How Do We Keep The Audience Interested?

Let’s enter the realm of our dramatic tools. How do we keep the reader or audience member interested? What does it look like to be interested? To start, when you’re interested your attention is engaged. You’re actively participating. From a high-level, it means you’re either curious or concerned with what lies before you. Both states imply an informational deficit of some sort. You have enough information to know that you’re lacking information (which is substantially different from merely lacking information without knowing you’re lacking information). You have a desire to “figure it out” and fill in that missing or uncertain information.

This informational deficit and desire to “figure it out” is a key aspect of keeping someone interested. It’s a process of being mentally engaged, with enough information to feel like you have a chance of figuring it out, but not too much information so as to feel like others could figure it out too (we all want to feel special, after all, and we assume that we’re a notch above the rest in our reasoning abilities. For us to believe that “the common man” could figure it out would imply that we’re not special and there’s no fun in that).

This desire of the audience to “figure it out” is at the heart of story momentum. It keeps the audience mentally engaged, always pleading for just one more bit of information to solve the dramatic puzzle. We always want the audience begging us for the next piece of information — that keeps a story moving forward. “The viewer’s urge to understand is absolutely critical to narrative propulsion.” — John Yorke.

Knowledge of or suspicion of a lack of information (or an uncertainty about existing information) and a reason to believe that the information can either be discovered, deduced, or revealed is what prompts a desire to “figure it out.” This concept is the root of Andrew Stanton’s “unifying theory of 2+2.” As he puts it: The audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. … It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in.”

As Karl Iglesias says, “Setting up a question automatically creates an emotional itch that needs to be scratched. Each turning point in the plot creates a curiosity that makes the reader ask what will happen next. The writer can accomplish this by withholding bits of information, not telling the reader everything all at once, foreshadowing, or hinting at an outcome, all of which force the reader to play a more active role — filling in the blanks, making guesses, and assuming things. When the reader is active, he is involved, and therefore interested.”

As David Simon says, “[A viewer] loves being immersed in a new, confusing and possibly dangerous world that he will never see. He likes not knowing every bit of vernacular or idiom. He likes being trusted to acquire information on his terms, to make connections, to take the journey with only his intelligence to guide him.”

Humans cannot help but search for meaning and order in chaos. We search for order, patterns, similarities, and differences — it’s just what we do. So don’t make sense of disparate elements for the audience — just sit back and let them do it on their own, because they will. Your only job as a writer is to present the disparate elements, juxtaposed in space or time. Disparate/opposing/conflicting/chaotic elements nearly force us to attempt to reconcile them. We, as humans, cannot help ourselves.

In order for the audience to kick into gear and begin deducing, inferring, and just generally attempting to “figure it out”, there are two prerequisites:

  1. Uncertainty
  • The audience must have a reason to believe or suspect that either they’re missing information or that there is an element of uncertainty to existing information.

2. Concern

  • The audience must perceive there to be a possibility that the missing piece of information will (distally or proximally) affect a character for which they have positive or negative feelings (i.e. that there will be an effect of consequence). This is driven by both empathy and stakes.

Given that this idea bases itself on a lack of perfect information, what information might be uncertain or missing?

  1. Outcome
  • An uncertain outcome causes suspense.
  • “Will the hero attain their goal?”

2. Time, Cause, Motive, Location, Identity, Process

  • Uncertainty of these elements creates a mystery.
  • “When will it happen?” “How did that happen?” “Why’s he doing that?” “Where’s it going to occur?” “Who is that?” “How does that work?” “What’s going on?”
  • If motive is lacking, for instance, the audience will desire to find a character goal/desire.

3. Relationship / Causal Link

  • Juxtaposition calls for resolution. We inherently seek reconciliation of disparate events and seek their relationship.
  • We might see a missing “relationship” as being essentially the same as missing significance or meaning but it’s still worthy of a separate classification.

4. Significance / Meaning

  • “What does this mean?” “Why is this happening?” “What am I missing here?” “Why are we focusing so much on this?”
  • Raised when there is static conflict, fascination/attraction, strange attractor, something strange, or something confusing.

