Need to break through writer’s block? Consider A&P!

Artists have their brushes, easels and sketchpads; carpenters, their saws, hammers and levels; musicians, their pitch pipes, scales and embrasures.

As writers, we too have many and varied tools. Some are straightforward, such as vocabulary, basic understanding of grammar, punctuation and spelling. Others are more individualized and abstract, including our areas of literary interest, personal backgrounds and writing goals. (A blockbuster novel? The perfect haiku? An Oscar-winning screenplay?)

And perhaps there are a few that are too slippery and nebulous for easy classification.

I’d like to discuss one that, in my opinion, could be the Swiss Army knife for fiction writers when it comes to decision making and/or problem solving: Audience and Purpose.

Years ago, while teaching classes, addressing groups or conducting seminars, I was eventually (and inevitably) approached by confused/frustrated/stalled writers at a loss for how to proceed with their story or novel. They didn’t know “what to do next” or “how to write this part” or “why this scene doesn’t work” or…fill in the blank.

For many, perhaps most of them, a simple-but-not-always-easy Audience and Purpose (A&P) exercise might have been able to break the block and clarify not only what needed to happen, but also how it needed to happen.

While this tool can be applied to any piece of fiction (and can be effectively applied to nonfiction as well), I’ll frame it in terms of writing a genre novel.

Ideally, a writer will have some basic idea of the type of material he is writing — mystery, romance, fantasy, etc. — and this presents a broad A&P framework. On the surface, the use of this tool may appear obvious and hardly worth note. A mystery novel’s Purpose, its overall reason for being, is to present the reader with a puzzle (usually a crime) of some sort and the eventual solution of that puzzle. Broadly speaking, a mystery novel’s Audience is comprised of those who enjoy mysteries.

Not exactly a breakthrough realization.

Taking it a step further is still rather straightforward. Readers seeking and expecting a nice, cozy whodunit comprise a somewhat different Audience from those seeking a hard-boiled, double-fisted, take-no-prisoners tale or readers with a yen for a detail-rich police procedural or any of the other guises a mystery might take. While the overall Purpose might be the same (present and then solve the puzzle), the Audience, and therefore the approach, will vary.

Okay…still pretty obvious. Big deal, right?

Let’s take it deeper. While the overall Purpose may be to solve that puzzle, it’s not the only thing that happens. (At least I hope not). There are characters to meet, settings to explore, moods to create, relationships to develop. While these sub-Purposes may be colored by the overall Purpose, they are not controlled by it.

If, for example, your protagonist develops an attraction to or even a relationship with another character, and you want your reader to “approve” and be happy for them, this short-term Purpose will dictate your literary decisions.

(Note that your short-term Audience for this could briefly be different from your overall Audience. These readers perhaps want to see sexual tension and sparks or the signs of a happy romance — issues perhaps far removed from the crime under investigation. More on that below.)

An action-packed chase or fight or deadly confrontation presents us with a slightly different Purpose and a slightly different Audience — one that hopefully is worried about your characters more so than simply the solution to the puzzle/crime. You now wish to frighten readers, increase their heart rate, make them fear the outcome, and so you make appropriate creative decisions: short, sharp, hard words; brief, brutal sentences; short paragraphs (leading to faster page turning, a physical/psychological trigger).

Or perhaps you choose to use pages-long sentences with no punctuation or breaks in the action or chances for the reader to catch his breath or slow down or even think clearly because everything is happening so quickly that there is no time no time no time at all and the physical and mental rush of reading with no pause takes the reader’s breath away and that’s just exactly what you wanted to do…

At every level of the novel, there is an Audience and a Purpose. They can vary throughout and can have an impact on the writer’s decisions, both big and small. Take character names, for example…

Mystery and thriller writer Lawrence Block’s somewhat comedic Burglar books feature a bookstore owner/burglar whose criminal exploits often make him the suspect in a related murder, which he then has to solve to clear his name. The stories are light and fun, and the protagonist’s name is Bernie Rhodenbarr. Another Block series features an alcoholic unlicensed private investigator; this not-especially-pleasant ex-cop is named Matthew Scudder. Block had a specific Purpose for choosing those names, and those names have resonated with the Audience for each series.

A similar Purpose, however, does not necessarily dictate a similar approach…

Children’s book author Betty Ren Wright and Stephen King both have similar Purposes: give the readers a frightening thrill. But their Audiences varied considerably. Wright’s approach would not have given King’s Audience (adults) nightmares, and King’s approach would have given Wright’s Audience (small children) too many.

Let’s stick with King for a moment more for a bit of over-the-top-obvious fun.

If one of his sleep-with-the-lights-on books had cause to introduce a small town auto mechanic, we might expect him to be shirtless; wearing grease-stained, smelly bib-overalls (broken strap on one side); having unkempt dirty hair; holding a beer can in hand; unlit cigarette stub in mouth; one unfocused eye skewed off to the side; left foot dragging a bit as he shambles out of the filthy garage’s dim shadows.

If King wished to scribe a category Romance, however, both his Purpose and Audience would change. While the mechanic would doubtless still be shirtless (to show those ripped abs, of course), his clean, flowing hair would frame a strong, smiling face populated with piercing blue eyes, a strong chin, gleaming white teeth and perhaps the hint of his having forgotten to shave that morning. Although working as a mechanic that day (covering for an ill employee), he’s actually the owner of the immaculate garage, takes in stray animals, is a passable cook and writes poetry.

Okay, okay, I know…it’s a bit much.

Throughout our books, we may have a single overriding Audience and Purpose in mind, but it is a mistake to be unaware of the shifts in both that take place throughout the entire narrative. Individual scenes may have Purposes (and Audiences) that vary from the book’s overarching A&P, as can individual paragraphs, sentences and words.

At any point, a writer should be able to answer these questions:

  • Right now, right here, what is my immediate Purpose? (To Frighten? Inform? Titillate? Move?)
  • Who is my immediate Audience? (Someone who wants to be frightened? Wants to learn? Wants a sensual thrill? Wants to be brought to tears or laughter or…?)
  • And how do I best fulfill that Purpose for that Audience?

The best writers tell the tales that move and compel them, and I caution you to please not mistake this particular tool for a cure-all formula or template. It’s simply a way to approach problem areas in our writing. In fact, the whole Audience and Purpose approach might best be served by ignoring it during the heat of a first draft and bringing it to bear only after the tale has been committed to paper (or computer file).

Once you know the basic story you’re trying to tell, then you’re able to go back and tell it well.

The next time you find yourself losing story focus, adrift in a sea of “what comes next?” or simply unsure of the best way to approach a particular scene or sequence of events, the A&P technique might just become your best friend. Give it a try.

If this tool helps you in any way, I’m delighted. If not, then my Audience has not been satisfied, and my Purpose has not been fulfilled. My apologies.

Jack Byrne contributed this article.


2 responses to “Need to break through writer’s block? Consider A&P!

  • citizensd

    Very nice, simple and useful.

  • David Michael Williams

    Very sage advice, Jack. It’s definitely something I’m keeping in mind as I rework my current novel. And it’s amazing how A&P can impact not only plot points and character development, but also something as specific as word choice.

    I have my work cut out for me!

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