I've always struggled with this. I like to write at the top of my knowledge without leaving those not having the benefit my experience behind.

It may sound arrogant but if I write for the lowest common denominator I feel my target reader will get bored of reading (and I'll get bored of writing).

To exacerbate the issue I can use a camera-control slow-reveal opening.

"Dearly beloved . . ."

The sounds of the speech were drowned out by Emily's relentless nagging internal voice. "There is neither good nor bad, only thinking makes it so."

". . . gathered here today . . ."

"There is neither good nor bad, only thinking makes it so. There is neither good nor bad, only thinking makes it so." She'd rehearsed for this moment. It would be okay. She was just a little nervous - that's all.

". . . in the sight of God . . ."

She squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for her cue. "There is neither good nor bad, only thinking makes it so. There is neither good nor bad, only thinking makes it so. There is neither good nor bad, only thinking makes it so."

The room fell silent.

That was her cue. It was her turn to speak her line.

The internal voice intensified, repeating the same line over and over again. "There is neither good nor bad, only thinking makes it so."

The minister cleared his throat.

"There is neither . . ."

Emily drew breath to speak. "I –"

" . . . only thinking . . ."

"I . . . I don't want to go to prison!" Emily blurted out before hitching up her dress and sprinting away down the aisle.

The bang of the church door echoed as she slammed it behind her.

The minister raised his brows. "Oops."

  • Some readers may have no clue what's going on.
  • Other readers may understand a nervous bride has absconded on her wedding day. But may be confused by the prison option.
  • The fully tuned may understand a bride who's absconded on her wedding day, and understand the option was not prison whilst assuming several aspects of her character and back-story.
  • In my honest opinion, no one should ever write for the least common denominator, unless one is writing a software installation guide, and the lowest common denominator is one's target audience. As for the text excerpt and the explanation which follows: If a line-by-line knowledge of classic literature is a pre-requisite for understanding your art, so be it--you are the artist, and it is no one's else choice, but yours. She is leaving Denmark, so what?. The real question to ask is why are you asking this question? If you are doubting your own method, there must be something wrong with it... – Lew May 24 '17 at 16:13
  • I have every confidence in my method(s). If I've any real questions they'd be "Why did I choose to write that scene without a visual?" and "Is the delivery of that scene more effective than - Bob and Emily stood at the alter. Emily looked beautiful in her flowing wedding dress . . .?" – Surtsey May 24 '17 at 20:14
  • "If I've any real questions they'd be..." so, you do not consider the question you just asked a real question? Why did you ask it, then? I am confused. – Lew May 24 '17 at 20:21
  • @Lew - It is often beneficial to ask one question to get the answer to another. – Surtsey May 24 '17 at 20:55
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    I find that asking a direct question usually helps to receive an answer faster. Well, good luck. :-) – Lew May 24 '17 at 21:20

To appeal to a broad audience, write simply and directly about things of interest to a great many people. Nothing in this formula stands in the way of creating great literature. Greatness in literature depends on creating a rich and enduring experience that is deeply true and exceedingly vivid, not in complexity of language or in complex narrative techniques or stylistic innovation.

And while there clearly examples of narrative and stylistic experimentation in works commonly acknowledged to be great -- Dickens, Joyce, Cormac McCarthy for just a few examples -- this kind of experimental technique is often a substitute for having something to say. And the fact remains that the basic techniques of narrative fiction always seem to return more or less to the norm. Give or take a few flourishes Cervantes narrative technique is not fundamentally different from what is being published today. Over the history of the novel we find significant variation of theme and diction and even point of view, but the basic narrative technique is remarkable consistent. Some experiments may work in individual books -- may perhaps achieve something that could not have been achieved with standard techniques -- but they don't change the way the mainstream operates.

If the greats sometimes seem obscure today it is because they were written years ago with a narrative style that we are not used to and relying on references to events and practices that modern audiences are no longer familiar with. This is why it is often the more educated that read the greats today -- they simply have the historical knowledge and the research skills to figure this stuff out. But in its day, most of what we now consider great (in novels at least) was written for the general reading public.

When it comes to appreciating the experience provided by a great story, there is no elite and no base. There is an effete class that only likes what others do not understand (whether they understand it themselves or not), but you should never confuse the effete with the elite.

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    I think this is an excellent answer, if one that many who should heed it will scorn instead. – Spagirl May 30 '17 at 16:07
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    I think your first and third paragraphs are both true and excellent, but find your second and fourth paragraphs overly dismissive. There is a place and a purpose for many different approaches to writing. Just as the popular approach is not automatically bad, neither is it automatically good; and the same for the unpopular approach. – Chris Sunami May 30 '17 at 19:13
  • @ChrisSunami I did not mean to say that experimentation was automatically bad. I love Bleak House despite its weird alternating narrator setup. Thus the choice of the word probably. But I do think most experimentation betrays (or at least displays) a lack of anything much to say. (Not that non experimental lit is exactly bursting with new ideas either.) I do think that experimentation should be done to achieve a better telling than conventional techniques can achieve, not simply to appeal to effete tastes. I'm not yet persuaded to retract my 4th para, though. :-) – Mark Baker May 30 '17 at 21:32
  • I'd really like to upvote this because I think so much of it is solid, but it really doesn't seem to leave room for technical inventiveness to be anything but "at the expense of art" even in the hands of a great author. Successful experimental books may be few and far between, but there are some that are successful because, not in spite of their departures from the norm. Samuel Delany's Dhalgren, for example, which was critically acclaimed AND a best-seller --and which can't be separated from its postmodernist experiments. – Chris Sunami May 31 '17 at 0:29
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    I disagree that great works are usually written simply and directly. I think they often contain a great deal of complexity, but are written so well that it reads like simplicity. They often deal with very personal themes, but communicate them so well that they feel universal. I don't think experimentation betrays a lack of anything to say, but rather it becomes invisible when it communicates successfully. There is certainly a kernel of truth in what you're saying, but I think there's also a danger of it being interpreted as nothing more than simpler=better. – TheTermiteSociety May 31 '17 at 9:20

If you try to please everyone, you please no-one. Finnegan's Wake (Joyce) has gained and retained a reputation as a great classic of the English language, despite working hard at every turn to confound and confuse the reader (and arguably not even being written in real "English").

