What’s the mark of a good story? Discomfort.

The Room is celebrated for being one of the worst films ever made, but it did something right. Almost.

When the movie’s hero, Johnny, suspects that his fiancee is cheating, he plugs a tape recorder into the telephone so he can record her conversations. Viewers already know that Lisa is a dirty little liar who’s been cheating on Johnny with his best friend.

But how will Johnny find out? What will he hear when playing back the cassette tape?

When I watched this movie with some friends, one of them said, “We better find out what happens with that tape recorder.”

It was a joke, mostly. None of us were actually invested in the people or plot.

But I understood what she meant. She wasn’t just referencing Chekhov’s Gun, the idea that every element in a story should be essential. She was talking about the discomfort of a cliffhanger. Humans like closed loops.

The science of suspense

Sometimes we think of good storytelling as something we’re happily caught up in, something that provides continual delight.

In fact, good stories are infused with tension. The audience is propelled by curiosity, a desire to discover what happens next. As our friends at StoryDriven put it:

[Good stories] all pose a clear binary question. Will X happen, or will Y? Or maybe a surprise Z! Those stories have survived because they go along with how our brains are wired. It turns out that when our brain hears a question, we actually cannot do anything but think about that question.

Neuroscience studies indicate what’s going on behind the scenes. Georgia Institute of Technology researchers had subjects watch three-minute movie clips, all while hooked up to MRI machines. The clips, taken from movies like “Alien” and “Misery,” featured a character facing a potential negative outcome.

Researchers found that as suspense grew, brain activity in subjects’ peripheral vision decreased. These tense moments were also associated with greater interference with a secondary task, such as pressing a button when hearing a tone.

When we’re deeply interested in knowing the outcome, we start to tune out the extraneous. That’s a sign of a good story.

Are you annoyed?

Here’s a little test, explained by Simon Cade in this entertaining video about the true nature of nature documentaries.

We watch an arctic wolf chase a calf, wondering who will emerge victorious, when he says, “As the wolf closes in, let’s cut this here.” The screen goes black.

“Would you be annoyed if I didn’t show you the ending?” he asks. “Because to me, that’s … a good litmus test for storytelling. If the audience isn’t eager to find out how it ends, then it probably wasn’t a story—certainly not a good one.”

Creating driveway moments

Public radio nerds know what a “driveway moment” is—when you’re listening to something on the radio that’s so engrossing you can’t get out of your car. Perhaps you’re sitting in your driveway, car turned off but radio still on, waiting to hear how the story ends.

This American Life host Ira Glass knows all about creating driveway moments. In Jessica Abel’s excellent graphic nonfiction book Out on the Wire, Glass says, simply, that a story is a sequence of actions.

ira glass
Ira Glass

Take this story:

Brett is on the subway platform at rush hour when he spots a man, walking from person to person, saying something quietly in each person’s ear. He looks like an average guy, and he doesn’t seem to be asking for money. As he gets closer, Brett can hear what the man is saying.

Explains Glass:

Now at this point, no one’s turning off the radio. But why? If you look at it, it’s a completely banal story: a guy sees another guy on a subway platform. Where’s the suspense in that?

The answer gets to the heart of what make narrative work: Whenever there’s a sequence of events—this happened, then this happened—we inevitably want to find out what happened next.

Also—and this is key—the banal sequence has raised a question, namely, What’s the guy saying? And you’ll probably stick around ’til you find out.

Curious what happens? Check out the full five-minute story.

If you’re bored creating it, your audience is bored watching it

I once knew a freelancer writer who would turn in his assignments with a disclaimer: “Here’s this week’s story. It’s not very exciting.”

Chances are, if you’re bored telling your story, your audience is bored watching it. It’s not always easy to do, but try to find that delicious source of tension and zoom in.

Remember the tape recorder that Johnny plugged into the telephone? That was an opportunity, but in the end, The Room fumbles it, just like a football tossed between clumsy friends (sorry, that’s a Room joke).

Johnny listens to the tape and hears an incriminating conversation between his fiancee and her lover, but it’s well after he knows she’s been cheating. In fact, it takes place as she’s packing her suitcase to leave. Talk about anti-climatic.

Remember, not every story is worth telling, and not every one is served well by the way you’re telling it.

Ira Glass photo: Lindsay Williams / Flickr