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The 6th Building Block

I've often spoken about the building blocks of storytelling: plot, characterization, setting, tone, and theme. But there is really a sixth building block of storytelling. And as a writer, this is the scariest of all because it is one that we have no control over. This is the experience. Specifically, the experience of how the reader/viewer consumes our stories.

And the possibilities for this are endless.

If it's a book you could be reading on a plane with a crying baby two rows back or you could be reading in the comfort of your own home next to the crackling of a roaring fire. If it's a movie you could be watching it in your den with a bunch of your friends or you could be watching it on a huge screen in the theater packed with strangers. No matter what a storyteller does, his or her impact is only as strong as the venue which the reader/audience experiences their story. And this can very wildly from person to person.

I'll give you an example. Almost a decade ago I watched the movie Paranormal Activity in the theater with my cousin. We didn't know much about the film other than it was heralded as one of the scariest movies ever. At the time, Paranormal Activity was almost like a phenomenon and we were not disappointed. We watched it in a theater with only a handful of strangers, and I'm not ashamed to say I had one of the best theater experiences of my life. I thought the movie was incredible. My opinion of it (or I should say my memory of it) might also have to do with the fact that my cousin is no longer with us. He died a few years ago and so I look back on that movie as one of the finest memories I have with him (we were both HUGE movie buffs). Contrast this with someone who might watch Paranormal Activity a decade later, in the middle of the day, in their own home, with kids running all around, while folding laundry. It's a completely different experience and that person might walk away from the movie with a completely different sentiment.

And as a writer/creator, all of this is completely out of our control. We like to think consumers treat each piece of media they consume with care and respect, but the world doesn’t work that way. People watch TV while on the train on their phones and read books while walking down the street. So what are we to do about this? Nothing, really. It’s not our job to dictate when and how people watch/read/listen to our art. People are going to do what they want. It’s just helpful to know that some things aren’t up to us. So we should just put our heads down and keep making the best stuff we can regardless of what people think.

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