Advice for Writers: Are you Writing "Dessert" or "Broccoli"?

As long as I can remember, I’ve divided the movies, books, and TV shows I consume into two kinds of projects: “dessert” and “broccoli.”

Dessert is the kind of project I can’t wait to read or watch — and the kind that leaves me breathless and enraptured and totally entertained when I do. These projects are not always sweet and “fun” per se (sometimes they’re harrowing), but the fact is, I want to consume them, just like dessert.

Broccoli, meanwhile, is the kind of movie, book, or TV show that I sort of have to force myself to read or watch — but that I feel that I should consume because I’ve been told it’s “important” or because there was a rave review in the New York Times. I’m consuming it mostly because it’s good for me, just like, well, broccoli.

Oscar nominees and award winners are often dessert, but … um, sometimes they give off a strong smell of broccoli as well.

They’re about “the human condition.” They’re about “difficult” or “small” subjects. They make a point to MAKE A POINT.

And just between you and me, they’re also sometimes a load of pretentious, self-important twaddle.

But let me hasten to add that box office hits and bestseller books are not necessarily pure dessert. Sometimes — maybe even often — they’re just plain sh*t. And who wants to ever eat sh*t?

Obviously my artistic judgments — like all artistic judgments — are subjective. One person’s dessert is another person’s broccoli.

But maybe it’s not entirely subjective.

I’m a playwright, and one of the reasons why I love the medium is that it’s inherently humbling. If the writer attends a production of his or her own work, he or she is forced to deal with the reaction of the audience.

It’s sort of like Amazon reviews times a hundred.

Here’s the thing: just by sitting there with the audience, it’s almost always incredibly obvious what they think. It’s even obvious what specific parts of the play “work” and which don’t.

And in my writer’s heart of hearts, here’s what I, like all who toil in the theater, have been forced to admit: the audience is usually right. Sure, not every project is for every audience. And furthermore, the audience can be swayed by gimmicks and spectacle (but who says genuinely entertaining gimmicks and spectacle are necessarily bad things?).

Yes, the reaction might vary slightly from audience to audience (and opening nights are notoriously bad predictors of anything, since they’re stocked with sympathetic friends).

But when something “works” on stage, most people in the audience generally agree that it does; when it doesn’t, they don’t. They may not know “why” it does or doesn’t work — I think it takes a real talent, and a lifetime of study, to enumerate that. But they do know.

I’ve sat through many, many, many play productions in my life — sometimes of my own work, and often the work of other writers.

When it comes to all entertainment, the audience isn’t always right: the break-out success of Adam Sandler, Riverdale, and Real Housewives has been trying my patience with humanity for years.

But I think the audience is right more often than it’s not — at least as often as the critics or the award committees (although remember: critics and award committee folks are part of the audience too!).

So what do almost all audiences want from their writers?

Well, they want to be entertained. The way I see it, audiences and readers are doing us writers a big favor to consider our projects (and pay us for the privilege); it’s not the writer who’s doing the audience the favor here by bestowing his talent or wisdom on the world (which is what a lot of self-important writers seem to think).

Audiences want to be the opposite of bored. They want to laugh, they want to cry. Basically, they’re desperate to be fully engaged, but they don’t want to have to work too hard — or be confused or mystified and bludgeoned by a message.

In other words, they want dessert.

But hold on, hold on! That’s not all most audiences want. They also want to see something genuinely new. They want to be mentally stimulated. And they (sometimes) want to be challenged.

They just don’t want to be preached at or lectured to or talked down to: they don’t like writers who think they’re smarter than their audiences. And all audiences get really, really frustrated with self-indulgent authors who are too lazy, too untalented, or too disinterested to clearly communicate their visions.

In other words, audiences also want broccoli — assuming it’s a reasonably modest portion, and it’s well-prepared.

No, really! This is absolutely true! Ask any playwright or actor: they’ll tell you, because they know.

What’s the point of all this? It’s that good writing is both dessert and broccoli.

I absolutely believe this to the core of my being: a project that is obviously well-intentioned and about an “important” topic, but ultimately boring or confused or preachy?

That’s bad writing.

There is nothing wrong with having your audience be thrilled and excited and entertained. On the contrary, that’s the writer’s goal. And once you’ve done that, then you can offer up the broccoli if you choose.

Take the Starz series Spartacus. It’s chock full of nudity, explicit sex, and stylized violence — all the stuff you’d expect in a project that is “dessert.” But if you’ve seen the show, you also know the writing is breathtakingly complex, and the themes are large and profound. The stuff of broccoli.

And it was a huge, break-out success for an obscure network that had never really had a break-out success before. But here’s the thing: I think it was the “dessert” factor and the “broccoli” factor together that made it the kind of success it was. One or the other alone wouldn’t have worked.

Or take Downton Abbey. From a distance, this is broccoli all the way: a stuffy period piece about upper crust Brits during World War I and the servants who serve them? And it’s Masterpiece Theatre, no less!

But again, as anyone who has watched the show knows, along with the “broccoli” elements is some pretty sweet dessert: smart, funny writing; crisp, indelible characters; and fast-paced, get-to-the-point pacing. Things happen. Once again, some very sophisticated themes — about power, gender, status, and all its many consequences — are made extremely watchable.

(Interestingly, Downton Abbey has many of the same themes as Spartacus, and no, I don’t think that’s a coincidence!)

And once again, Downton Abbey was a huge, break-out hit for its respective network (PBS).

The audience knows.

Including an element of dessert in your writing doesn’t mean dumbing it down, or selling out, or toning down your message. It simply means respecting your audience: not treating them like idiots, or forcing them to sit in an awkward uncomfortable seat while keeping the temperature way too cold.

And including an element of broccoli also means you’re respecting your audience: taking for granted that they want works of truth and substance.

The most memorable meals include both broccoli and dessert. They’re both important. And together, they’re something to savor.

P.S. Before anyone says it? Personally, I love broccoli, even without dessert. Which means it may not make the best analogy for our purposes here. But hey, it’s catchier than “dessert” versus “castor oil.”

Brent Hartinger