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How To Engage The Audience

Copyright © 2002, Dorian Scott Cole 

There are only two relevant choices: 1) Write a script that no one wants to see made into a movie, and the script reader will toss after a few pages. 2) Engage the audience. This article explores various ways of engaging the audience.

Understanding how to engage the audience gets to the heart of writing entertainment movies. While achieving it can be done in many ways, it embraces the following:

  • What do people expect from a movie?
  • What is the movie experience?
  • What elements engage the audience?
  • Which elements engage the audience the most?
  • Conclusion
  • Interesting examples
  • Some relevant perspectives

What do people expect from a movie?

People want to be "entertained." They want to laugh, cry, vicariously experience a great ride, be adventurous, see spectacular things, see new things, get "jolted and shocked," have positive outcomes affirmed, see drama that challenges them and makes them think about their world, be inspired, and, in short, have some experience that temporarily displaces them from everyday life and changes their mood. The term "escapism" trivializes and sometimes demeans what it is thought that the audience wants.

Entertainment is a very subjective experience, and to understand it requires a very broad understanding of what people find entertaining. For example, personally I am put off by the Shaft style films, and a coming TV series, that glorify police brutality. But during that film the audience literally cheered, and clapped at the end of it - I rarely see audience reaction like that, and I think that it was just the audience that the story attracted. Needing to see recalcitrant people dealt with instantly, appeals to the frustrated. Who am I to say that it isn't "aesthetically pleasing." The movie John Q offered the same type of entertainment. John picked up a gun and held the "system" hostage. It reflects the mood of many who can't get healthcare. Movies include a reflection of life and of peoples needs and fantasies.

I think that movies are a form of art. That is, art not so much in the aesthetic sense of "beauty and good taste," although many movies are, but more in the sense of depicting the human condition in all of its beauty or ugliness, and speaking to the audience about the human experience through the various art forms employed in film. But to what purpose? Aristotle wrote (in his Poetics) that art which imitates anything and everything is not only unrefined, the audience grows bored with it and gets restless. Depicting reality for the sake of reality is useless. Everyday things are not what audiences are interested in.

Looking at higher principles, I don't believe that movies are the moral guide of society (or can often be effective at that), or that people want moral guidance from film. Perhaps some writers are effective at planting a message along the way, but buyer beware: some messages are good, some bad. Writers are often tempted to answer the questions they pose about life. Movies shouldn't try to always give answers - they respond to the audience's questions about the human experience in an affirmative way (usually the more satisfying movies do).

While I can create an elaborate construct to describe what I think is entertainment, what really is entertaining is what people find entertaining. This is a moving target. However, there is another paradox in understanding what audiences find entertaining. That is, audiences may be conditioned to expect certain things. Have we adhered to Aristotle's dictums for so long that audience expectations are for stories to be told only in certain ways? Or did Aristotle only report what story-telling qualities were effective at that time? Similarly, by focusing on the "bottom line," which responds to the common denominator of movie-goers, we may find that movies with the greatest mass appeal may be movies that encourage certain qualities while discouraging others. For example, movies that ask the audience to think, may be less well liked than movies that do all of the thinking for the audience. So film-makers can condition the audience to certain movie qualities simply by producing only films with those qualities.

What is the movie experience?

A movie is primarily a visual and sensory experience. Lines of dialogue do not make a movie. Noting Aristotle, "...incidents should speak for themselves without verbal exposition;..." The experience appeals to the senses, or a sense of narrative (story), or a sense of curiosity (wonder, mystery). The story is told visually by providing a venue for the characters to "act out" their motivations in a visual way by interacting with the physical space, objects, and other characters. But more so than the visual telling of the story is the sheer effect of the visual images that can be used in movies. Movies displace people from everyday life and mood. Time, place, and texture are left behind as people temporarily "suspend disbelief" and the movie vehicle transports them to another place, time, and texture, and presents them with an ending that is somehow life-affirming.

What elements engage the audience?

Some movies use "spectacle" to excite the senses. Even Aristotle, with the limitations of stage productions, recognized the value of the spectacle, saying, "The spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own..." You can access the idea of spectacle by looking at other forms of entertainment. Each spectacle has its own themes. The circus entertains with exotic animals and death-defying stunts. Ripley's Believe It Or Not ® entertains by amazing us with all forms of unique and unusual real-life displays from the sublimely beautiful to the strange and grotesque. Stand-up comedy teases us with the unexpected twist on daily life. Stunt demonstrations shock us with death-defying acts. Magic amazes us by deceptive maneuvers. All of these are "spectacles," and all of these things and more can be brought into movies in even larger ways than presented in their solo forms. Additionally, carnival rides thrill us with a "physical ride," and movies thrill us with a ride for our senses.

