After yesterday's timeout-for-book-publication, today I'm going to keep my promise from Tuesday and talk about how we can use curiosity in places other than the beginning of a piece to keep readers engaged.

As I mentioned before, the key is to use the just-enough technique. Essentially, it's a way of foreshadowing. We give the readers only the details they need to know right this minute, and then we hint at more to come. Thus, if readers want to know the answers to the questions we've provoked, they'll have to keep reading.

This technique works both for major structural points and for less-important but interesting details. For example, the original Star Wars film does both:

  • A few minutes into the movie, R2-D2 and C-3PO pause their bickering long enough to flee Princess Leia's ship in an escape pod. The Imperial forces think the pod is no threat, so it seems Artoo and Threepio are out of danger. But inside the pod, Artoo is upbeat while Threepio worries aloud, "Are you sure this thing is safe?"

  • This exchange shows that even in comparatively calm moments, irrepressible Artoo and worrywart Threepio are at odds. The audience is left wondering how this odd couple will survive now that they're fugitives from the Empire with only each other to rely on.

  • Early in the second act, Darth Vader mentions that Princess Leia's interrogation is not bearing fruit as quickly as he'd hoped. Grand Moff Tarkin decides to try a new tactic and orders a subordinate officer to set the Death Star (which, according to the film's opening crawl, can destroy a planet) on a course for Alderaan, Leia's homeworld.

  • This scene is less than a minute long, but Tarkin doesn't have to spell out his plan to raise some high-stakes questions for the viewers. Is he really planning what his orders seem to imply? Will Leia crack under such enormous pressure? And if she doesn't, will Tarkin really destroy Alderaan? These questions keep the audience glued to the screen.

When you're not sure if your piece is engaging enough to keep readers' interest, look at your work so far. Are there questions you've raised but not answered yet? If so, provide just a clue to those answers. If not, look back through your work and see if there are places where you've said more than readers need to know at that point. Then trim back.

If you've been following this blog for a while, my post from February 24 provides a great example of using the just-enough technique. Even though I was writing about "show, don't tell" in that email, it turns out that many of the same strategies work well for both "show, don't tell" and the just-enough technique.

Write on,


(Thanks to Justin Peterson for sharing their work on Unsplash.)