If your writing is good enough, and if you are true enough to your own personal vision, you are likely to gain at least a niche audience of passionate fans, which has been enough to keep many a book alive for centuries.

Typically, books that appeal to a broad popular audience do so because their authors are naturally at home (or have found a way to make themselves at home) with a broadly popular idiom or genre, not because they have deliberately tried to "dumb down" their work. In other words, they are attuned to the broader audience, not chasing it (and certainly not condescending to it).

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    The difference between a broad audience and a narrow audience is one of interests, not intelligence. Appealing to a broad audience is not about dumbing down, but about addressing its interests. Experiments with literary form always have been and always will be of interest to few, but the difference is one of interest, not intelligence. – Mark Baker May 30 '17 at 16:01
  • @MarkBaker I agree, I was trying to critique the notion of "dumbing down," not endorse it. – Chris Sunami May 30 '17 at 19:06

You have adopted a complicated, "elite" format, with a surprising "twist" ending to the scene. I'm not sure that you were successful, but you made your point.

You had two interlocking themes, the mundane, (that is the pastor's homily), and the "real" one. There's your distinction between the elite and the least common denominator. The mundane stuff keeps the attention of the average person, while the surprise event captures your intended audience. It'sh hard to execute well, but if you can, you can appeal to both audiences. For instance, I'm not sure how to work the prison angle into your story.

Apparently there are some writers that specialize in these surprise twists. They are hard to execute but can be very interesting when successful You might want to identify and copy these authors. I have the feeling that you are onto something, but haven't yet arrived. Your scene reminds me of one or two in Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities." You might want to consult that book.

  • One could view marriage as a prison. The term 'wedlock' does not sound particularly endearing . . . But she was reciting Hamlet the full text of which is: WWhy, then, 'tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison. Well, then it isn't one to you, since nothing is really good or bad in itself—it's all what a person thinks about it. And to me, Denmark is a prison." – Surtsey May 29 '17 at 23:47

My advice would be to forget about "engaging" people, not because you don't need to, exactly, but because trying to often gets in the way of successfully doing so (people end up writing stuff that doesn't even engage them, because they think it's what their readers want).

I think it's better to think about communicating. You have a story in your head, and a set of characters, and a world (which might, of course, resemble the real world very closely, but is nonetheless a product of your imagination). Your goal is show this to the reader, and show them why they should care about it.

So, how do you communicate? Do you assume the reader thinks like you, and shares the same interests as you?

If you do, you may be able to rely on shared assumptions and communicate very deeply with people who are like you in these respects, but you may fail to communicate with people who don't think like you or share your interests.

If, however, you assume the reader has nothing in common with you, and try to bridge the gap between you by expressing more universal ideas through more widely understood devices, you may not communicate so deeply, but you will probably communicate further, and with more people.

So, I think there is always a certain trade off between these two, but there's also a continuum between them. Great works, the ones that we remember, that are popular and acclaimed, generally don't fall quite at either end of this continuum (since those that do will tend to end up forgotten or unread) but they usually encompass a large portion of it. Because of the writer's brilliance, they are able to bridge the gap more completely than other works, and connect things that are personal to the writer with things that are personal to the reader.

The trick, then, I think, is to occupy as large a space on this continuum as possible. Whether you choose a portion nearer to yourself ("experimental fiction"), somewhere in the middle ("literary fiction") or nearer to your reader ("popular fiction") is obviously up to you.


There have been a wealth of anwswers (most being cliches). I feel that most are not getting the question.

Firstly, lets dismiss the theory that 'popular' = 'good'. For theory to be correct McDonalds would be the world's greatest food and Trump would be a good president.

What we're really talking about here is multi-level writing, the ability to engage the intelligent whilst entertaining the minions. Take this simple Lex Luther quote:

"Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe."

So, to be a great writer you need to be able to encode the secrets of the universe into a chewing gum wrapper (you need to embed those secrets for the privileged to read it).

So, let's have a look at some very basic examples. In the movie "Die Hard II" Bruce Willis glances at the camera before saying "How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?" The odds are it can't. Is this the actor or writer saying, "I'm talented. I've got education, skills, and qualifications. I can do pretty much anything but all you want is the same shit over and over?"

Let's take another example: "Lethal Weapon". The main characters are openly discussing the three-act plot: "We got one dead girl and one dead guy. The dead guy kills the dead girl, we kill the dead guy 'cause he wanted us to be dead guys - it's pretty easy to me." Unfortunately we are only half way through the movie - the characters conclude the plot is 'a little thin' and proceed to complicate it.

So, we're writing basic stories for basic people but for the more sophisticated we've got to write a story at two speeds.

Let's look at: "The Taking of Pelham 123". The title of the story immediately informs some members of the audience of outcome of the train hijack - it was easy (easy as 1-2-3). Now you're writing for two distinct audiences - Those who know the outcome of Acts I and II and those who don't. You're wasting your time trying suspense tactics on the smarter reader.

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