The interest-effort formula for engaging story audiences
Summary: When engaging with stories, audiences experience a push and pull between effort and interest. Storytellers can tune this balance to control the types of experiences they create.
Mount Longonot is a volcano in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, East Africa. The mountain boasts a stunning caldera that stretches almost twelve kilometers across. When I was a teenager, I climbed it with a group of friends.
The hike up the side of the mountain was’t too tough. Although I am not much of a climber, I was among the first half of the group to reach the rim. We ate a picnic lunch and admired the vista, looking out across the wide, forested floor of the caldera.
As we sat and finished our meal, I kept glancing over to my right. The summit was there, about one third of the way around the rim, beckoning. I and a couple of friends decided to go for it.
The hike around the rim was mostly straightforward. We made good progress. We chatted as we went, enjoying the occasional breeze, which provided relief from the heat of the sun.
As we approached the summit, however, things became much more difficult. The incline increased sharply, and the quality of the trail began to degrade. Portions of the path were covered in a deep scree of marble-sized, volcanic pebbles. Our feet sank with every step. The stones constantly slid out from under us. Sometimes I lost more ground than I gained.
I was soon sweating and breathing hard. We made slow, painful progress. Embarrassed, I had to ask my companions several times to stop and let me rest. More than once, I wondered how much futher we had to go — and whether or not I had the stamina to make it.
Each time, my friends graciously stopped until I was ready to continue. Possibly out of politeness, they’d remark about how the going was tough for them as well. Then, after a few moments, we’d start up the climb again, newly encouraged by our shared experience and purpose.
In the end, we did reach the top. We enjoyed the view and the satisfaction that comes from achievement. We rested, and then we headed back down to rejoin the rest of our group.
I’m thankful for my friends being there that day. Were it not for their company, I’d probably have turned back before reaching the destination. Their presence made the difference.
What does this have to do with storytelling?
Longonot isn’t a tall mountain. According Wikipedia, it’s only about 600 vertical meters from the trailhead to the summit. But, the quality of the terrain made a huge difference in how much effort it took to reach the top. Conversely, the company I had — providing encouragement and incentive — made a difference in my interest in sticking with the climb.
When engaging with stories, audiences experience a similar push and pull.
I’ve found it helpful to think of this dynamic in terms of what I call the interest-effort formula. If we were to represent it mathematically, it might look something like this:
Every audience member begins a story with a basic incentive. Often, it’s simple curiosity. An audience member may be seeking entertainment or hoping to gain new insights or experience a feeling of being emotionally moved. This is the beginning of the interest component of the formula.
In my hiking example, my interest was sparked the moment I first glanced over at Longonot’s summit and decided to reach it.
Audience interest starts small, often just a willingness to give a story a “fair shake.” It’s a tiny seedling, struggling mightily to push its way through the damp, loamy soil in a dense forest. It can be all-too-easily crowded-out by the undergrowth of distractions competing for your audience’s attention.
Put another way, it’s one thing to spark a little interest with a story hook. It’s quite another to sustain audience interest over the course of a whole story.
In my hiking example, this is where the company of my friends came in. Having them there with me provided the incentive I needed to keep going, even when the climb was at its toughest.
One of our jobs as storytellers is to continually encourage our audience’s interest and help it grow.
Of course, interest is only half the equation.
Every story is communicated through practical, mechanical components like the use of language and imagery, exposition, the structure and sequence of events and ideas. Your audience members’ minds must take these raw materials and convert them into meaning. That process takes effort.
To compare this to my hiking example, the mechanical components of storytelling are like the quality of the terrain that I had to traverse. Some of it was relatively flat and easy, but some was steep, unstable, and difficult.
Human brains are incredibly tuned and efficient. We’re wired to conserve energy as much as possible. Unfortunately for storytellers, that means that audience brains are constantly running a subconscious calculus: “Is the benefit I’m getting from this worth the energy it’s taking?” If the effort of engaging is too high, if the “terrain” becomes too difficult, the audience may just cut their losses and run.
So another of our jobs as a storytellers is provide our audiences with the best terrain possible.
Finding a basic balance
I like to think of interest and effort as weights placed on the opposite sides of a scale. The more weight on either side, the more likely the scale will tip in that direction. As a storyteller, you can get away with some effort, but you must offset the balance with a corresponding weight of interest. Generally, the more effort your story requires of your audience members, the more interest you must provide to keep them motivated.
Fundamentally, tuning the interest-effort formula comes down to mastering craft. All the basic elements storytellers learn to create — empathetic characters, compelling conflicts, clear and efficient prose, etc. — have an effect on the balance. Once proper technique is in hand, though, there remains a universe of creative choice in how to deploy interest and effort.
Interest, effort, and effect
I used to think that when it came to narrative drive, more was always better. I still think it’s important to create as much as your story will allow, but I now have a more nuanced view of what exactly that means.
For example, compare action thrillers, like the Mission: Impossible series, to something more literary, like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
Action thrillers tend to have high narrative drive. They surge forward, riding a fast-paced string of twists and turns, events and revelations, that grab audiences and rip them through the story. Their style tends to be concise and focused, and they don’t dwell on setting or theme. They’re pure, streamlined interest, eliminating effort wherever possible.
But not every story needs to be that. Some emotional effects can only be created through narrative that is slower, less direct, more demanding. As in To Kill a Mockinbird’s childlike viewpoint and and challenging themes, stories that play with ambiguities and unresolved threads can give us a sense of profundity, wistfulness, and longing. They can linger, keeping us thinking about a story long after it’s over.
Even in approachable stories, minor cognitive effort can be beneficial. In Story, theorist Robert McKee talks about the ‘gap’ that opens between character (and audience) expectation and what the story events deliver. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. Meuthen, 2014.McKee. Story. Pages 147-152. Like a well-crafted joke, these gaps leave room for the audience to step into the narrative and make the connection themselves. This takes cognitive effort — but it also engages audiences more deeply. (And, paradoxically, increases interest.)
Finally, challenge can, itself, be a legitimate expression of art. There are some audiences who, like those who enjoy solving a difficult puzzle, seek the reward of mastering effortful stories. Similar to my experience climbing mount Longonot, anyone who sticks it out through a particularly challenging narrative gains a sort of personal satisfaction at having done a hard thing.
When engaging with stories, audiences experience a push and pull between effort and interest. Interest pulls an audience through a story. It’s created through things like narrative drive. Effort is the cognitive cost your audience must pay in order to engage with the story. It’s streamlined through solid technique. I think of the balance between these forces as the interest-effort formula.
Once you’ve mastered the basics of craft, a large part of tuning the interest-effort formula is defining the kinds of effects you want your story to have. What feelings do you want your audience members to have while they engage with your story? What kind of satisfaction do you want them to experience at the end?
Ultimately, there’s no “perfect” ratio. Both Mission: Impossible and To Kill a Mockingbird have a place in the world — and audiences who love them. Neither is inherently better or worse.
Based on the type of experience you want to deliver, you’ll have an idea about how “steep” your audience members’ climb (the kind of effort involved) — and the “company” (interest) you’ll need to provide along the way so that, ultimately, they’ll reach the summit.
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