The element of spectacle can be added to a movie to make it more entertaining, but these usually don't make the movie all by themselves. We find car chases exciting, but few movies are one long car chase. Exotic scenery, erotic characters, dancing, stunts, "characters" who do unusual things or act in bizarre ways, all make a movie entertaining. Some movies depend more on these elements than on the story. For example, people go to see Jackie Chan movies for his stunts. Or put Jackie Chan and Chris Carter together and you wonder what comic thing they are going to do next. Similarly, the comic antics of both Robin Williams and Jim Carey draw people to see a movie just for their comedy, and the storyline is secondary.

Most movies have a story for a backbone. A story can be described as a series of events whose elements provide a cohesive meaning structure. This means that each event has a meaning to the character. The human psyche cries out for meaning, and if the meaning isn't evident, it envisions one if it can. We want to understand what meaning an event has in the larger context of the story, or even crossing the border into today's experience of living. Some element has to make those events meaningful. I'm not talking about "the meaning of life," but just what the event means to the characters. Some element in the story has to provide a bridge that ties events together. For example, notice in the preceding examples of spectacles, each spectacle has a theme that unites all of the displays (or acts or events). Circus: exotic, death-defying acts. Comedy: unexpected twist on daily life. Stunts: death-defying acts. The entertainment of the spectacle would be diminished without the theme. The higher the stakes, the higher the drama, and supposedly the more entertaining.

The elements that provide meaning cohesion in a story might be plot, theme, a character, a timely topic, a question (or mystery), a device that is present throughout the story, or even a device that lets the audience project meaning onto it. Some stories actually contain all of these elements.

An illustration of this is the hologram. Stories are like holograms. You can print on pieces of paper the two interference patterns that are projected to create the hologram. Interestingly, you can cut off small pieces of these images and project only the small pieces. What do you get by projecting these small pieces? The same hologram, but with less quality (less information). Aristotle gave us the idea that everything in a story is a microcosm of the entire story, and if it isn't then it is unrelated (and shouldn't be in the story).

Does Aristotle's idea always hold water? And is a story really like the hologram that I describe? These probably hold true for a "story" but not necessarily for a movie or similar entertainment. When we think of the Twilight Zone TV series (later one), we think of being entertained for an hour by a "far out" story. That isn't quite true. Actually (if memory serves) three totally unrelated stories were often told within the same hour. These anthologies of little stories neither had the same plot nor same theme. If they could be classified in any way, it was that they were "far out." But the Twilight Zone and Nightgallery kept audiences entertained for an hour. Each story was longer than an anecdote, but even anecdotes are considered stories - they are very brief and communicate or question meaning.

The anecdote is one example of a simple story that transfers meaning from one person to another. The same anecdote can have many meanings. Examples: If little Johnny says, "I washed the clothes today," his mother is proud of his deed and understands that Johnny wants praise. If Juanita says, "I washed the clothes today," then Teresa understands she is commiserating with her drudgery. If macho Sam says, "I washed the clothes today," Tom knows that Sam believes he went to some heroic effort for his wife. If wondering Phil says, "I washed the clothes today," we know Phil is wondering how this fits in his life. Each little story in a movie is an anecdote that transfers meaning, both to the other characters and to the audience. If an event in a story doesn't transfer meaning, or the meaning isn't consistent with the rest of the story, then that event doesn't belong in the story unless it is for comic relief or acts as some other device.

While using a series of unconnected anecdotes to tell a story is typically a poor way to create a movie, it can work. (By unconnected, I mean that one anecdote doesn't result from another.) Road trips and slice of life movies have to be carefully constructed to have that essential cohesive meaning factor. I have never read a script that achieved this - thus, one of the reasons for this article, and even in Aristotle's day, playwrights had difficulties: "Of all plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call a plot ‘episodic’ in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence," says Aristotle. Examples of anecdotal stories that work are vacation and race movies. The end goal of the trip, even if it is winning money, is usually irrelevant - it is a device to get the "journey" going. The danger here is that the audience may be disappointed when there is no "payoff" at the end.

