How To Evoke Audience Reaction & Keep Things Interesting Without Being Cheap Or Manipulative

Many tactics writers use to evoke reaction and keep people interested really aren't that great. Many of them are cheap, lazy gimmicks thrown in with no regard for whether they add anything of substance, make sense in context, or fit the story's established themes. This article is going to look at some of these lazy tricks, examine what's wrong with them, and offer some alternatives you can try.

Table of Contents

Cheap & Manipulative Tactic #1: Payoff Denial/Takeback.

It seems some writers think that "dark," "mature," and "lasting consequences" means no emotional payoff for the audience. Maybe these writers decided that because kids' stories usually have happy endings, then it must follow that stories for adults have terrible ones. Maybe they misunderstood "it's okay if things don't always work out right, because that's realistic" to mean "realism means nothing ever works out and nothing ever gets better." Or maybe they don't realize that you can only use the same emotional shock tactics so many times before they become irritatingly predictable. In any case, there's a whole spate of creators who tease and build up to certain payoffs, only to have tragedy or disaster strike just before or right after they happen.

Some people might say that this makes for a "beautiful tragedy." But this is a pretty awful argument because it suggests that we should romanticize pain and suffering for its own sake instead of romanticizing overcoming obstacles in the face of adversity. Additionally, the "beautiful tragedy" approach often turns into outright fetishizing completely avoidable suffering.

Some might argue that payoff denial/takeback can be a good tactic because killing characters off shortly before or after realizing their happiness maximizes the tragedy, and thus, the emotional impact. However, this argument begs the question that maximizing negative emotional impact is always necessarily a good thing. In reality, spamming sadness and angst can result in a story that's just so painful that continuing on with it turns into a kind of emotional self-harm. Additionally, if the tragic ending kills or ruins the happiness of one of the few marginalized/minority characters in the story, it send the message that marginalized/minority people don't get or deserve happy endings. And for those who see the character as a victim or underdog who deserves a fair shake at happiness, the death can be more than sad - it can be downright depressing, especially to those who relate to this character.

So what can you do?

Know what actually hurts the most. It's not loss itself that's painful so much as the absence we have to live with afterward. Stories like the ones described often don't understand this. They play the loss or tragedy up for huge drama in the moment it happens, then go zip off to the next plot point. In reality, the actual moment of loss is small potatoes compared to what comes after; the worst is going to be felt later as those who are impacted remember what they've lost or missed out on, or feel grief on behalf of those whose lives or dreams were cut short. If you want your story to feature a tragic loss of some kind, it wouldn't be a bad idea to work this into the overall narrative.

Remember that rehashing the same emotions forever gets old. Evoking the same emotions all the time produces roughly the same effect as serving somebody the same soup recipe for dinner every night for a month. Most people will get tired of it. Even those who loved your soup for the first few nights might be ready to throw it out the window and go to bed hungry by the thirtieth. Teasing or building toward something and never delivering it is a bit like leading somebody on thinking that you're going to deliver something that isn't the soup they're getting sick of, but never doing it. Destroying or taking back the payoff is a bit like serving someone a pizza after three weeks of soup, only to take it away and throw it in the trash after they've eaten a single bite. Good stories let people have and savor a smorgasboard of emotions - both positive and negative.

Don't think in terms of how you're going to hurt or shock your audience. If you're fixated on torturing your audience, you're not going to end up with a very good story. You're going to have a narrative that amounts to little more than a bunch of senseless pain and mayhem strung together. At this point your story will feel contrived. Instead, think in terms of what kind of dramatic events will help move this arc or story toward an organic, satisfying conclusion and let you explore new emotional avenues in the meantime.

Don't underestimate the emotional potential in the alternative. When authors go for death and destruction like this, they often cut themselves off from a world of interesting potential. If you let your characters get together instead of killing one off, you can show them experiencing the challenges that being in a relationship bring, and that alone can generate a ton of emotional situations. If you let the newly-redeemed villain live, you can show the character having to adapt to a new lifestyle and possibly to a world that doesn't exactly accept this ex-villain, which again, that's going to generate a ton of emotion.

