So far we’ve learned that curiosity is an important psychological process writers want to capture in their writing, and one way we can do that is by weaving questions through our stories or creating the element of surprise. This week, we learn exactly how powerful gaps in knowledge can be.
Essentially, curiosity is a drive state for information. It is the desire to know why, where, how, what, or who. Even more specifically, curiosity is about the information we don’tknow. Gaps in knowledge have led to the birth of religion, to disciplines such as mathematics and philosophy, and to the quest to understand how nature works (i.e. science, which subsequently led to technology and engineering). In fact, this drive to explore and attempt to decipher the world has far exceeded the effort needed to survive.
Ever been distracted on the bus or train by a person talking on the phone? Maybe you found it hard to focus on the book you were trying to read? Why do we watch a movie through to the end, even if we’re not enjoying it? We want to know. We want to fill in the gaps. We fall prey to curiosity.
Remember how I mentioned that research has shown we find it harder not to listen to someone talking on the phone (so we only hear half of the conversation) than to listen to two people having a face-to-face conversation? That’s basically because curiosity is a drive for information—a drive that rewards discovering answers. That very drive will have your reader turning pages minute after minute, hour after hour.
Your reader has some preconceived notions about the world surrounding them and the story they are immersed in. That same individual seeks coherence. When we encounter something that is incompatible with our prior knowledge (whether that knowledge is accurate or not), a gap is generated and we experience this gap as an aversive state, a mildly unpleasant sensation.
Now I know you’re thinking that no author wants to induce an aversive state in their reader. But just like an itch we have to scratch, we are driven to investigate and seek new insights so that we can reduce the uncertainty and feeling of ignorance.
We want to fill the gap! And when we do, just like that sense of relief and release you get when you scratch the itch, we get a rush of happy neurochemicals. And you don’t have to take my word for it. Consider the following:
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbirdis the story of young Scout Finch. On the first page, she remembers the incident when her older brother, Jem, broke his arm.
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
Scout goes on to mull whether it really started further back than that, but in that one paragraph, readers already have information without resolution. We know Dill is probably a key character, but we don’t know any more than that—his age, his relationship to Scout, or whether he was really named after a herb. It seems getting Boo Radley to come out is a goal the three children had, but we don’t know why, or whether they were successful. The reader is going to have to keep reading to be able to find the remaining pieces that will make that puzzle complete.
Paula Hawkins manages to give enough to get us curious in just a few short lines. In her best-seller, TheGirl on the Train, one of the characters, Megan, is revealing her past to her therapist. In this short excerpt we see her disclose just a snippet of information before shutting down:
“I was actually really happy there, with Mac. I lived with him for…God, it was about three years. I think, in the end. I was…nineteen when I left. Yeah. Nineteen.”
“Why did you leave? If you were happy there?” he asks me. We’re there now, we got there quicker than I thought we would. I haven’t had time to go through it all, to build up to it. I can’t do it. It’s too soon.
“Mac left me. He broke my heart,” I say, which is the truth, but also a lie. I’m not ready to tell the whole truth yet.
Is anyone else curious? We now know Megan lived with Mac for three years, but she left, even though she was happy. There are certainly some missing pieces of the puzzle there. What’s more, breaking her heart is the truth, but also a lie. How can that be? There’s now a gap between what I know and what I don’t know, and I’m willing to invest more time and cognitive resources into filling that gap.
Gaps in knowledge plant a seed. They leave clues. They allude to something more complex, more intriguing than initially suspected. The builder of this world is hinting that something is coming. It’s clear how that is going to engage your reader’s interest. What’s more, have you noticed how this disparity between the known and the unknown raises questions? Why did Megan leave? Why is it too painful to talk about so soon? Where is the truth and where is the lie? When will she be ready to tell the whole truth?
Clever storytelling drizzles and sprinkles information for the reader to follow. It’s your literary trail of breadcrumbs for the consumer to enjoy—both during the intriguing journey, and also when they reach the satisfying destination.
Next week we cover the final literary strategy a writer can use to harness curiosity. Until then, how created gaps in knowledge in your stories? Were you already using this strategy without having consciously giving it a label? Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.
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