Crafting Stories for Your Audience: The Art of Subtle Messaging

May 10, 2024 by S. R. Watts

Having studied the art of storytelling for years now, I understand how much work goes into crafting a tale that is not only rich in lore but is free of didactic language that might turn readers off to your underlying message. Like in any other form of media, knowing your audience is pivotal in crafting stories that resonate, engage, and ultimately remain with the reader long after the last page is turned. Most readers don’t like to be talked down to, and when writers understand the preferences, backgrounds, and expectations of their audience, they can tailor their narratives to communicate more effectively, weaving their message into the fabric of their stories in a way that enhances the plot while avoiding unnecessary barriers that might disrupt the reader’s overall experience.

Understanding audience expectations

While striving to craft my novels for a broad audience, I came to respect how every potential reader comes with a unique set of expectations shaped by their cultural, social, and personal experiences. As a writer, my task is to tap into these expectations—not merely to satisfy them, but to challenge and expand them in meaningful ways that don’t come off as preachy or condescending. For instance, young adults might gravitate towards stories that explore identity and independence, while science fiction enthusiasts might seek tales that delve into ethical dilemmas posed by technological advancement.

Recognizing these expectations helps me, as the writer, to construct narratives that are not only relevant to the reader but also deeply engaging and transformational. It's about striking a balance between delivering what audiences love and surprising them with new ideas and perspectives that help to expand their worldview. This is easier said than done, though, which is evidenced by the many failures I have seen in the mainstream media in the past few years.

The pitfalls of agenda-driven narratives

One common mistake I have seen some writers make—whether they’re writing a novel or drafting a screenplay—is prioritizing their message over the story itself. Seeing the many box office bombs in the past two years (i.e., 2022 and 2023), based on the movies that failed to perform well, tells me that audiences are quite adept at detecting when a narrative is being used primarily as a vehicle for pushing an agenda. Such stories often come across as preachy or didactic, lacking the subtlety and artistry that make storytelling so captivating. For Example, Disney’s “Strange World” pushed an environmental message that left many viewers feeling like the creators were talking down to them, which likely led to the film being the biggest bomb in the history of Disney Animation as the audience reviews stated how uninteresting the film was.

Instead, the most effective stories are those where the message emerges naturally from the plot and character development. Readers are drawn to intricate tales with rich world-building, complex plots, and multi-dimensional characters. When these elements are well-executed, any underlying message is absorbed more organically and profoundly. It becomes a discovery rather than a lecture, and readers will be more receptive to it as they are allowed to stumble upon it themselves.

Integrating themes without compromising storytelling

To write a story that both captivates and communicates effectively, I found that a writer needs to focus first on crafting a good story. This means developing a world that feels real and immersive, plotting twists that keep readers on the edge of their seats, and creating characters who are relatable, flawed, and evolving as the story progresses to its natural conclusion.

For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s "The Lord of the Rings" offers an expansive world and a gripping narrative that come together in a magnificent tapestry of lore that has captured the imagination of readers all over the world. The themes of power, corruption, friendship, and sacrifice emerge naturally through the characters' journeys without ever overtaking the story itself. Tolkien’s deep understanding of his audience, as well as his understanding of the delicate craft of storytelling, allowed him to weave these themes into a narrative that felt epic and personal all at once. Personally, there might not be a better example than Tolkien when it comes to crafting the perfect fantasy story.

Storytelling as a reflective mirror

A well-told story acts like a mirror, reflecting aspects of our world back at us in a way that is fresh and thought-provoking. By knowing their audience, writers can use this mirror effectively, not only to show us who we are but also to challenge us to consider who we might become. This reflective quality makes stories stick with us, not just because they are entertaining, but because they resonate on a deeper, often personal, level.

I have spent years reflecting on the state of our world, doing my best to create a fantasy realm that mirrors many of the issues that we face as humans in an ever-evolving technological and sociological revolution. And while I have come to some very profound understandings of how we might address the biggest issues we face, I knew that I couldn’t just drop these solutions onto the heads of my readers. I had to create a journey for them, to allow them to stumble upon the answers for themselves while offering them rebuttals that contradict my worldviews along the way. Only then could my readers make the decision for themselves on how they would receive the message as they followed the hero to wherever he finds himself at the end of the story.

Conclusion: the subtle art of storytelling

In conclusion, knowing your audience is about more than just understanding who they are; it's about understanding what they can teach you as a storyteller. It's a dynamic dialogue, a give-and-take that, when done well, enriches both the writer and the reader. As a storyteller, my goal should be to craft narratives that intrigue and entertain, and should they carry a message within their depths, let it emerge as naturally as the rising sun. This approach not only respects the intelligence and sensitivity of our audience but also celebrates the very essence of what makes storytelling such a powerful art form, giving everyone a reason to be excited about the industry once more.