If you want to play around with consequences, consider the implications and probable outcomes of what's already there. Many writers totally overlook the motherlodes of consequences that would be perfectly reasonable or even inevitable from how things currently are. Did your supervillain just wipe out a good chunk of the population? Then you're going to be looking at major shifts in socio-economics that will permanently alter the course of history going forward. (Just look at how the Black Death changed the face of Europe!) Are your warlords spending every ounce of resources they have to fight each other? What will they do when those resources inevitably run dry, and how will the victors get on when they've spent themselves broke to get there? Look at what you've already got laid out, and see where you can go with it.

Consider shocking your audience with positivity sometimes. Having things finally go right with no takebacks for a character or world where disaster, death, and crushed dreams are a way of life can have a huge impact in the best possible way. Not only can they evoke just as many (if not more!) tears, they can give a much-needed sense of relief or closure.

Cheap & Manipulative Tactic #2: The Surprise From Planet Nine.

Some amount of unpredictability is good; it satsifies our sense of curiosity and gives us the joy of discovering something new. But some authors go overboard and try too hard to make sure that everything is totally, entirely unpredictable. Some even lurk in message boards so they can find out what fans are guessing at just so they can make something else happen. But this is a terrible idea for one simple reason: the fans' speculations often come from a place of asking what would actually make sense, whereas the writers twists come from a place of wanting to catch the fans off guard at any cost. The end result is that the fans come up with a lot of good, sensible ways to take the story, while the writers churn out totally random nonsense.

Think of it like trying so hard to find a surprise birthday gift for your friend that you go out and buy a box of chicken gizzard flavored gumdrops. It's a surprise, all right. Your friend definitely won't see it coming. But all in all, your friend probably would have preferred it if you'd gone for the more predictable, yet less nausea-inducing Blu-Ray copy of that film you both like.

So what can you do to avoid this?

Remember that there's more to a good story than surprise. Other things that can hold people's interest include (but are not limited to!) exploring emotions and issues they can relate to or sympathize with, showing them places they'd like to explore or visit, and building up to satisfying emotional payoffs. Also, a certain amount of predictability can be a good thing because a lot of people will be thrilled to find out they guessed right!

Put careful thought and planning into your surprises long before you spring them. A good surprise twist makes sense in context. A great surprise twist seems so blindingly obvious in retrospect that you wonder how you couldn't have seen it coming. Plan out your surprises in advance, check them against what you've already established to see if they create any plot holes or unwanted implications, and once they pass inspection weave a narrative that both accommodates and subtly points to what you're going to reveal without drawing direct attention to it.

Don't worry about the jackass brigade. Those who act like it's an unforgivable sin if anything in your story can be predicted ever are 1. in the minority, and 2. not very nice. The amount of time you should spend worrying about what this tiny gaggle of ghouls will think is none at all.

Cheap & Manipulative Tactic #3: The Unnecessary Gimmick

In yet another desperate move to grab people's attention, the author throws in a new gimmick. It might be a flashy new power, it might be a bigger and badder villain, or it might be a new character whose only real purpose is to stand in for the coveted young adult demographic. There are many problems with this. For one thing, it doesn't take long for the novelty of a new gimmick to wear off. Secondly, new powers and bigger bad guys often contributes to dramatic hyperinflation. Thirdly, new characters can result a larger-than-necessary cast, and trying to kill off an old character to make room might not go over well. Finally, a gimmick isn't the same as an actual story idea, and writers who focus too much on gimmicks tend to produce repetitive plotlines.

What can you do to avoid this?

Try exploring the implications and consequences of what you've set up already. Before you throw in some random new element, put some thought into what you've got set up already - EG, the general state of the world, the fantastic elements you've added in, the kinds of people you'd have running around in it, etc. Speculate on what people might be doing with or about the problems you've set up in your world, whether that's exploiting them or trying to fix them. Ask yourself if there might be any unseen dark sides or unsavory consequences connected to the resources and institutions your characters take for granted. Of course there's always a point where you'll need to add something new, but it's a good idea to try and get a little more mileage out of what you've already got.

Make your characters work smarter and more creatively with the toys and tools they already have. Look at the magical powers, sci-fi doodads, perfectly normal power tools, and other resources your characters already have access to, and start thinking up as many ways to use and abuse them as you possibly can. Then let your characters come up with some of this and use it in your story. (If you're getting stuck thinking up ideas, take a look at Phlebotinum-Development Questions.)

Put more effort into fleshing out what you've set up already. People often love learning more about things that have already been establishedl. If you make a habit of fleshing out what you already have, they'll stick around to see what they learn next. (Just be careful that your developments aren't too contrived.)

