Savvy Saturday: Why Curiosity?

questionmarkCuriosity is a strange and powerful force that every writer needs to know how to harness. When readers are curious about what is going to happen next, they keep reading. When they are curious about a world, they pay attention. When they need to know the answer to a mystery, they may go crazy trying to figure it out, but they’ll go even crazier if you try to stop them. Curiosity is incredible. It can come to life in a moment with overwhelming power, keep one’s attention locked for hours (or days) at a time, and drive people to do dangerous, stupid things, (“Why is the door on the third floor of the spooky mansion locked with a large ‘Keep Out’ sign on it? I have to go in and find out!”). But at the same time, curiosity is also curiously weak. We are easily distracted creatures. The same curiosity that burns passionately inside us in the short term can quickly flare out or be transferred to a different focus. In addition, when curiosity is satisfied, it is often strangely disappointing – the pleasure of knowing the answer to a riddle, for instance, is often far less powerful and emotionally intense than the wonder and curiosity that one experiences when one does not know the answer.

If I tell you, for instance, that there are three key things that every writer should know about how curiosity can be used to help tell a gripping story, I almost guarantee that your curiosity will be roused (at least a little). But then if I begin telling you why it is that your curiosity is roused – that scientists have discovered the reason that curiosity is both so powerful and so transient – I can equally almost guarantee that your attention has now been transferred to this new question. Keep hold of your hats, folks. We’re in for a curious tale.

The theory of curiosity is fascinating. In 1994, Loewenstein wrote a brilliant article on the topic, appropriately titled “The Psychology of Curiosity,” in which he explained what curiosity is and how it works. To begin with, curiosity is rooted in the psychological truth that people don’t like loss far more than they do like gain. (For a more detailed discussion of this, see my blog post on “How to be Biased.”)

Curiosity occurs when people’s attention is focused on a gap in their knowledge – on a point of deprivation that they didn’t know existed before. This gap, or hole, gets stronger and more important in an individual’s mind the more the perceived deprivation is. If everyone around you, for instance, hints about knowing a secret that you don’t – no matter how mundane and irrelevant to your life it turns out to be – it’s likely to bother you until you know it too. Alternatively, if you have a certain amount of knowledge about a field, and then discover that you don’t know about a sub-topic in that field, you’re likely to be driven to find out what it is even if few others care. In both cases, being alerted to not knowing something puts you into a state of felt deprivation that can only be satisfied by the gaining of enough information to fill the gap.

This doesn’t mean, however, that people will sustain their curiosity until they know everything about a topic. Instead, curiosity is most powerful to drive people to gain insight into a problem (in Loewenstein’s words) rather than to gain incremental understanding. For instance, in an experiment, individuals were instructed to click on squares in a grid to turn them from blank to part of a picture – they had to click at least five out of forty-five squares, but could click on as many as they wanted. In one experimental condition, each square showed a different picture of an animal. In the other experimental condition, each square revealed just one part of a larger picture that was a single animal. Which condition do you think resulted in more clicks?

elephantYep – people were more curious as to what animal the single picture was going to show, and so often clicked enough of the pieces so they could tell what the animal was going to be. Some of them clicked on all of the pieces to get a full picture, while others only clicked on enough to give them defining features of the animal, (“oh! It’s an elephant! Okay.”), while far fewer of them stopped at just five. Clicking on enough pieces to see what the picture is is an example of gaining insight, while clicking on pieces after that, or clicking on the blank squares in the “lots of animals” condition, is an example of incremental understanding, where each new piece of information doesn’t get you closer to solving a larger problem.

Finally, the drive to satisfy curiosity is not a drive to know so much as a drive to go through the process of satisfying one’s curiosity. For instance, I could tell you that a dangerous murderer broke out of the wizards’ prison of Azkaban by turning himself into a dog and sneaking past the soul-sucking guards. But wondering for the whole third book of the Harry Potter series exactly how Sirius Black escaped when no one was ever able to escape before, trying to put clues together, and finally having a big reveal of what happened and why, made the story gripping and kept readers turning pages far past their bedtime. (Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything…*cough*) This is also why giving unwanted spoilers to rabid fans is basically asking them to kill you. “I didn’t want to just know who the masked murderer was,” they would scream, “I wanted to experience the process of finding it out for myself!”

So what can these insights about curiosity teach us about writing stories? As I stated in the beginning of this post, there are three key ways (plus a bonus one! Are you curious?) to use curiosity to keep readers engaged.

