What Does the Writer owe the Reader?

Fellow Wyrdsmith Eleanor Arnason was on a panel about what the writer owes the reader at WisCon, and she talked about it here . It’s an important question and I really wanted to come back to it. Eleanor’s post included the following:

“Ellen Kushner said writers owe readers the truth, which I guess is true.

I would say the writer owes readers — and herself — the best job she can do.

I tend to believe that the writer owes readers a work that will make their lives better, something they can use in dealing with life.”

I agree with all these points, especially the second one, and yet…I want to say something more.

I guess for me it’s contextual. What story am I trying to tell? Who is the character I’m currently writing? When is the story set? And where? Those are all the sorts of things that will determine what I owe the reader in a given piece. Most importantly of all, what am I trying to achieve with this story?

Sometimes, as in the case of the hard science fiction shorts I wrote for middle school students, it’s conveying good, real, science in a way that lets student see the gears move. Sometimes, I owe the reader a true representation of my core beliefs. Sometimes, if the character disagrees with me, I owe my reader the best arguments I can make against those same beliefs. Sometimes I just owe the reader a damn good ride, or some laughs.

It’s good to write truth. It’s good to give a reader something they can use to make their lives better. It’s good to make a reader laugh or cry or think deeply. But you don’t have to do it all at once. No one story should have to carry everything the writer hopes to accomplish with their fiction.

Picture a story as a boat. Yes, there are great ships that can ferry a life’s work across an ocean—stories that can do everything. But there are also submarines and canoes and even surfboards. Stories that touch you beneath the waterline of the subconscious, or that glide silently across the lake of the mind with a single smart thing loaded amidships, or that just give you a hella ride through the surf. Every single one of them has its proper place and purpose and that’s important to remember.

The key isn’t to do everything every time, it’s to do what you want to do this time to the best of your ability, and it’s okay if all you’re shooting for in a given story is one pure silly smile. Don’t let yourself get trapped into thinking beyond the needs of the story.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog July 10 2007 and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)