A Writer’s Challenge

It is insight into human nature that is the key to the communicator’s skill. For whereas the writer is concerned with what he puts into his writings, the communicator is concerned with what the reader gets out of it. He therefore becomes a student of how people read or listen.

William Bernbach

I received a poke from a concerned writing friend. Asked if the wheels on the writing bus had fallen off or had I just gone walkabout. To see fourteen months have passed without a thought scribbled on Writeside-Up made me cringe. It did appear as if those wheels had fallen off. In truth, I had embarked on a literary walkabout.

While on that detour, I found enlightenment about what I considered exceptional versus adequate (and inadequate) writing. It drove home Bernbach’s point. The American advertising creative director was adamant that it’s not what you say but how it’s said that reaches an audience. Exceptional works are crafted by communicators. The writing style must capitalise on how the human psyche internalises what they read or hear, the impact those words deliver.

No matter the genre, the writer’s challenge is to not only pen believable stories, but the tales told must leach into the reader’s soul. Punch them in the gut. Tear at their hearts. Evoke indignation at injustice or fill one with satisfaction when justice is served. Elicit tears of sadness or joy in empathy for the character. Build tension then scare the crap out of them. That is achieved through skilful writing. Proven by our litmus test–our readers.

I once mentioned I’ve used my busy-hands time listening to Audible. The total number of books has surpassed one hundred. The genres as varied as the authors. And the writing styles ranged from simplistic and undercooked storytelling to clever grand tales filled with visual and emotional impact. Listening shifted from escaping boredom while performing mundane tasks to analysing of each author’s writing style. The shift occurred after I noted numerous modern stylistic Do’s and Don’ts were either exemplified or violated, respectively.

I homed in on vocabulary usage. Weighed the impact of rich passages of descriptive writing to barren ones. Ditto to dialogue styles, which ranged from verbose deliveries to three-word terse replies. I engaged my ears as people did while gathered around the radio, once upon a time.

No matter how difficult it was to get through stories I found emotively deficient or poorly written, I continued listening, hoping for redemption. Sometimes it was delivered but more often not. Did the fault lie in the critical editing process? That critical place where we are challenged to shift from writer to communicator.

The power of deft editing was exemplified in the transformation of a H. G. Wells novel, The War Of The Worlds, by Orson Welles, his Mercury Theatre on the Air actors, and writers. The radio theatre group walked a do-or-die line at the tail end of a production, scrambled for a new production number. Wells book was suggested then dismissed because The Mercury Theatre actors and writers deemed the work an improbable, idiotic load of nonsense. The 1897 novel was the earliest known to portray a conflict between earth and aliens.

 (Yup, that little tidbit surprised me too. Never thought anyone in that era even considered the possibility of an intergalactic invasion, given the shift from a steam-driven to a gasoline powered automobile didn’t occur in the United States until 1895.)  

That desperation for new material knocked so loud and hard, the company’s writers and actors tore the forty-year-old novel apart. They edited the bejeebers out of the it. Turned it into a ‘fake news bulletin’ radio script. And on Halloween night in 1938, an anxious Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air players performed The War Of The Worlds.

Kapow! The sweat equity paid off. The fake, real-time bulletins, and the actors dramatized responses to them, were so convincing it was reported tens of thousands of listeners panicked believing Martians had indeed invaded New Jersey. They contacted police. Radio stations and the newspapers were inundated with reports. The terror reportedly spanned the nation.

That reworked story succeeded exponentially in producing a credible production. The outcome exemplified the power of editing a questionable story into something outstanding. They reconstructed it. Brutalized it. Hammered away at every line to make it work for the listener. Made it utterly believable.

H. G. Wells may have authored the story, but when Orson Welles and his collaborators were done, a visceral event occurred. It leached into the readers’ souls and produced terror. Punched them in the gut. Tore at their hearts. Made them run for their lives.

Wowzer! A win-win for the communicator and the listener.

How about you? What makes a story hold your attention? Do you often find yourself mentally editing something your read? Do you finish a poorly told tale or put it back on the shelf?

Thanks for listening. Cheers.

S. C. Roberts

4 thoughts on “A Writer’s Challenge

  1.     “A literary walkabout” sounds like a walk through a metaphorical world. That does sound like a good idea to avoid injury falling off a cliff, and yet still allow for a cliff-hanger.
        Yes, “how the human psyche internalizes what they read or hear, the impact those words deliver,” is an interesting topic. I’ve been trying to develop a language with words that are more dense in meaning. I have no patience and I’m always waiting for someone to get to the point. (well, I suppose that’s a form of projection, because people can’t wait for me to get to the point.) Two people who have both seen the same movie often talk that way: “Yeah, it’s like that scene __ remember.” The scene they know in common is like a single word: “S1 act Y” is a word or it could be renamed X. The problem is that it’s not standardized. You could have a standardized vocabulary of such words.
        I wonder what language daydreams are written in. It’s much too fast to be a paragraph of words. Triggering the “mind’s eye” and the “mind’s ear” is a problem.
        The War of the Worlds was in a serendipitous place in history: after the Great Depression and on the eve of WW2. Fear and panic, harbingers of doom, already present.
        I have few actual in-person conversations, and when I do it usually doesn’t go well. I can’t quickly make my point: I usually find that I get half way through a sentence when I see the other person’s attention fading away, and even when I stop mid-sentence, they never ask, “what was it that you wanted to say?” They are happy to look at their watch and make an excuse to leave. If I manage to keep a conversation going for a while, I see them frantically looking for an exit or friend, or hoping the ceiling collapses ( a little hyperbolic).
        I learn about characters mostly from TV and movies. I manage conversations on the internet a little better because it’s a slow motion conversation. I get to think about and compose how I’m going to do my side of the delayed prompt and response. So I suppose it’s more like a fictional conversation or simulation.


    • Thanks, Doug. Several times I did nearly fall off a cliff during my walkabout. It drove me to question my ability to write something worthwhile; question why I grant precious hours to that writing time-sponge, which absorbs so much time. The answer wraps itself around my shoulders and pulls me back from harm every time.
      The complexities of the human psyche are the reason I studied the social sciences.
      Fascinating and terrifying at the same time because in truth the outcomes are predicably unpredictable. Like AI, the human mind recodes itself with every new stimulant; trades one nasty with another while smiling at the suggestion of being ‘cured’.
      My daydreams are written in a vaporous language of magnificent impossibilities, much like the possibility of a peaceful world or winning the Powerball lottery.
      I venture you can’t make a concise point because your brain runs too hot and fast. Its full of facts and thoughts most people cannot comprehend. Very intimidating.
      The reason I have become a cafe, hospital, and park voyeur is to generate my character list. Funny how people become animated in public. They make a point of being just loud enough for other to overhear but quiet enough to not seem too obvious about it.
      Thanks for the chat, Doug. Take care and I’ll see you around the hallways of WordPress. Cheers.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well said, as always. And good to hear from you again. I agree with the premise. I do think those writers who are adept at understanding people make the best writers. Those who have studied human nature, worked as couselors or learned to really listen paint great characters and so the best stories. As to the question- I am not one to perservere to the end if the book is not holding my interest. I look for another to read. Life is too short to struggle through bad writing. I do, however, analyze why the writing is not working sometimes of late.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Bev! So glad you chimed in. I hope all is well back home. I depend on the study of other people for developing complex characters. Saves me from falling into the trap of recycling same mold. And yes, whether one finishes the book or not, the analysis is the lesson from a writer’s perspective. Cheers.


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