Have you ever wondered what exactly defines the audience of a story? I had never thought about it much before, and it didn’t really matter to me where a book fit, or where my stories fit, so long as people want to read them. But after attending J. Scott Savage’s “YA vs Middle Grade” class, which was my favorite at Life, the Universe, and Everything (LTUE) this year, I decided that it IS important to know these things, especially while your’e working on a story of your own. There are a lot of publishers who will take a manuscript that needs tweaking in order to fit the audience they’re looking for, but so much time and effort can be saved for both publisher and author by knowing what you’re writing in order to have your story easily categorized right from the beginning.
How can you identify who the intended audience is? You may be thinking that it has something to do with the content of the book — perhaps with violent content, the age of the main characters, the depth of the romance, or the reading level of the vocabulary in the writing. But violence can be glossed over, as well as romance, ages can be changed or omitted, and the words an author uses can be made more complicated or simplistic through editing. These things are definitely considered by publishers, but they are things that aren’t essential to the story; these are things that are more easily changed before publication, and aren’t what really defines intended audience.
For example, author Jessica Day George, who was a panelist in another class I attended, noted one of her novels that she had written with more of a young adult age in mind for her main character. On top of that, there was another character who was sneaking out at night to do activities that were never explained, but that left her feeling tired in the morning and included a local boy. Day George thought her story was solidly targeted at young adults. But the publisher came back to her and said that it was more middle grade, and they had her change a few points that didn’t fit with that new audience.
You may also be thinking that the story defines the audience more often than the reverse, but in almost every case you would be wrong. You can tell virtually any story you would like, and you could write it for any audience you chose.
For instance, what about fairytales? We tell them to our children all the time, but when they are further examined, there’s a lot of potentially mortifying material that we only recognize considering the story from an older point of view. Take Little Red Riding Hood. So many children grow up knowing and loving this story, but it includes a wolf who eats a little girl’s grandmother, and a man who chops up the wolf with an axe to save her. What could possibly make this a story for kids? And yet, it is.
According to J. Scott Savage, there are two major parts to differentiating between middle grade and young adult stories, starting with sphere of influence. This defines how large the scope of the story is. If things go wrong, who will be affected? Friends, family, the world? Generally, an older audience will be reading something with a larger influence. This rule can be fudged a bit, however, as plenty of middle grade stories deal with saving the world, but we’ll come back to that in a minute. Secondly, there’s character motivation. If you study books for younger readers, the characters’ wants are more simplistic: I want to have a good day, I want to get through the summer without being bored, that sort of thing. With books for older readers, you’ll see more complexity: I want my family to support me in the life I choose, or I want to figure out if this boy/girl is the right one for me. Often, with more complex motivations, there will be collisions between them, and there will be a greater amount of detail under the surface.
Coupled with both of these ideas, we have to think of the morality of the choices the character is going to make. As the intended audience gets older, gray areas become more plentiful. With middle grade, the character’s decisions will seem more like common sense to the reader; if the character has to choose between saving their best friend or saving the world, they’re going to save their best friend (and probably also the world while they’re at it). In a young adult book, there will be definite pros and cons to whatever decision the characters are going to make, and they will be pointed out and thought through. There may not even be a right answer, and the reader can be left with more to think about when the story is done.
So, let’s go back to Little Red Riding Hood. All Red wants in this story is to deliver goodies to her grandmother. Pretty sweet and simple. Too simple for an older audience. When the wolf enters the picture, the only people he is affecting are Red and her grandmother. And in the end, the choice to chop up the wolf to save two people is a pretty obvious one. As adults, this story gives us pause, but only because we latch onto what’s been glossed over, what children hardly seem to notice is there. The violence doesn’t really matter to them as much as everything else does, and everything else is perfectly suited for a younger audience.
Beginning a new project with an intended audience in mind can simplify things for you. If you know who it is you’re writing for, you can figure out how complex your characters need to be, how deep to delve into a certain topic, or if you need to make your character’s actions more or less obviously moral. If you’re uncertain who your audience is, try writing one of your scenes for multiple audiences, and see which one fits best with the tone of your story. Have fun discovering who your audience is!
This post was written by Rachel White
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.