Weekly Writing Memo: 3 Ways to Make Your Audience CarePosted: March 23, 2016
In last week’s memo, we answered the question “What do I write?” This week we’re going to talk about making your audience care about your story. If your audience isn’t invested in the story, if they aren’t interested in it, then they aren’t going to want to stick with it through to the end. Lack of investment is what makes people walk out of theaters mid-screening and give up on books before they get to the end of the story.
So how do you get your audience invested? How do you make people care?
As with everything else to do with writing, there isn’t a guide to follow or a cheat sheet to guarantee your audience will care, but there are several steps you can take to give your story the best odds.
- Make your characters rounded and “real.”
It’s hard for people to get invested in characters that are flat or stereotypes. The more rounded your character, the more depth that they have, the more they will feel like real people. Without characters that are more than just a stereotype or shell to carry out the plot, it’ll be incredibly hard to get an audience invested in the story.
Even in real life it’s hard to get invested in people we don’t know, or people who are theoretical to us. We often think of people as the role they fill in our lives—the barista who makes your coffee, the cop who gave you a ticket, the taxi driver, the security guard. It isn’t until we learn something about them that is personal—a habit, their family, their hobbies, etc—that those people become something more to us than their jobs. Friends and family mean more to us because we have a wealth of experiences with them, and knowledge about them as people, that give them meaning to us. Characters in stories need to create these same feelings
Without the depth to your characters, the audience will never be able to think of them as more than functions. There are a lot of ways to create deep characters, and it’s different for every story. My past blog posts on Making Likable Characters and 5 Tips for Establishing Characters are good places to start. Essentially, it comes down to making your characters real.
Give them more backstory than what pertains to the plot. It doesn’t all have to be explained, but do hint at it and let glimmers shine through to show that there’s more going on beneath the surface. Give your characters habits, and families, and favorites/dislikes. Give them personality, and let it shine in their narration, their dialogue, and their actions. The more “real” you can make your character, the more depth you can give them, the easier it will be for people to get invested in them enough to want to stick around through the entire story.
- Create a plot that matters.
Having a character with depth is only the first part. If the character doesn’t have a conflict that is interesting, something that matters, then even if the character is well done, the story itself may not be interesting. The plot of your story has to have something major at stake for your protagonist, and the story should have different levels of plot to create more depth (Read 3 Types of Plot for more info on plot levels).
The plot of the story has to have something at stake for the protagonist that anyone in those shoes would see as life altering. This can be anything from their life being at risk to their one chance at finding true love. If you show that it is something pivotal for your protagonist, then your audience will look at it with the same mindset.
You want your audience to care about what is happening in the story, so the protagonist has to care about it and SHOW that they care. They can’t just say “well if I don’t get this job I’ll have nothing.” You have to show how not getting that job will ruin their life—show their financial situation, show their potential future without the job, show them starving and spending their last dollar. If you make the audience understand the consequences of the protagonist failing to succeed in the story, then you will make the audience understand why the conflict of the plot is so important to the protagonist. You’ll make the plot matter, and get your audience invested.
- Ask questions that your audience wants answered.
Every scene of your writing should create a question that your audience is wondering. Where is the protagonist going? Who died? Who’s the murderer? What is going to happen next? These questions are what keep your audience invested and curious to keep reading because they want the answers. The only time your audience should have all the answers, or close to, is at the end of the story, and that is only true if the story is not a series of some sort.
Every scene of your story should, at the very least, lead your audience to ask themselves “what will happen next?” If not, then the scene is not driving the story forward. Scenes that do not drive the story forward have no purpose in the story and will most likely feel boring, slow, and will often be places where the audience stops paying attention. They lose their investment in the story because they have no reason to keep reading.
You can create more “questions” in the story by making sure your scenes don’t give all the answers to the plot, by adding conflict, and by letting your characters and the plot be exposed gradually rather than in bulks of exposition.
For example, instead of doing a chunk of dialogue or exposition about who your protagonist is, let your audience figure it out as the story develops. Give them doses, enough to keep them curious about the character, but don’t spell it all out for the audience. That keeps the audience asking “who is this character?” If you can keep your audience asking questions, you’ll most likely keep them reading to find the answers.
The one thing to keep in mind about all of the tips above is that they are all useful in moderation. You can tell us too much about a character, make a plot too complicated, or create too many questions for your audience. You want to give your audience enough to keep them interested and entertained, enough for them to understand the story, but not so much that they are overwhelmed, bored, or confused.
Some great popular examples of too much of something are Lost and Game of Thrones. When Lost was on, many people complained because it constantly created questions for the audience without giving enough answers. Similarly, in Game of Thrones many complain because there are too many characters and audiences had trouble getting into the story.
Now, both of those franchises are highly successful so clearly people can get past those things, but both show the dangers of too much of something. Both of those series, however, also use all of the things I listed above to keep audiences invested. They have deep characters with backstory beyond the events of the core plot that the audience sees. They keep the audience asking questions and wanting answers, and their plots have huge things at stake for the characters.
You’ll never be able to keep everyone invested all of the time, but if you strive for balance, and create deep, meaningful characters and plot, then you should be able to keep your audience invested in the story.