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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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What the Story Needs

I saw the film Doubt and liked it. Some critics have complained that the filmmaker attempts to get away with something by not revealing the truth about whether or not wrongdoing occurred. They apparently miss the point and, more important, don’t understand what story is being told.

The characters know what they know, but there is no one to confirm for the viewer what “really” happened. The story is “about” the tension among the characters’ various versions of the story and the lack of a definitive answer. Everything learned about the characters and the situation is revealed through talk and action that takes place in the present. Whether the lack of omniscience in a religious setting is poignant or heavy-handed, it is, likely, intentional.

Viewers who believe it’s the writer’s job to play god probably won’t like this film. (Since I don’t, I did.) As a writer, I get peeved out when readers expect me to completely satisfy their curiosity. Writing effectively isn’t always about closure. It’s impossible to fill in every detail that every reader wants; it’s challenging enough to provide sufficient information.

What the story needs matters more than what the reader wants. I don’t mean that readers are irrelevant. But thinking too much about audience makes me tentative. I come dangerously close to doing the work of a customer service rep rather than that of a writer.

Customer reviews on various sites suggest that many readers want quick, easy reading. If a book challenges them at all, it receives a low rating for being a slow read. If they don’t get it, the author is to blame for not engaging them. They apparently feel no responsibility to bring anything to the reading experience. I’m really not interested in writing for readers like that.

Not that I have many readers at this point, but I think I’m okay with quality over quantity. The responses I get tell me that some of what I’m trying to communicate comes through in the writing. I even like the idea of readers not feeling completely satisfied with what I write, as if they’re in an ongoing conversation with my work and each piece of writing is a remark that intrigues but incompletely, leaving them interested in the next thing I’ll say/write. That seems similar to buying a painting because it’s challenging, not because it matches the upholstery. Every time I look at it, I feel something a little different, but I can’t stop wanting to look at it.

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