Commit them in the setup.
To be popular a work draws them (the audience) into their world and inspires them to participate in the plot with the characters. Everyone knows this but it’s not concrete enough to help a writer much with their own work. With these 7 steps to engaging the audience any work can be popular too. In step #1, by showing the setup the audience finds their own sympathy within the work.
In The Shawshank Redemption there is a lot that needs to happen to setup the crime, the evidence, Andy’s conviction and his subsequent incarceration in prison. The audience invests in Andy as we are rapidly hit in the face with the clear and obvious facts of his guilt. Yet as we stand in his shoes, feel his numb shock (imagine your face in the picture above) we become certain all is not right here.
As we are shown how Andy deals with the indignities of prison we put ourselves in his place. We come to admire how he fights the beatings and rapes and anticipate his growing friendship with Red. Through this a desire grows to see how Andy ends up, how he overcomes. It doesn’t really matter to us if he’s innocent, released or escapes we are simply taking one day at a time like Andy.
Over time, through Andy’s affection and worry for Red, a concern creeps in and nags at us as we see what happens to Brooks, a friend and fellow inmate recently paroled. Our sympathies are cemented when Andy escapes leaving Red with a hand full of clues that might or might not save his life. It’s through the masterful setup of the growing relationship between Andy and Red that the audience becomes emotionally committed to both men’s future.
In Twilight, we start fresh with Bella as she moves from living with her mother and new husband to moving in with her father in Forks, Washington. It’s a rough situation and even if your parents are still happily married you can imagine how Bella feels starting over in a new place. Many kids in the small town latch onto Bella but she’s caught up in her intrigue for one person – Edward Cullen. His instant dislike of her, his absence from school, then sudden return and just as sudden flip in attitude all draw her in. The facts don’t add up for Bella so she seeks the truth…and finds it.
Until the baseball scene three-fourths of the way through Twilight, nothing of any scale threatens our protagonists. Up until that point we are caught up experiencing the first blush of falling in love…and enjoying it too much to care. By the end of the setup we are all for Edward and Bella staying together. It’s almost a shock to find someone threatening this happy ending. The plot is short and sweet, yes, but it threatened the relationship we’d spent 350 pages committing to.
This massive setup in Twilight was for the entire Twilight Saga so it was very important the audience feel why Bella and Edward’s relationship was worth fighting for. A small taste of the coming threat was plenty to whet our appetites. This uneven balance between setup and plot actually works in favor of the story. It made a cliffhanger ending unnecessary (we knew more was coming.) And there were no gimmicks needed either (the “massive” setup technique was plenty). Through this creative setup a typical romance was refreshed for the audience, drawing us into Edward and Bella’s fight.
In season five of Mad Men we find Don has gone through with his marriage to Megan. Her role in the office has changed. She wants to be shoulder to shoulder with the copy writers in on the creative process. Don wants her on call, doing whatever until he pulls her away for day trips and client meetings. Through this setup we see Megan has a natural talent for advertising that enchants Don and inspires his passion for his work again. Megan is pulled in two directions; she wants Don to be happy but she wants to be happy as well. Don develops certain expectations of Megan from their work success. We do too. We are shocked when two events send Megan spiraling off in a totally random direction.
The first is when her parents come to visit. Their unhappiness and hatred for each other is the perfect environment for her father to plant seeds of unrest in Megan’s marriage – don’t give up on your dream he says. We are screaming at the television, no, don’t listen to him, you are so good at the advertising. The second is the Howard Johnson tiff. The argument wasn’t about sherbet, of course. It shows Megan isn’t too keen on settling to Don’s desires for her and isn’t above heading out on her own. Later when Megan decides to quit for acting we are not surprised by her decision. The abrupt loss of the very person making work exciting again is a huge blow for Don. Peggy also starts to rethink her place at the firm with Megan’s defection.
TV makes the best environment for plot to happen in the moment while also setting up for plot in the future. The problem with it is in the wrong setting this ongoing setup can feel contrived and over worked. One of the best decisions made by the show’s creator was to set the plot in the 60′s. By using this setting Megan is set off to a better advantage than if the show were set in modern times. It’s expected for Megan to rebel and seek her own dreams due to the time of change that the 60′s represent. A modern audience relates to Megan’s journey, everyone having at some point had their opinions decided for them by someone else. With the right setting, showing setup can be as powerful as the payoffs which in the end make for a loyal audience.
I wanna be popular too you say…and you can be. Commit them in the setup. Everyone understands the world and characters are established in the setup. But to be popular, setup is much more, it’s creating a sympathy between them (the audience) and the protagonist. The audience doesn’t necessarily have to like the characters or want to be their best friend but they have to be emotionally invested in what happens to them. Many writers craft a relatable character and leave it at that. By showing the audience the world and characters instead of the writer telling them, you allow the audience to instinctively decide what attracts them. Because the audience participated in deciding what to relate to, it garners a commitment to the story that can’t be broken no matter the plot.
As a writer, take the first step in your own work to engage the audience: commit them in the setup. Continue reading how, with these 7 steps to engaging the audience, any work can be popular too.