First: Have an overarching plot question to be answered. This is the most obvious way of incorporating curiosity, and the one that most authors are best at. How will Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, and the rest save Middle Earth from the evil Sauron? (And will they?) How will Katniss survive the deadly Hunger Games? (And will she?) Who actually killed Mr. Ratchett on the Orient Express train? (And why?) While plots don’t need to have a single plot question, and can instead have smaller questions that tumble into each other (e.g. “what is this world and why am I here?” becomes “how can I possibly become the hero that this world needs?” and then “how can I actually defeat the villain and what do I do then?” and finally “how can I apply what I’ve learned to my real life back home”), each of these questions would need to be related to each other and gripping, keeping the audience wanting insight rather than incremental knowledge. If this first, most basic step is lacking, a story will plod in a “and then this happened, and then this happened” kind of way, with no real drive to it. Alternatively, each chapter might be gripping, but the story itself might feel disconnected. As you tell your story, then, make sure that you relate most scenes in some way to the overall plot question at hand, to drive the story forward and keep audiences focused.

Second: Let your characters keep secrets. This also applies to your narrative voice. Quite simply, your main character and/or you the author might know what’s happening, and may drop hints or describe a situation but simply choose not to explain what’s going on. This might continue until readers put together the pieces themselves and get their “ah-ha” moment, or until the character chooses to make a grand reveal. Good mysteries do this well. The writer will show us all the clues we need to solve the mystery, but won’t tell us who the villain is (even though the detective knows), until the trap is set and the climax is ready to unfold. On a smaller scale, if we see our (male) main character get a letter printed on pink paper that contains three lines of text written in a flowing cursive script – and then see the character ball it up, throw it in the fire, and tell his manservant in a shaking voice to forget that he saw the letter, we are likely to be intrigued. Who wrote this letter? Why did it affect our main character so much? What does he plan to do, and what will he actually do? If we know these answers at the same time our main character does, we are going to be far less invested in the story than if we’re forced to wonder and keep reading, looking forward to finding out the answer. In short, we’ve gotten invested in the situation simply because we know that there’s something important that we don’t know.

Third: Make your main characters themselves curious about something. This happens a lot in books, when your main character (or side characters) are the ones actually asking the questions that drive readers’ curiosity. For instance, in my novel The Quest of the Unaligned, Alaric knows from the beginning that many people, including his guide and friend Laeshana, think that he’s the Prince of Cadaeren, son of King Kethel and Queen Tathilya. But this doesn’t make sense – his parents are dead, but he knew who they were. As readers, we know that Alaric really is the prince, but since Alaric and Laeshana don’t know about Alaric’s background, we remain curious as to how Alaric got to the city of Tonzimmel as a child and why, until other characters fill us in. Other examples abound, with main characters seeing mysterious happenings, whispered conversations that they can’t overhear, have strange feelings that something is important but they don’t know why, or seeing patterns and knowing that they must be a clue to a mystery, but not knowing how. With all of these examples, the key is to show readers that there is something important that they don’t know, and make this thing more urgent for them to find out as time progresses.

Bonus tip: Don’t let readers get distracted or bored. The thing about curiosity is that it’s easily forgotten about. If you have a character do something strange in the first chapter, and it becomes important at the end of the book, hint at it a couple of times throughout. Remind your audience what it is that they don’t know. Remind them what’s at stake in the story and why it’s important that they gain the information they don’t have. At a smaller level, try to incorporate small tidbits of curiosity throughout your story. Why is this minor character behaving as she does? Can our hero trust the shopkeeper? Why does everyone keep commenting on the color of the king’s eyes? Is it really possible to meet the gods, like the fables say? Answering these small-scale questions and then raising new ones as the story progresses, as well as reminding them about the large and as-yet unanswered questions makes for a pleasant curiosity-satisfying experience throughout the course of the book while still drawing readers on toward the end with an ever-growing sense of urgency. And that urgency is why readers turn the page. That urgency, furthermore, is what leads to highly satisfying resolutions – assuming that the author answers all the questions that he or she has raised throughout the book.

And that leads to one final comment: Answer the important questions you ask! While some authors say that you have to answer every question you raise, others say that not everything in a world has to be explained. Wherever you fall on this continuum, one thing is not optional: if you are ending a story, you must answer at least the important questions you raise in the story, the ones that involve key plot points and character motivations, or you will leave your readers with an unsatisfying reading experience. You will have showed them a gap in their knowledge that will never be filled. Do not do this. Questions that you raise are like promises. Keep reading, you say, and I will fill this knowledge void that I have showed you. Having given those promises to readers, make good on them! Raise questions, answer those questions, and they will keep asking, “What happens next?” and “When does the next book come out?” and “What else are you writing?”

And that, good readers, is the answer to why curiosity is important and useful for writers. I hope you enjoyed the process of satisfying your curiosity – now go put it to use! I’m *curious* to see what you come up with.

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