The journey and adventures are what are important in these movies, and the acting and theme provide the glue to make the stories cohesive. An example of this type of movie is the National Lampoon Vacation series with comedian Chevy Chase. Chase's comic style carries such movies as National Lampoon's Vacation, ...Christmas Vacation... European Vacation... and Vegas Vacation. But still there are plot devices in these movies. In Christmas Vacation, while the theme is the Christmas holiday and all that it entails, a subplot of the anticipated bonus check that doesn't arrive, drives much of the action.

If there is a theme that is present in every scene, then the story makes sense. If there is a strong character to carry the day, then the story works. But if the trip is just one unrelated adventure after adventure, then the story has no meaning cohesion and the audience soon loses interest.

2001 A Space Odyssey is an example of a story which makes people ask themselves questions, but has no plot to tie it together. One device is always present, a black monolith. It is a mystery. It ties events together. It invites people to think more deeply about "What is life, what is machine, and do the lines cross?" It simply and silently reflects what was on the minds of the people of that day. However, to work effectively, it has to address something that is relevant to the day, or to a demographic group of people. To others, the theme is, or with the passing of time will be, passé and of little interest.

The H.G. Wells classic, Time Machine is another story that is driven by a popular theme of the day, "time travel." The plot, if there is one, is inconsistent, and the story would have been much more interesting to people of that day than those of today.

In a Jackie Chan movie, Jackie's stunts and his comic and endearing, Charlie Chaplin like demeanor, are nearly enough to carry the story; however, some plot is necessary to give his stunts "a reason to be."

Discovery is another part of spectacle, but it has so many variations that I like to list it separately. We enjoy seeing new places, hearing new things, experiencing new plot twists, being engaged in new topics, finding new themes that are relevant to us, and being challenged by new ideas. We especially like stories that have a unique surprise in them - this is an essential ingredient in writing successful stories. Discovery can be put in any story.

Can a movie be written without a plot, using a device that allows a character to project a series of events? TheMagic Rock is a story idea that I devised to test my theory. You can decide for yourself on its effectiveness. If I give the following story, TheMagic Rock, a theme, but no plot, would it have enough meaning to be an engaging and satisfying experience?

    Ellen is a young woman of 16, living in a rural area, and she goes for an afternoon walk through the woods. A glitter catches her eye. It is a stone with a beautiful crystalline interior. She wonders if it is a magic stone. She stares at it all the way back to her home.

    Ellen wonders if the magic stone was lost by a spacecraft. She looks at the stone and remembers a time as a child when she had nightmares about little men coming in her window, and she was paralyzed, and they were taking her out the window, and then the dream always ended there. She was frightened for days, and had the dream recurrently over the next few years. She wonders now if maybe spacemen would be a good thing. She wonders if she would enjoy being stolen by aliens.

    The preceding story simply makes a statement about growing up, and counterbalances fear of the unknown as a child with the need "for" the unknown as a young adult. Does a narrative require a resolution to qualify as a story? Resolving nothing, this story leaves the viewer wondering about exploration, growth, and change. There is no plot, is there?

    The story could also continue with the theme of exploration, growth, and change: Next she wonders if the rock sees through time. She thinks about past boyfriends and her bad experiences. She sees how she thought they were wonderful for the wrong reasons, and how those things didn't make her happy. She thinks about things that she did to them that broke them up. And then she thinks about future men in her life, the qualities she hopes to find, and how she will treat them.

    The story concludes with Ellen being pleased about what she has seen.

So these individual stories, episodes, are united thematically. There is a device, the rock, that provides a vehicle for getting from one to the next. The audience has been made to wonder about exploration, growth, and change. But there is no plot. Is there? Any resolution?

What if the story was constructed to combine the elements of 2001 A Space Odyssey and The Magic Rock to allow the audience to project meaning onto objects and events? Projection is used in musical entertainment. The lyrics in much rock music mean whatever the listener wants them to mean. Would this work in a movie? I'll leave this adventure for another time.

Which elements engage the audience the most?

Today's audiences, whether intrinsically or from conditioning, respond consistently to six elements in stories: plot, comedy, strong characterization, action (as in movies that feature physical action), unique surprise, and a dramatic arch that increases the dramatic tension continuously until the climax is reached. Movies that feature these sell at the box office, although not all six elements are typically found in the same movie.

Strong plots grow out of strong characters who have needs which come into conflict with the needs of other characters. This conflict erupts into a series of events as each character tries to achieve his goals. This usually begins because a writer is compelled to write "about" something, which doesn't quite jive with Aristotle's notion that the plot is first and the characterization is second, but it is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg.


