How to Keep an Audience Engaged

My Rules of Thumb for Compelling Writing

Have you ever picked up a new book or tried a television show only to give up on them after an episode or two? I’m talking about shows that have done well or books that have sold widely. Ones that, despite the marketing and the hype, don’t meet expectations.

Well, you aren’t alone, and lately, it’s been somewhat of a trend. I don’t mean to say all that’s coming out at the moment isn’t quality. I’ve still been able to enjoy quite a few books at shows (check out Amari and the Night Brothers and Love, Death, and Robots). Yet what I’m trying to say is that, even in the mainstream, creators lose sight of the one thing that will keep me—and most other audiences, if I had to bet on it—engaged. They are lacking the secret sauce of storytelling. In one word, it is emotion.

When Game of Thrones’ ending failed to resonate with so many last year, did you ever ask why? What about Attack on Titan more recently, if you’re a reader of Japanese Manga?

Both these stories suffered from, among other things, an ending that lacked the emotional payoff. They felt stale, cold, and lacking the heart which had readers originally returning to both franchises, whether the book or television adaptations. I won’t spoil them for you now, but I will offer the recipe for getting it right, whether you’re an author, screenwriter, or want to be that one person at the party with the best story.

Ingredient 1: Stakes

What do the main characters have to lose if they don’t get what they want?

This is the main driver of any story, whether describing how you got pulled over by a police officer on your way to a date or having to topple an empire to save the ones you love. The stakes describe just what will happen if you don’t talk your way out with the officer given a particularly bad record, or just what will happen to your family if, in trying to topple an empire, one of the ruling family’s dragons gets to you first.

Never fail to remind your audience about these stakes, subtly weaving them in throughout the story!

Ingredient 2: Really Hard Things

I don’t know about you, but a victory doesn’t feel earned if there aren’t some true challenges along the way.

There are terms for those characters who seem to overcome any obstacle, like Mary Sue. These characters navigate every challenge unscathed, rising above unaffected, and never really lose.

Boring, am I right?

To really drag the reader on a rollercoaster of suspense, make us question if the character really can win. Have them fail, and struggle with those failures. Show us they are human, or at least human-like. Otherwise, losers like me won’t be able to empathize with them!

Final Ingredient: Payoff

Here’s the big one. It’s why I mentioned Game of Thrones and Attack on Titan earlier. Both of those stories lacked the right payoff.

By this, we’re talking about how the character overcomes the really hard things you threw in their way, using the lessons learned or friends acquired to beat the odds and succeed. When characters just win all the time, the payoff feels weak. Similarly, when the payoff isn’t there altogether, you’re audience will lose interest. They might even turn against you if the ending is especially lacking in a payoff.

Be sure to seed in small moments where a character’s effort pays off. Tie in the obstacles for bonus points, and of course, remind us just what the stakes were so we can savor the moment the character actually wins!


These are my rules of thumb for compelling storytelling, and a surefire way of injecting some powerful emotion into your stories.

It goes without saying, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to emotional storytelling. Some writers do it differently, and that’s fine. However, this approach has worked well for me and I know others can benefit from these practical tips too!

Now, if you gleamed even the tiniest bit of wisdom from this post, I would appreciate it if you could retweet, post to your stories, and share in some small way to your friends :)