5. Consequences / Reaction / Implications / Effect

  • “What’s going to happen next?”
  • A desire to witness the consequences of an action.
  • Usually brought about by an unexpected turn of events (i.e. turning point or moment of peripeteia).

It’s worth considering what can kill the need/desire of the audience to “figure it out”: boredom (due to monotony, being over-simplistic/patronizing), and confusion (an extensive amount leads to boredom). If at any time the reader or audience becomes bored or confused, you’re done. You’ve lost story momentum. Clarity is key, especially when prompting questions. Remember, it’s the well-organized absence of information that prompts audience engagement, not the absence of information itself.

The next logical set of questions is: How do we create concern? How do we create uncertainty? First, it’s important to note that the two are inexorably tied. If we’re not uncertain about a piece of information (i.e. if we have perfect information) then we’re not concerned with its absence (because we don’t believe it to absent). And if we’re not concerned about the value of a piece of information then we don’t care whether it’s missing.

We’re going to need to take a step back and lay some groundwork.

Firstly, curiosity is found in the desire for completion, understanding, and resolution. We want to learn. We want to explore. We want to find patterns. We want to predict. We want to organize and make sense of the world. We want completion. We want to collect. We want equilibrium. We want order. We want resolution. We want to untie stubborn knots and tie up loose ends. It’s found in the start of a trail that leads inexplicably around the corner. It’s found in the incomplete sentence that calls to be _____. It’s the absolute nonsense that just has to have some sort of meaning. It’s the start of a thread that just must be pulled. It’s a natural desire of human nature. Curiosity drives us.

“The fact that curiosity increases with uncertainty (up to a point), suggests that a small amount of knowledge can pique curiosity and prime the hunger for knowledge, much as an olfactory or visual stimulus can prime a hunger for food.” — Jonah Lehrer. As writers bent on piquing curiosity, we must provide a dash of information to prime the pump, but not too much. **One of our great responsibilities as writers is to know when to reveal and when to conceal**.

Much of the theoretical foundation required to pique curiosity can be found in Gestalt Psychology. Gestalt Psychology offers an explanation of what Andrew Stanton would most certainly deem to be that “well-organized absence of information.” It offers gestalt systems of emergence, reification, multistability, and invariance to attempt to explain the perception and construction of information.

This desire to find meaning in chaos is why juxtapositions can be so powerful and so inviting of mental engagement. This incongruity which calls for reconciliation is the root of subtext, irony, and meaning itself. One of the simplest ways of piquing the audience’s curiosity is to offer up two incongruent pieces, juxtaposed in time, space, or medium. Another simple way of piquing curiosity is to provide a whole with a clearly missing piece (consisting many times of a start without an end). As Terry Rossio would say, create a strange attractor (which we’ll discuss at a later time). Another method is to create chaos, nonsense, or disorganization (such as a new world with unfamiliar jargon and idioms, or a character who’s trying to communicate with only body language). Many times the implication that meaning can be found in the chaos is implicit, but you can always provide a few breadcrumbs.

A few methods of piquing curiosity:

  1. Offer a juxtaposition (two incongruent pieces in time, space, or medium).
  2. Offer a whole with a missing piece (prompting the need for completion).
  3. Hint at something larger under the surface (more than meets the eye). Hint that the current “whole” is not the true whole.
  • This can include a recontextualization of what the “whole” is.
  • Not everything is as it seems.

4. Offer a strange attractor.

5. Offer chaos or disorganization with the implication that meaning can be uncovered.

  • This includes using information that is clearly missing context.

There’s a particular subset of this idea of offering a whole with missing pieces that I’d like to focus on. We live in a world of actions and reactions driven by desire and fear (which can most often be framed as a desire to avoid). It’s a world of chaos and in that chaos we seek understanding of the past and present in order to help us better predict the future. This world is one of action. “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” It’s how characters are defined. In the end, it’s action that affects the world. It’s action that causes change. And for this reason, we all seek information about actions and events — about change.