Stories must have meaning coherence to entertain. That is, each event in the story must somehow stand in relation to other events in the story (a relationship bridge) and have some meaning to the character and audience. Meaning can be provided by some common element, such as a plot, a theme, a question, or even a strong character. The more meaning elements present, generally the better the story.

Audiences want to laugh, cry, vicariously experience a great ride, be adventurous, see spectacular things, see new things, get "jolted and shocked," have positive outcomes affirmed, see drama that challenges them and makes them think about their world, be inspired, and, in short, have some experience that temporarily displaces them from everyday life and changes their mood.

A movie is primarily a visual and sensory experience. Lines of dialogue do not make a movie. The experience appeals to a sense of story, wonder, and mystery about the human experience. The story is told visually by providing a venue for the characters to "act out" their motivations in a visual way by interacting with the physical space and objects, and through the sheer effect of the visual images that can be used in movies. Time, place, and texture are left behind as people temporarily suspend criticism and the movie vehicle transports them to another place, time, and texture, and presents them with an ending that is somehow life-affirming.

Interesting examples

Our notions of what makes a story are often formulaic in approach. For example, we must have to have "a beginning, a middle, and an end." Can we tell a story with just one frame from the camera?

Let's tell a story with a single visual picture : We are in a house with pervasive squalor. In the foreground is a state child services representative (we see by the emblem on his papers). Another woman, his aide, is removing a baby from the arms of a very distraught mother. In the background is a Priest, head hung low, looking helpless and frustruated, indicating that the mother has probably tried to get help. Also in the background is a medicine bottle containing an antidepressive drug, indicating that she has gotten medical help. Beside them is a man angrily holding up a handful of drug periphernalia for the mother to see. We know what the problem was that she was trying to overcome.

We have a picture, we can make out the theme, and can almost make out an entire plot. We can project what we individually want to see. This isn't what we typically think of as a story, but it is one. It is like a small piece of a hologram interference pattern - by projecting it we can see the whole image, but with less detail. By projecting what we want to see, we can fill in the details.

What plot and ending do you give the story? The story could end here. This could be an "unresolved" end if the story is about the end result of drugs, and it only intends to raise awareness. This could be the resolution if the story is about rescuing the baby. There could be a later resolution if the mother overcomes her drug problem and gets her child back.

Stories have been written using similar devices, but not to this extent that I remember. There are stories that are focused on objects, such as The Red Violin, and a TV series about a cursed gun (can't remember the name), but these have the plot element of tragedy. The object (violin or gun) has a magical power to bring tragedy to people's lives. So we have expectations of certain kinds of events. In The Magic Rock story, all we have is the element of mystery. What the story is about is clarifying or exposing Ellen's issues that are projected onto the stone by Ellen.

Another example, Fried Green Tomatoes is a story that uses a similar device, although it has a plot. It opens with a mystery object, a car pulled from a river. Most of the scenes that follow are about the characters' childhood and growing up. In the second half, the story gets back to the mystery and unwinds it. At the end, we realize that the story is about friendship, and the plot about who killed who and disposed of the car is only a subplot that helps develop the story about friendship. For the first half of the movie, mystery and interesting lives are the devices that make the story engaging.

I talk about Fried Green Tomatoes in Five Power Points In Stories. I critique The Red Violin and talk about its plot in Critiques.).

Some relevant perspectives

Whether this article adds anything new to how to write stories, I don't know, but hopefully it makes others think more about how to engage the audience and adds some resources to their arsenal for doing that. What compels me to look this deeply at writing stories? There are a variety of perspectives that I have that compel me to look more closely at things we take for granted.

Definitions have a problem that I try to avoid. Definitions create "closed" systems of thought. Definitions say very simply that, "If something is identical to this, then it is this, and if it is not identical to this, then it is definitely not this." Definitions present us with certain ways of thinking about things, and prevent us from looking outside of our boxes. As a result, movies tend to conform to these definitions, and then these movies, that hardly vary, condition the audience to a certain set of expectations.

So we are locked into the notions of entertainment that some authoritative master such as Aristotle, or Shakespeare, Hitchcock, Warhol... set the pattern for. We study what is, not what can be, and nothing can change, such as our idea of plot, except incrementally. Today I think we are at an extremist point in which a strong story structure is over-emphasized and the audience is not tempted to engage its own imagination to either interpret or enhance the story... and they are so out of practice that nothing no other type of story is acceptable. I resist this kind of locked-down thinking since it can only produce sameness and attempts to vary from sameness by extremism, and it can't produce progress.