Cheap & Manipulative Tactic #4: The Shock Drop.

Where a writer inserts something totally disgusting and repulsive for no reason beyond it being the most shocking thing that came to mind. It will often be described or shown with a sort of lurid intimacy that borders on erotic. One can only presume that the author is either channelling his inner fourteen year old, or hasn't had any personal growth since that age, or has some kind of issue that should be taken up with a psychologist.

Some people will try to justify this trope by saying that the creator simply wishes to depict the darker side of humanity. However, this does nothing to explain why the horrible thing is framed in such a leering light, let alone whether it ought to be. There's nothing wrong with depicting the darker side of humanity (and in fact, leaving it out altogether is arguably harmful because it allows us to forget that danger does exist out there), but framing it like this goes beyond that and sends it hurtling into the realm of "creepy erotica that nobody asked for."

Here's what you can do if you want to use shocking elements to explore the dark side of humanity:

Only use them if they serve your story somehow. Do they move the plot forward? Do they contribute to a character's growth or development? Do they create a new complication for the protagonists? Are you using them to actually say something meaningful? Make sure they actually do something for your story and aren't just there to make your audience squirm.

Frame them appropriately. Don't give them the same kind of framing you'd give a romantic or intimate scene. If somebody gets hurt, frame this person as a victim deserving of compassion and help. Don't fixate on the moment of brutality and then downplay or sweep aside the aftermath; instead, explore the consequences this has for the victim and/or the victim's family. Basically, follow shock with sympathy and compassion. For more information on framing, see Framing: What It Is And How To Use It.

If you're trying to make things interesting, aim for something more substantial. Shock drops are sometimes used to generate interest in the story, and while they can work in the short term they are ultimately superficial and gimmicky. The aforementioned tips about using shocks only if they serve the story, fleshing out what you already have, and exploring implications and consequences are relevant here.

Cheap & Manipulative Tactic #5: The 1-D Woobie Warrior.

This is a character (usually female) who has no substantial personality or identity outside of being hurt, traumatized, and taking vengeance on whoever hurt her. She's basically designed to make you feel sorry for her and wish that you could make everything better for her - at least, until the point she finally unleashes a can of whoop-ass on the villain, at which point you're supposed to cheer her on for avenging herself and reclaiming her power. You might see her in the company of a male figure (such as an older brother, boyfriend, or father figure) who assures everyone that she's really amazing and special despite her history of violence. Those who have suspicions and misgivings about her will be framed as selfish and awful, even if she's already killed presumably innocent people.

What's more, the guy who shills her is probably a mouthpiece for the author, who sees her as a darling little angel that no one in their right minds could hate. Characters who hurt or dislike her are probably also stand-ins for whatever the author has a personal beef with and wants you to hate, too. (Nothing says "deep and thoughtful writing" like guilt tripping the audience into agreeing with your politics, right?)

The 1-D Woobie Warrior might also have some poorly-defined mental illness that gets played up to make her seem mysterious or otherworldly. We might be told that no one can understand her because her mind is just too incomprehensible, too alien. This is actually a really horrible way of portraying a mentally ill character because it's so dehumanizing - the mentally ill are actual human beings struggling with disability, not mystical fae creatures with one foot in an aethereal realm.

Finally, this character commonly derives her powers from her abuse in some way. She might have been experimented on by government scientists, or her "insanity" might have come with a side effect of being psychic, or something along these lines. This itself is a very unfortunate trope. Its sheer prevalence often sends a message that women can't be powerful unless something horrible has happened to them. (Even if the intention is to write a story about an abuse victim reclaiming her power and autonomy, one has to wonder why we're so fixated on portraying powerful women as victims of abuse in the first place. Do we subconsicously assume that a woman in a position of power must be damaged in some way, and that normal, healthy women don't seek or wield power?) Nor does it work as a metaphor for reclaiming one's autonomy and power after abuse, because abuse doesn't empower people. If anything, empowerment comes from the support and care of family, friends, therapists; and from reading self-help books and doing self-care, etc.

So what can you do to fix a character like this?

