Here's a little exercise for you: what kinds of shows come to mind when I say the following TV channels?
Channel 6 News
I'm guessing you thought something along the lines of: heart-warming movies that my mom cries over, cooking shows, comedies that get increasingly viewer-selective as the night goes on, and people in weird dress shirts talking about Iraq and the weather.
You'd be a little disgruntled if you saw Rachel Ray whipping up a strawberry upside-down cake when you tuned in to watch Modern Family, wouldn't you? I would be. The people who make these TV shows know their audience. We as authors also have to know our audiences to be successful.
For example, one problem I see on FictionPress a lot is the use of really bad cuss-words (i.e. "f-") in YA (young adult) novels. I call them YA because the characters's ages average somewhere around fifteen, they're usually in high school, they usually have a puppy crush that rarely leads to sex, etc. And yet they're dropping the f-bomb like they're the American military and the reader is Japan. Fine, fifteen year olds in real life swear plenty. But the average YA novel on your library shelf will not have language in it. Parents don't let their kids read that kind of stuff. Not all teenagers (*coughmyselfcough*) want to read that kind of language. You're alienating your audience.
Here's another example in the YA world. One of the people I beta for sent me a YA fantasy story whose main character is a fifteen-ish year old boy. I was happily reading through chapter one, and then chapter two switched to the perspective of said boy's father. I thought, "What is this?" Young adults don't really want to read about adults. I don't. We can't sympathize with them. If anything, half the time we're steaming out our ears at them, and the last thing we want to do is read a story about them, especially someone's dad. So I told my beta-ee, "I think you're alienating your audience!" In the same way, you don't want your Western thriller switching to the perspective of Martha back at home who's washing long underwear and darning socks - not unless she's about to get attacked and scalped by some o' dem red injuns.
Let's stop for a moment here to clarify that I am not talking about cliched story arches or stereotypes. I'm also not talking about stifling your creativity in order to fit the market. I am rather telling you that you need to be aware that someone's going to be reading this; you're writing for a reader (if you're not, get off FictionPress). As Stephen King says, we need to keep "ideal reader" in the back of our mind as we write, because he will tell us when we're doing something to alienate him.
Can you think of any examples, or have you seen any, of when writers have forgotten what channel they're on? Please share them in the comments, and I'll make another chapter with more examples!
Post-essay (you know, like post-script?): If you've picked up on my love of quoting Stephen King in my essays, you're very observant! He has a wonderful book on writing called, strangely enough, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that I suggest you go get from your library right this second. That's how good it is. Thanks for reading! ~not Ross