Open Loops

The 2 levels of open loops (and how to use them in your story)

Ever sat down to watch a Netflix episode to look up three hours later and wonder how you ended up watching six episodes?

Yeah, same.

Screenwriters have mastered the art of the open loop, specifically the cliffhanger.

It started as a fiction-writing technique. But once you recognize open loops, you’ll see them in marketing copy, newsletters, twitter threads, presentations, Reels, and anywhere else your attention is valuable.

Great writing uses loops on two levels:

  • Micro

  • Macro

You open loops early that aren't closed until later in your story, but open others that get closed in the next paragraph. That variance keeps the reader guessing. Keeps them in the dark.

At any given point, there could be dozens of loops open in your story. But they’ll play on different timelines.

Micro Loops

These loops are designed to keep your audience engaged in the short-term.

Think sentence or paragraph level:

  • Who wins the fight?

  • Why is he acting so strange?

  • How does she answer the question?

  • Is Shiv about to punch Tom in the face?

These open and close quickly. They give your audience a near-instant payoff while pulling them through the story.

Macro Loops

The long-term loops your story wouldn’t be complete without answering:

  • What happens to the Hero?

  • How’s the conflict resolved?

  • What changes as a result of the story?

  • Who becomes CEO of Waystar RoyCo?

In the 5th Harry Potter, there were 5 macro loops. The book’s 896 pages.

Stories don’t need dozens of Macro Loops. Instead, stories need strong Macro Loops.

An Example

My father made maps for the men who attempted to assassinate Hitler. He was taken to Berlin and hanged in the gallows of Plotzensee prison. And now I was smuggling Hitler's most prized treasure, along with a map and key to the Amber Room in my boot heel. There was no question. Beck blood was bad.

Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys

The author opens a loop and immediately slams it shut. The father, what happened to him? Boom, the next sentence gives you that answer. He was killed.

But the paragraph begs another question: If Beck blood is bad, what happens to the narrator?

Now that’s a Macro Loop. You’re going to have to wait for that one to be answered. But it’s important. It raises the stakes of the story by telling you:

‘Hey, the dad did something similar and was killed. What happens to the main character? Probably nothing good.’

In Summary

Open loops create tension in the mind of your audience.

Don’t take it from me. Take it from psychology:

The Zeigarnik Effect — Unfinished tasks occupy our minds more than completed ones.

I like to keep a running list of what loops I’ve opened. Then, when answered, I mark that down too.

Try thinking in Open Loops next time you tell a story.

– Nathan

Want to go deeper on storytelling?

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