Keep Readers by Using Variable Rewards

The big thing in entertainment today is addiction. The products we use – especially computer programs, games, and apps – are designed to hook users into habitual use, then encourage repeated purchases to fuel our investment of time. Before we get too upset at these product designers, writing to sell our work means we have the same interests as them. I’m only addressing one approach of many today, that of variable rewards.

The last marketing book I read was Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products. I am not an app designer, neither do I want to get deep into programming people and computers. Books, however, are an entertainment product and their success relies on how well they’re accepted by readers. If a book (and its advertising/promotion plan) can better appeal to and retain readers, then I’m all for it!

While the book is directed toward those engineering the next billion dollar engagement product, the basic principles can be translated to narrative. Audiences stay with a product that rewards them for their activity, but they can be easily bored and drift away when rewards seem predictable or too difficult to gain. Variable rewards are distributed to reinforce interaction, but there are a variety of rewards given at varying intervals. The book discusses rewards of the tribe (community approval), the hunt (achievement after effort), and the self (accumulating credits and investment).

Rewards in a narrative are a bit different and have room for creativity. Here are a few examples for narrative:

  • Character Insight (could be backstory or a chance to shine)
  • Mystery and Reveal (most effective with a pleasurable amount of surprise in the reveal)
  • Conflict Resolution (this doesn’t last, but wrapping up conflict arcs keeps long stories from feeling too stretched)
  • Romance (a little sexual tension is a frequent favorite for readers)
  • Twist (a predictable story can be very boring, so clever twists are very exciting)
  • Tension and Release (deal with threats within the story that allow for repeated cycles of build and release)

Obviously the structure of a story requires some rigidity, but subplots, character arcs, and other elements allow for flexibility of rewards.

This could be compared to the way informational writing vary the type of material they provide to keep the reader’s interest. A good balance of examples, quotes from experts, stories, and application ideas help when trying to make straight information interesting. It also helps audiences retain the message.


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