The case for curiosity in storytelling
How can you make any story interesting by keeping your audience curious...
What is storytelling
Every story is worth sharing, we have heard and it is true. Encouraged by this, people frame stories from their personal experiences and what they have seen or heard, clothed with imagination. When these stories are being told, it must be made sure they are also worth listening to.
Storytelling is the craft of designing stories in such a way that, irrespective of the content, they are engaging.
One way to see storytelling is as a way of communication. This means the audience is involved in the process beyond being physically present.
When we are reading a book, we imagine the lines in our head. The author brings his canvas to the table, and we paint a world on it from our memories of people we know, smells and tastes, other stories we have heard and our very personal desires.
While watching cinema, between scenes and sequences, we cook in our head what is not shown by the filmmaker, completing the visuals with logic and emotion.
You as the storyteller and the audience are always communicating to each other.
Engaging audience in storytelling
This communication, audience's co-creation of the story with the storyteller, is passive engagement. We should aim for at least this level of engagement by firing up audience's imagination, otherwise though the story seemed worth sharing, it wouldn't be worth listening to.
To push the boundary further, how can you actively engage your audience? By having them respond not just emotionally, but also intellectually. This level of engagement is driven through making them ask questions. By making them itch for want of more from the story.
Curiosity in storytelling
If the audience must ask questions, you as a storyteller must not resort to unclear, ambiguous storytelling. The questions should come out of interest and involvement.
Imagine the audience as solving a jigsaw puzzle you have created. You have the big picture, you created the individual pieces. The audience is assembling those pieces and processing the connections in mind. They are purposefully involved and therefore turn curious when you give them a piece that doesn't fit right away.
To have curiosity stem out of interest and involvement, you should make sure the information provided until that moment of audience stimulation is engaging enough. Audience will not care to question what they are not already interested in.
Curiosity not only serves as an indication of audience engagement, but also works to keep the audience alert. If they are curious, they are interested, eager and overcharged. This is true in not just suspense stories and thriller flicks, but is found to work in any genre and any format of storytelling.
As a writer, filmmaker or even photographer, one of your primary objectives in telling a story should be to evoke curiosity.
How to keep them curious
Two of the most successful and fundamental techniques in keeping your audience curious are:
Showing the unexpected
Hiding information, or creating a knowledge gap, may sound easy; it may seem like you just have to tell half the story and swallow the rest, but doesn't work that way always.
Hiding a more or less obvious piece of information will lead to your audience inferring the meaning without expecting anything more from you. Their energy levels do not raise.
Hiding the not-so-obvious should not appear as poor storytelling, as if we glossed over something crucial.
Creating a knowledge gap could take many forms.
Writers who know the craft advise to start a story in the middle of action, because, well, the effect is the audience probing to find out what happened before, or what would follow soon.
TV series have the concept of a cliffhanger, where the audience are left with a dramatic episode ending that they cannot miss to know fully about in the next episode.
There is no one formula to master this. It depends much on the content. The storyteller must hone this by practice and testing.
(Jeffery Archer, for example, is an expert storyteller; he uses this technique so effectively and seamlessly, in both his short- and long-form stories, that you are, as a reader, constantly asking 'Why?' or 'How?' without thinking that it is the storytelling that is more interesting than the story itself.)
Next, showing the unexpected. What is the result? It makes the audience sit up.
Chip and Dan Heath discuss this in their very insightful book, Made to Stick:
Break a pattern. Humans adapt incredibly quickly to consistent patterns. Consistent sensory stimulation makes us tune out: Think of the hum of an air conditioner. We may become consciously aware of these things only when something changes: The air conditioner shuts off.
Surprise is key. Surprise snaps a finger before audience's eyes. It makes them wonder what just happened. When you are surprised, there is a gap pried open in your knowledge. You want to fill it and so you seek answers.
(Again, aiming for a plot twist should not push you into gimmickry. The twist must align with the rest of the story you are saying.)
The next time you are saying a story, irrespective of the medium, keep in mind to leverage this powerful element of curiosity to earn and retain audience attention. Let us know how it helped and what you discovered.