Give her a three-dimensional personality and let her grow as a person. The main flaw with the 1-D Woobie Warrior is that she has no personality outside of being in pain and/or seeking vengeance. If she ever gets to have anything nice, it's only so it can be taken away to restart the cycle of devastation/vengeance. Figure out who she is outside of being angry and hurt, and make sure that the story shows it. Give the audience substantial reasons to like and relate to her. After she's had her vengeance, let her find new passion and purpose in life. Maybe even let her get some therapy, since revenge isn't going to make all those psychological issues go away. (Keep in mind, keeping a female character locked into endless cycles of devastation and vengeance can make it look like you've got a really creepy thing for hurting and punishing women.)

Get rid of her shill. Needing a shill infantilizes her, as it frames her as being unable to advocate and care for herself. Stop thinking of her as a little girl who needs someone to protect and defend her. Let her grow up and be an adult, and let her own words and actions to the talking.

Ditch the Protagonist Centered Morality. Not wanting to be around this character or wanting to keep her out of crowded places because there's a fair risk somebody might get seriously hurt perfectly valid. And nobody should be expected to like your character unless she actually has substantially likeable traits.

Quit victimizing her to manipulate the audience into hating someone or something. This is the same basic emotional manipulation tactic as the kind of propaganda that claims that we have to fight somebody or other or else they'll kidnap and violate the women. It's super icky and super objectfying. Just don't, dude!

Don't fetishize mental illness. If you make her mentally ill in any way, give her a realistic disorder (you could start by researching anxiety, depression, and PTSD), and don't romanticize it. Instead, use it in a way that humanizes her and the mentally ill in general. For more information, see On Writing Mentally Ill & Insane Characters.

If she's supposed to be empowered, then actually empower her. Being empowered isn't about the exact abilities that one has so much as whether one can use them autonomously and independently to gain or achieve something. A relatively weak character who can get important things done on her own is more empowered than a powerful character who constantly needs others to prop her up. See On Writing Empowered & Empowering Characters for more information.

Cheap & Manipulative Tactic #6: Stuffing Somebody Into The Fridge.

The ickiness of this trope has been talked about for years, but it still pops up now and then and it's still as bad and lazy as ever. It's not about literally stuffing somebody into a refrigerator; instead, it's about abruptly killing, maiming, assaulting, depowering, or otherwise traumatizing an established character (usually female) to motivate another character (usually male) into action, or to just have something to angst about. The victim is usually a love interest, but might also be a friend, close family member, student, and so on.

The problem isn't that the surviving/non-maimed characters have feelings. (They absolutely should have feelings! Who wouldn't?) The problem is how the narrative dehumanizes and objectifies the victims. It reduces them to plot devices whose ultimate purpose is to make somebody else react and feel things. If the victim lives, her own pain doesn't matter half as much as the anger and pain her boyfriend or whatever is feeling over it, even though he's not the actual victim. He's not the one who has to live with PTSD flashbacks, permanent injury, years of therapy/rehab, etc. If she dies, everything she accomplished or lived for becomes a mere footnote buried beneath reams of his wallowing in self-absorbed angst. Basically, her entire existence is framed solely in terms of how she connects to him and how he feels about her. Literally nothing else matters.

Dead or hurt women are often fetishized under this trope. Her body might be shown in an attractive, even alluring state; gore will be minimal and her pose will be seductive or suggest a kind of melancholy languor (ala just about any piece of art that comes up if you do an image search for "Ophelia drowned"). If she survives, she might turn into a 1-D Woobie Warrior.

Some people argue that this trope is justified because fridging a character raises the stakes. It does no such thing. Stakes only concern what can potentially happen. If the hero's love interest will die if the doomsday device isn't deactivated in time, then the stakes are raised because the love interest's life is at risk. But if the love interest is already dead, then the love interest is no longer at risk and no stakes are raised.

So what can you do to avoid this problem?

First, consider alternatives. Is hurting or killing this character really the only thing that can motivate your protagonist to do something? Why can't the fact that bad things are happening that need to be stopped be motivation enough? If the protagonist was already going to act, why bother killing or hurting the character at all? If the bad guys want to make the protagonist stop coming after them, why not just try to take out the protagonist? Take some time to stop and think out other potential ways you could move your story forward. You might come up with something surprisingly good.

Focus on the victim as a three-dimensional human being with an existence independent of the protagonist. Draw attention to who this character is or was as a three-dimensional person with friends, family, interests, opinions, a job, etc. Make the audience care about everything this character is or was, not just the bits that attach this character to the protagonist. If alive, explore how this character feels and what this means for the character's life going forward. What will the road to recovery look like, and to what extent is recovery possible? What will the most difficult and frustrating parts about this be? How will the character cope with the whole thing? Aim to evoke compassion and empathy, rather than pity or admiration. If the character dies, draw attention to everything this character was and accomplished, and show how the death affects those other than your protagonist.