For any given event or action, we want to know:

  1. What happened? (Outcome / Explanation of “identity” or “nature” of action/event)
  2. What or who caused it? Who’s responsible? (Cause / Identity)
  3. Why did it happen? For what reason? (Motive)
  4. What are the implication/consequences? What will happen next? (Consequences / Reaction / Implications / Significance)
  5. How did it happen? (Process)
  6. When did it happen? (Time)
  7. Where did it happen? (Location)

Some of these pieces of information may be self-explanatory (such as “how did it happen?” or “what are the implications/consequences?”) and some may not be on the top of our list (such as “When did it happen?” or “Where did it happen?”). We care about those pieces of information that we believe to be most important in finding out how the event has affected or will affect those we care about (or dislike).

These missing pieces of information all center around actions (including reactions) and events. They center around what we might call “outcomes”. Humans usually make an attempt to perceive each outcome as an effect of what came before it. We additionally usually attempt to perceive each outcome to be a “cause” of what will come after it. In this way, each action/event is most often perceived to be a part of a long cause-and-effect chain.

You might be thinking, “post hoc ergo propter hoc!” Just becomes B follows A does not mean that B was caused by A. That’s true. It’s also (fortunately for us writers) beside the point of stories where subjectivity (i.e. the perspective of the subject/observer) reigns supreme. In fact, there’s a handy error in judgment called the “narrative fallacy”. It’s the wellspring of the cause-and-effect chain and consequently of narrative itself. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes, “The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense.”

Committing the error of the narrative fallacy is natural. Given event A and then learning that event B happened after, we immediately seek to find a connection or explanation for event B where A had some cause or impact. Even when two actions or events are not directly linked in the cause-and-effect chain, we try to find reasons or explanations to link them. And for us storytellers, that’s great! We want the audience to make these connections. We’ll later explore how we can take advantage of that sort of error in thinking. But for now just realize that for any action/event, the audience will be looking for direct causes and they’ll be guessing direct effects/consequences. The audience is *thirsting* for cause and effect.

We as humans want to fully understand the cause-and-effect chain (actions and consequences) so that we can better understand how we’re affected, how those around us are affected, and how we can seek or avoid certain actions/events in the future. We care about things insofar as they affect us (we’ll later get into a discussion about how a character can become a psychological surrogate for the audience). In order to understand the cause-and-effect chain, we concern ourselves with studying each action/event/outcome in order to understand what caused it (the previous node in the cause-and-effect chain) and what the consequences/effects will be (the next node in the cause-and-effect chain). This is the reason we want to know as much as we can about each action that we perceive to have a potential effect on those we care about. The more potential impact, the more we’re concerned and the more we’re interested. We study, organize, and seek to understand patterns.

So, how do we as writers take advantage of this natural curiosity for the cause-and-effect chain? First we’ve got to set up knowledge of (through statement, suggestion, or implication) or anticipation of an action or event that has either occurred, is occurring, or will occur.

Once we have our focus around an action or event, we must ensure the audience will care (i.e. that the audience will be concerned).

In order to be concerned:

  1. We must have a perception that the piece of information (distally or proximally) relates to or affects a character about which we are not indifferent. In short, the information must relate to someone we like or actively dislike.
  2. We must have some understanding or impression of the potential value, significance, impact, or relationship of a piece of information to something/someone else we care about (this is usually implicit).

So how do we “induce” concern? We fulfill the prerequisites.

  1. We make the audience care about one or more characters.
  • This is a fairly simple, but too often overlooked, requirement. It requires us to create empathy for a character. We can also craft a character who will function as a psychological surrogate/avatar for the audience. We know this character as the “main character” or “perspective character”. The audience can live out the story vicariously through this character.

2. We make it known (through statement, suggestion, or implication) that a piece of information (relating to an action/event) affects a character about which the audience is not indifferent.

3. We make clear (through statement, suggestion, or implication) how the piece of information affects the subject character (either directly or indirectly).

  • This is where stakes come in. It’s another simple, though absolutely critical, requirement. The audience must understand the potential consequence of the action/event at hand. What does the character have to again? What does the character have to lose? What’s at stake?
  • Stakes are potential consequences of actions/events/outcomes.

In short, we create empathy for a character, we let the audience know what’s at stake, and we make it clear that an action/event may affect the stakes.

