As I’ve been whittling away at my TV viewing and as I’ve been working my way through reading award-nominee works for judging, I’ve been trying to think about what makes me get into something and what makes me want to turn it off/put it down (throwing it across the room is a different category entirely). I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two main values at work: curiosity and caring.
Curiosity is wanting to know what happens — who is the killer, how will they catch the killer, what’s the real story here, how will these plot threads play out, will the couple get together, which guy will she choose, etc.
Caring is being emotionally invested in the story or characters, wanting things to work out for them or, in the case of villains, wanting to see them get a comeuppance.
Ideally, you get both. You want to know what happens next, and you care about what happens next and how it will affect the characters. That keeps you watching and reading because you want to know the outcome and you want to experience the journey toward the outcome.
The most deadly thing for a story is getting neither, where you don’t care what happens next and you don’t care about the characters. It’s when I’ve had that big realization that I’ve put books down or turned off the television in the middle of an episode. This usually happens with something I feel somewhat obligated to watch or read — people like me are watching/reading this, or this is a thing I feel I should like.
It’s harder to judge when it’s just a case of one lack. I’m realizing for a few things I’ve been watching that I’m really only curious. I want to know where the story is going and what’s eventually going to happen, but I don’t particularly want to go on the journey of getting there. I’m not enjoying spending time with the characters or in that story world. I could get the same benefit from reading a recap or plot summary. In fact, I might get more out of that because I could read a recap in minutes instead of spending an hour or more watching or reading, and I’d actually catch all the key details that I might miss if I’m uninvested enough to skim a book or use a TV show as background noise. Those things are easy enough to set aside or quit watching because I’m not invested, and I can find out what happens in other ways.
The tougher call is when I care but am not curious. That seems to happen in procedural-type shows or in book series where each book is self-contained. I’m not reading or watching for the plot but because I care about the characters and have some investment in them. It doesn’t matter much to me what happens. What matters is seeing how the events affect the characters. But eventually, the not caring about the plot and what happens can take its toll, especially when the characters really aren’t affected. They don’t seem to learn anything or change at all, in spite of what they’ve gone through. It’s a little harder to give up these series because watching/reading can’t be easily replaced with a plot summary, and yet I also find that my lack of curiosity is dampening my caring for the characters. It’s hard to make myself decide that I’m not having fun with this thing anymore. In book series, I find that it takes me longer and longer to get around to reading the latest book. On TV, an episode may sit on my DVR for a week or I may find that I’m running out of time before it leaves On Demand. Or I may find that I’m doing something else during the episode, watching out of a sense of obligation and only glancing up at the TV for certain parts of the story.
So I guess as a writer I need to think about making people care about my characters and keeping them curious about what’s going to happen next. I need to make events affect my characters so that the events matter.
As a reader/watcher, it helps to have some criteria for helping me make those decisions. Am I curious? Do I care? If not, I’m free to give up and move on to something I do care about.