Sunday morning, I was out to brunch with the usual suspects. My friend Kelly peeked over his shoulder at the table of senior citizens directly behind him, didn’t quite shrug, and started talking. “So, I was at a reading last weekend. Man, talk about dividing your audience.”
His wife’s eyes got big as she smiled and nodded.
One of the readers was a mystery writer. His detective was investigating the death of a woman with a stable of boyfriends. For this particular scene, he was interviewing one of the boyfriends.
Kelly paraphrased the boyfriend’s dialog. “Then she pulled out the [moderately intimidating sex toy*], and I started screaming, ‘Avocado! Avocado!'”
We laughed. The senior citizens ignored us.
Kelly nodded. “We howled with laughter. There was one other table that was howling too.”
But nobody else in the audience understood what was going on. Kelly didn’t mention it, but I’m sure they must have been looking at the maniacs at the two tables, trying to figure out what was so funny.
The author then went on to read the part of the story that explained what a safeword was. Once the rest of the rural and small-town Wisconsin audience fully absorbed that piece of knowledge, something clicked. Then they really looked at the two tables.
We all laughed again, because, really, how can you explain without implying there’s something that needs to be explained. All you can do in that situation is smile. Shrugs and winks are, of course, fully optional, as suits your temperament.
As much as I laughed about my friends’ uncomfortable situation, though, it’s the author who I think was in the most unenviable position. Imagine writing that scene, knowing that you had to reach both parts of your audience–the readers who take this knowledge for granted and those who don’t even know there’s something to know.
Thinking about the reaction at the reading, I think this writer handled the whole thing perfectly. For the knowing few, there was the extra payoff of the absurd safeword to float them through an explanation of what they already know. For the blissfully clueless, the strangeness of “avocado” was a flag that they were about to learn something new about sex. They had the opportunity to brace themselves for the shock. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am.
I’m definitely buying this guy’s book (as soon as I remember to ask Kelly who he is). Not only does he sound hilarious, but I suspect he has a lot more to teach me about writing.
Maybe even something about sex.
* Redacted only because, if you’re Googling for that, this is not the story you’re looking for.