Dangling a Curtain: The Secret To Keeping People’s Interest

Yesterday, I talked about people’s fascination with getting to look behind the scenes on the things they enjoy. How can we use this to keep people interested in our stories? One thing we can try is dangling a curtain for them to look behind.

Photo by andrewatla

How do we dangle a curtain? It’s simple. Start by considering the target audience. For a writer, this is probably a demographic that you expect to read your work (if you’re writing a children’s chapter book, for instance, this might be one or more subsets of the children you hope are going to read this, the parents who may or may not be reading it to them/deciding whether they really should be reading it); any mass media, like video games or movies, can use the same format. For a game master, it’s better to look at each player individually as a target audience, and figure out what’s going to work with them.

Know who your audiences are? Excellent. Now think about what they’re going to want to know. This has more variation than you might think. Using the example of the chapter book, children probably aren’t going to be too worried about how complete your background detail is, but might be excited by a character or device that is in itself a mystery (“Who is this person? What do all these buttons do?”) Gamers might want to see any number of things; the more mechanics-oriented could want to know how you built that last creature they fought (and maybe help with the next one), for instance. Do note that one person’s interesting curtain is another one’s required veil; while a player who’s been burned by far too many fiat-wielding GMs might want to know that there are actually mechanics behind a seemingly arbitrary ruling, another player would probably rather “leave everything to the magic GM” so as not to nitpick the decision to death.

Some people dangle curtains as an excuse to dangle more curtains. Take teasers in author blogs or interviews. The fact that the blogs/interviews exist is in itself a curtain to look behind; going to the blog, or listening to the interview, gives the viewer an insight into something that won’t just come from the book/movie/what-have-you. But then they start dropping teasers. “Someone’s going to die this time.” “There’s a major plot twist coming up!” “Do you know who Mr. X is? I do.” This provides an additional curtain; something between the audience and an Interesting Fact. And the fact that it’s being revealed hints that there might be a way behind that curtain—even if that way is just to wait for the next volume or episode.

The important thing for stirring up people’s curiosity is for them to know that there’s a curtain. For instance, a reader might devour an author’s series but never think to go hunting for a blog or website to learn more on unless it’s pointed out to her. Similarly, it may not occur to a newbie gamer mostly accustomed to either tabletop wargames or standard videogames that all the NPCs are hiding interesting things or that this point where the plot diverged could have gone in a number of other directions.

This trick is particularly important for the GM. Admit it; game masters feed on feedback, and one way to get feedback through involvement is to give people things to be involved in. Tomorrow, a more practical look at it: how do you choose curtains for a gamer in your audience?

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