Updated: Jul 3, 2020
Useful devices to keep readers interested in your story.
In order for a story to be compelling, there has to be something at stake. The audience must be aware of something that needs resolving and that keeps them listening.
When a good storyteller sets out the stakes early on in the story, in the listener's mind they raise several questions which will hopefully keep them compelled. What is at risk? What happens next? What does the storyteller want or need? How is it going to end?
With nothing, or very little, at stake, the story has nowhere to go and it will be hard to keep the listener's interest for long. But, when the audience clearly understands what is at risk, then they want to hear the next sentence, and the next one, and the next one, until they have their resolution.
There are various ways to add stakes to your stories but the one I want to discuss today is what I call the 'dynamite effect'. It essentially means that as a storyteller you metaphorically, or potentially even physically, light a stick of dynamite in the early part of your story. The audience knows that the lit dynamite is going to go off at some point and cause some form of devastation, or is it?
It is that tension and drama that keeps the audience hungry with anticipation.
Often with the dynamite effect, the key players in the story are unaware of the potential explosion, and this gives the audience a feeling of being in on a secret. This raises the tension and the stakes because the audience often wants to shout out to the characters in the story and warn them of the potential danger.
Here's an example opening paragraph:
It was the first morning of Winter, and it was is if the sky itself knew it. Dark, heavy clouds hung overhead as I stepped off the tram and headed across town to the office. I hadn't slept all weekend, wrestling with the guilt of knowing that, on Monday morning, I was going to have to make my best friend redundant from the business.
Just within those three lines, we have a context, a setting for the listener to imagine, and a stick of dynamite set alight. It doesn't have to be an elaborate, detailed piece of information, just a simple hint of something at risk, something about to happen, something that needs resolving.
If in the above setup, the very next thing we discover is that the best friend comes into the office happy, full of life and excitement, then we, the listener, know something that he doesn't know. We want to know how the next part of the story unfolds. We feel the tension for the boss because he has to break his friend's glee and make him redundant. We also feel sympathy for the best friend, who is unaware of how his world is about to change, and how is mood is about to come crashing down to earth.
The dynamite needs to occur as early on in the story as possible, but by setting it off you create a promise to the listener to provide some form of resolution. You cannot set off a stick of dynamite and then not refer back to it, or not mention it again. You have broken a promise and your reader will never trust you again. You must honour that promise and provide a resolution to it.