The world has thought new thoughts, and the use of plot, emanating from Aristotle, may not be sensitive to today's sophisticated audiences. My head is in three different areas that are related to creating stories: One is in "Narrative psychology," another is in "Semiotics," and another is in Postmodern thought (deconstruction, reconstruction, relative constructs). According to my wife, my head is... well, nevermind. If she isn't totally right, at least she keeps me feet on the ground. : )

In narrative psychology, we can see that when we try to understand the meaning of some event, such as something happening in a relationship, or series of events, we are using a form of verbal story to interpret meaning, or someone can specify a meaning, or we can individually project a meaning onto some other person's experience. So the story can have at least three different vehicles for creating meaning. These three ways can apply to movies by 1) allowing the audience to engage their imagination in interpreting what the scenes mean and what the story means, 2) allowing the audience to project meaning by identifying with the event, and 3) by some device in the story specifying or reinterpreting the meaning of an event or story. Do we use these in movies? Can we these effectively in movies?

Every word, picture, and action in a movie communicates some meaning. Semiotics looks at these ways as "signs," but most important to me is the idea that we can tell the story "visually." We communicate meaning through an image and through physical action. As some have said, a picture can tell a thousand words. But telling the story visually is more than that. Stories can be told by employing symbols. Symbols can be constructed and used as dynamic entities to communciate meaning. If you consider the physical properties of sets to be "another actor," then you can access the idea of how to use these "things" to communicate, either dynamically by the actors, or statically by themselves.

Postmodern philosophy, modern psychology, and semantics helps me realize that we have created a construct for communicating meaning through our definitions of what a story is. We have created a set of expectations that we will communicate "entertainment" in a conventional way. Is this the only way to communicate a story? We can deconstruct the idea of plot down to what is irreducible concerning what it takes to engage an audience, at least regarding plot, so that a story has cohesive meaning from one scene to the next. But if we did, this idea of plot would not explain why people watch a circus from beginning to end (a circus has no plot), nor explain how to take what fascinates an audience in a circus and bring a similar concept into a movie.

How can we understand this? In two ways. One, a plot engages the audience. It is an engaging thought or sensation that is the thread that pulls you through a story, and gives the events a "reason for being" as character motivation drives the plot to unfold. It is, as Aristotle1 implied, the unfolding of the events, an imitation of the action, the unraveling of the mystery. Mystery is one example of a plot, "What is going to happen?" or "Who done it?" Suspense is an example of the cause of the sensation, "anticipation." That is, "When is it going to happen?" The expectation of comedy, on the other hand, I don't think is a sensation that is sufficient to be a plot - it needs something more cohesive, which brings me to the second point:

Two, a narrative must have meaning that makes it cohesive. Something has to bind events together to form a path - something must unite the steps even if the steps are unseen, travel a serpentine path, and we don't know the destination. Aristotle phrases this as the "unity of the whole." In intrigue though, all of the steps may not be part of the path, but we suspect that they are.

The way we think about story, and about what gives it cohesive meaning, determines how we create stories. What we define as a destination and a vehicle to get us there are currently part of our definition of "somewhere." If we think of our destination and vehicle differently, perhaps we will realize that there is something besides "plot" that will captivate us in a movie. The elements that provide meaning cohesion in a story might be plot, theme, a very strong character that either we identify strongly with or expect entertainment from, a timely topic, a question or series of questions, a mystery, a device that is present throughout the story (such as a McGuffin2), or even a device that lets the audience project meaning onto it.

    1. Plot, from Aristotle's Poetics, written circa 1600 years ago. (Plays at that time were performed on stage, and were accompanied by a chorus, which was considered another actor.) Aristotle Poetics, regarding tragedy: "...the Plot is the imitation of the action - for by plot I here mean the arrangement of the incidents."

    The proper structure of the Plot: "Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles."

    2. McGuffin: Hitchcock's term for a story device used to engage audience (and character) interest, but it has no other significance in the story. For example, in The Magic Rock story in previous paragraphs, the rock really has no significance in the story except as something to focus attention and bridge meaning from one event to the next. It contains no magic and does nothing in the story.

Note: My appreciation to the members of the WebCinema list for thoughtful conversation about some of the ideas presented in this article.

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