story and the reader gets more accustomed to your world, there will be more time to fill in cool details, but when you’re starting out, keep it basic and grounded in the plot.  

    Use the characters’ Goals, Motivations, Conflict, and Stakes

    Use GMCS to bring us into the world and ground us in how it works. By giving us something to emotionally connect to via the character’s GMCS, we connect more easily with the world and retain its rules. 

    Let the reader learn with the characters

    As the character experiences new things, it brings the audience into the world. Having your readers learn about the world alongside your characters will create an emotional bond between them, which will keep them reading. This technique is most obvious when the protagonist is in a new or unfamiliar situation and needs to ask questions or get something explained to them, but it can also work if the protagonist is guiding a new person, or if there are some unanswered questions the protagonist has in an otherwise familiar situation. 

    On relatability

    You’ll often see exhortations in writing advice, especially for commercial genres, that your protagonists should be relatable. This is similar to advice that the protagonist should be “likable,” or “sympathetic.” This advice can mean a lot of things. Sometimes people say this to mean that the protagonist should reflect the presumed reader’s life experiences and values, or that the protagonist should act in a way the presumed reader thinks is correct. 
    Authors can sometimes get so afraid of having characters have personality traits or make choices that readers may not like, that they end up creating a character with almost no defining traits at all. Rather than being ultra-relatable, this kind of protagonist often ends up alienating readers because they’re boring.

    The question of “relatability” becomes very complex when we’re discussing marginalized characters, who are definitionally excluded from mainstream culture industries. This can sometimes result in things like white readers or critics saying they didn’t find a Black main character “relatable.” The culture we live in does not often ask white people to sympathize with Black people, and whiteness is assumed to be the default, so white readers with unexamined biases can sometimes feel alienated from Black characters because they lack the skill to think outside of their own experiences. This is a reader issue, and not a writer one, and does not mean that stories with Black characters can’t be Commercial.

    Writing Commercially does not mean writing only straight, white, nondisabled characters; nor does it mean trying to appeal to “everyone.” There is no story in the history of the world that is appealing to everyone. You don’t need to focus on reaching readers who are never going to reach back because of their own unexamined biases. Instead, focus on reaching readers who are fans of your chosen genre and focus on delivering a great story to them, with memorable characters and compelling plots. 
     
    Ultimately, the advice about “relatable” or “sympathetic” protagonists is trying to express that the reader should care about the main character. Our advice is that protagonists should be motivated and specific in order to create reader investment.

    Motivated means they should have motivations and goals that make sense in context, and involve the character in the plot. They are entangled in the plot for specific reasons related to who they are as people, and their place in the world. This is about how the character you’ve built relates to the events of the plot. Why is your character involved in the plot events? What are they hoping to achieve or avert?

    Specific means the protagonist should feel distinctive. They should have their own desires and fears, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. They should have memories from their past that make them who they are in the present. Though they are not real people, they should feel like individuals. This is about making sure you’ve built your character with enough specific detail that they feel dimensional and distinctive.

    Specificity also means you should understand your character’s place in the world of the story and how it affects them. This is particularly important if you are writing about a main character who is marginalized in ways you do not share. Writing a character of color, for example, is not a matter of just changing their skin color and keeping everything else the same. A character of color will have specific experiences that a white character does not, and those experiences are going to be dependent on the context of the story’s setting. For example, a Japanese character born and raised in the United States is going to have a different experience than a Japanese character born and raised in Japan, and if your story features a Japanese character, you should have a grasp on those differences, and know which experience has most shaped your character. 

    For stories set in a secondary world with its own made-up history, skin color may not be a marker of socially constructed difference the way it is in our world. In that case, you will want to understand how difference is constructed in the society you’ve built and how that shapes your characters’ experiences and personalities. And above all, keep in mind that while your characters might exist in their own world, the reader exists in this one, and is reading the work in the cultural context of our real-life social relations. It’s important not to turn real-life oppression into a metaphor, because this erases real world people from their own experiences. For example, if elves in a fantasy world are an oppressed minority identifiable by certain visual signs (e.g. pointed ears), they’re functioning as a metaphor for racism. But if all those elves are represented as white in this story, this erases racialized people from the depiction of their own oppression, and should be avoided. 

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