At first it seems obvious; audiences need to understand the story, both in the concrete sense of “what is actually happening”, and the more abstract level of ideas, themes, and overall meaning. “What is the story about?” “What is the story trying to say” These are important questions to consider when editing a story.
For example, “What is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone about?” Possible answers include:
“A young boy discovers he’s a wizard.”
“Children attend a magical school and learn how to be wizards.”
“A secret society of wizards and magical creatures, hiding in the modern world.”
“Prejudice and racial purity in a magical world.”
“A combination of Lord of the Rings and school life.”
Granted, not everyone will agree that all of these answers are accurate, but anyone who’s familiar with the Harry Potter series will recognize these phrases as possible references to the Harry Potter series (among other stories).
Clarity comes in many forms. On the large scale it’s the premise or plot of the story, “A young boy discovers he’s a wizard,” its genre and tone, “young adult, coming of age, fantasy, light-hearted adventure”, and the underlying questions or ideas, “identity, fame, race and prejudice, power, morality as a burden or a source of strength, etc.”
Every audience begins a story with expectations; an amalgam of what they can infer from the front & back cover, and what they may have heard from other audiences. Something led this person to choose “this story” over another.
Granted, every author’s goal is to convince audiences that “their story” is worth experiencing, but it’s also important to make sure audiences are choosing “this story” for the right reasons. Few things can ruin an experience like feeling tricked.
Audiences want to be surprised, but they still want the story to stay within its own established conventions. A light-hearted comedy that suddenly turns to horror at the halfway point will leave many audiences “frustrated”.
And there are certainly some audiences who are not comfortable with graphical violence or sexuality. Even genres like fantasy and comedy have a wide range of styles, each tailored to match the various tastes of their potential audience.
This is why it’s important to establish the genre, tone, and overall style of your story early on, particularly if your story is a novel or feature length film. Provide a brief sample of each aspect, including “how dark or serious”, “how light or silly”, and “how graphic” the story will be.
A great example would be the animated film Aladdin. Originally it was slated to open in the desert, with the villain meeting a low level thief and obtaining the first “artifact” of the story, establishing the “darker” aspects, while the following scene demonstrates the light-hearted adventure. But the production team realized that the story didn’t establish Robin Williams’ unique brand of humor until much later, when the Genie was introduced. So they created the character of the merchant, who helps introduce that same style of comedy early in the story.
Prologue as Foreshadowing
Many stories, particularly fantasy, use prologues as a kind of “info dump”, providing essential background information in the form of a dry, historical summary, before moving on to the “real story”. But prologues are also a great way of establishing tone, and genre.
Consider the Harry Potter series. The first three books all open with very light-hearted scenes; first Dumbledore leaving Harry to live with his troublesome relatives, and then two opening chapters where Harry struggles to endure said troublesome relatives.
But book four (Goblet of Fire) opens in a very different way. Audiences hear the story of an old unsolved murder, and witness another, as an unfortunate old man manages to wander into one of Voldemort’s plans. This marks a significant shift for the series, which continues in book 5 with a dementor attack, and culminates with book 7’s opening, where a woman pleads for her life before being murdered in front of a former colleague.
Each opening sets the tone for the book. 1-3 represent safe adventures, while 4-7 stand in stark contrast with the chapters that follow, offering brief taste that foreshadows the tragic deaths that happen later in the story.
Beginning as Microcosm
Another technique is to create a “mini-adventure” at the beginning, something that emulates the pattern of the larger story, on a smaller scale. Many James Bond films start this way, as does Lord of the Rings through the journey to Rivendell. Through these mini-adventures, audiences get a sense of what they can expect, whether it be fast paced action, comedy of the absurd, or the simple struggles of an everyday character who finds themselves in the middle of a much larger conflict.
Clear Storytelling II-Words & Meaning