Setup to Payoff: How to Keep Readers Engaged
Writing strong, compelling proposals, essays, and stories can take a writer from the middle of the pack to extraordinary. This is a principle that we often harp upon at Giant Angstrom Partners. We give our students and writing workshop participants the tools they need to write outstanding pieces. To do this, we need to be able to write these ourselves.
For guidance, I recently read Lisa Cron’s “Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.” Cron, a story analyst, speaker, and UCLA writing instructor, wrote this book to show that our brains are hardwired to respond to storytelling techniques. We want to read compelling stories, and we respond very positively to them. She sets out to display techniques upon which we can capitalize to appeal to the greatest audience possible.
I focus this blog post on the chapter entitled, “The Road from Setup to Payoff…,” AKA how can we possibly keep readers engaged from the beginning to the end?
To engage readers, we want to help them form patterns in our writing. As humans, we try to make sense of everything we perceive. This means that when we hear a sound in the night, we try to figure out what it must have been. We see stars in the sky and we connect the dots to form constellations. Basically, humans don’t do very well with randomization. That’s why concise, clear writing appeals to us. As writers, we must capitalize on this knowledge. Cron advises that we leave hints for readers strewn throughout our writing. Readers delight in being able to identify patterns and predict payoffs, so give them something to think about as they read.
Setup and Payoff
We want readers to be engaged in our writing the whole time. Cron notes that a study at Stanford revealed that humans cannot concentrate on two things at one time. If you listen to someone with a thick accent give a speech, chances are that you’re not completely immersed in the content of their speech, but rather in trying to parse their language. Therefore, we must make our storyline just that: one storyline.
Since readers want to connect the dots, using a setup-payoff method can work. We write so that our readers earn the payoff that we’ve built up for them. This kind of writing works in literature as well as proposal writing.
We want to reward our readers; not just because they’re doing us the favor of reading their work, but because stories are proven to be some of the best methods of engaging human beings. If your readers can follow your story, you’ll find a great deal of success.