The state of being uncertain is not as clearly definable. To be uncertain:

  1. We must feel that some piece of information is imprecise, unclear, unknown, conflicting, or incongruent with our expectations and/or improperly explained.

It’s more valuable to look at how to create uncertainty than to try to explicitly define it.

Once the action/event has been stated/suggested/implied, and once the audience is concerned about the effect/consequences of the action, we identify the specific information that the audience will most care about (i.e. that information which has the most impact/consequence in affecting those that the audience cares about). We then tantalizingly withhold that information.

Here’s how to withhold action-oriented information:

  1. Setup an action, event, or outcome with a potential effect of consequence.
  2. Seek clarity in providing the “big picture” and implications of the action/event/outcome.
  3. Make the stakes, affected character(s), and potential effect clear.
  4. Identify the valuable/impactful information.
  5. Withhold that information.

You can have fun with what information you withhold. It may relate to who’s behind the action (a mystery!). It may relate to the location of a future action/event (think The Dark Knight). It may relate to the outcome of the action/event itself (will the rope snap?).

In all this theoretical talk it’s important to realize that the scope of the action doesn’t need to be large. We’re on the dramatic scale here. All it must do is have the potential to have an effect (directly or indirectly) on someone/something about which we’re not indifferent. Of course, the action itself can be ordinarily trivial as long as it’s not trivial to those it affects. For example, a character may want to write a letter. It becomes interesting (i.e. concerning) when we understand the stakes — his grandfather is dying and there’s no other way to reach him. He’s unsure if the letter will reach his grandfather on time if he doesn’t send it before the postman arrives in 10 minutes. In his haste, his frantic scribbling has caused his last pen to snap in half, sending ink sprawling all over the desk. All of a sudden we have implicit uncertainty of outcome, stakes, empathy, urgency, and conflict. Now we’ve got concern, uncertainty, and consequently suspense. Now we’re interested.

An action such as “eating soup” doesn’t fit the bill until it has the implication of a consequence/effect on a character about which we’re not indifferent. If the soup has been poisoned and we need to find out who poisoned the soup in order to find the antidote before the main character dies, now we’ve got stakes. The information of the poisoner’s identity (the identity of the cause of the poisoning) now affects a character about which we care. Now it’s an action about which we’re concerned.

Effect. Actions must have effects on those about which we care, or we don’t care about the actions. Stakes must be defined. There must be potential consequences in order to create concern. Uncertainty itself is not enough. The audience must be concerned.

So what are some methods for stating, suggesting, or implying that a piece of information is missing? One powerful method is to show a character’s anticipation of information. A character’s anticipation of information can prompt our knowledge that there is a lack of information. In short, the audience will anticipate information if a character anticipates information. If a character cares, the audience will look for reasons why they should care (make sure there are reasons).

A subset of this scenario of anticipation of information is a character’s desire for or fear of an outcome. But desire for an outcome itself does not create uncertainty of outcome. Uncertainty of outcome is implicitly created through conflict (i.e. obstacle, complication, or subversion of desire). A character must have a desire for an outcome and then there must be a reason to believe that that desired outcome is in jeopardy, giving rise to uncertainty of outcome.

This uncertainty of outcome and anticipation by the character creates anticipation by the audience. A character’s desire for or fear of an outcome, coupled with conflict, is one of the quickest ways to create anticipation of an uncertain outcome and consequently interest and suspense. Danger, conflict, and implicit tension all immediately imply uncertainty of outcome. It’s one reason why the advice “add more conflict” exists. It’s a surefire way to create more suspense, provided we care about the character experiencing the conflict and there are clearly defined stakes for the outcome.

How do we keep the audience interested? We prompt them and give them an opportunity to “figure it out.” The creation of a dramatic puzzle can be done through juxtaposition, incompletion, contextualization, strange attractors, and chaos. Of particular note is a dramatic puzzle arising from missing information related to an action/event that affects a character about which the audience cares. To create interest, make sure the audience is aware of uncertain of lacking information, and that they are concerned enough to find the information (by defining stakes and using empathy). Desire and conflict are the fastest ways of creating uncertainty of outcome and subsequent anticipation of outcome.

Originally published at

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