Let the audience get inside the victim's head. Fridge survivors are often depicted only from an outsider's perspective. We're invited to empathize with the those who pity or admire them, but we aren't allowed inside the minds of the victims to find out how they're feeling and doing. Aim to help the audience empathize or at least sympathize with what they're feeling, including the unpleasant and ugly emotions. They might feel grief over what they've lost. They might feel angry at those who claim to care about them but never truly listen to to them to find out how they feel or what they really and truly need. They might have times when they feel like life is hopeless and things can never get better or be okay again, and they might even reach the point where they're ready to punch the next guy who offers them a shallow platitude.

Remember that people who have been seriously hurt need support, compassion, and company more than anything else. They need someone who can be there for them and help them. They need someone to make dinner for them, to hold their hand, and to nonjudgementally listen to them vent and talk about their feelings. They need someone who won't run away when the unpleasant and ugly emotions they've been holding down finally surface. When you're in constant pain, the last thing you want is for people to just run off and leave you alone, even if it's to "avenge" you.

More Assorted Tips

Remember that consequences are better than coincidences. Consequences feel organic, natural, and logical. A few coincidences can feel natural, but too many can feel forced. Instead of continually throwing in new elements or twists at random, or contriving for things to happen by sheer chance, aim to create continuous chains of cause and effect. For example, instead of having your detective constantly stumble upon dead bodies by sheer accident, let your detective hear about them through the grapevine or from people who want to hire your detective to find out what happened. Allow your protagonists' actions to go wrong in the worst possible way sometimes, or have unforeseen side-effects that create complications.

Design characters with strong personalties, firm opinions, goals to chase, and realistic breaking points. When you make a cast of characters like this and just let them be themselves, wild shenanigans are practically guaranteed. Goals don't necessarily need to be epic or noble - simple things like "get the lead role in the school play," "find my missing coffee mug," or "avoid work" can work as long as they make interesting and entertaining things happen. Realistic breaking points can let a character go off the rails for awhile without actually contradicting the character's core personality.

Remember that good surprises and twists stay true to the theme(s) of the story. If you find yourself trying so hard to surprise the audience that what you come up with contradicts your established themes, you're definitely trying way too hard. Doing this is a little like serving up a birthday cake covered in mayonnaise and ketchup instead of frosting. You've successfully subverted what people expect from a birthday cake, but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who actually wants to eat it.

Likewise, good surprises and twists always let characters stay true to their established personalities and motives. If a surprise or twist requires a character to behave in a way that's completely at odds with the character's established personality or motives, then it's not a good surprise or twist. Your characters should remain psychologically consistent, with any major changes to their minds or motives being the result of natural, organic development that we get to see.

Remember that it's okay to slow down and chill sometimes. In fact, it's a good idea! Keeping things exciting and tense all the time can be emotionally tiring for your audience. It's okay to slow things down for awhile and create some space for your characters (and the audience) to stop and smell the roses, or to let your characters be honest and/or affectionate with each other without interruption.

Learn to listen and empathize with people more, and to look at the world through a holistic lens. You rarely see cheap and manipulative tactics from writers who can do this. Get into the habit of listening and empathizing with people. Get into the habit of thinking about people and characters in terms of how they connect to and interact with their friends, families, communities, schools, workplaces, and so on. Practice visualizing them as indviduals who all connect and interact with each other in sundry ways to form the larger whole that is society, culture, or whathaveyou.

Check out the following for useful and relevant information!

Dramatic Hyperinflation: Why It's A Problem, And How To Avoid It
On Creating, Building, & Keeping Suspense
Tips For Writing Dark Stories, Settings, & Characters
Pointlessly Edgy Tropes To Reconsider Using
How To Avoid Making Your Story And Characters Feel Contrived

Alternatives To Killing Your Characters
Tips & Advice On Killing Main Characters

Points To Remember When Worldbuilding
Country & Culture-Development Questions
Tips To Create Richer & More Realistic Fantasy & Science Fiction Cultures & Civilizations
Advice & Tips On Developing Fictional Timelines & Histories

How To Write People On Large Scales
How To Make The Nameless, Faceless, & Minor Characters In Your Story Feel Human To You

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