A simple yet effective cognitive trick to not lose your audience
Read time: 2.5 min
You’ll see me do this a lot on Twitter — start a post with “In 2015,” “last week,” or something similar (here’s an example).
That’s not an accident. It’s a storytelling technique called a ‘signpost.’
Signposts let you tell your audience where in the story you are and where you’re headed next.
Very simple, very effective, and the focus of this week’s newsletter.
Hope you enjoy – Nathan.
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Imagine the year’s 1995. You can’t open Google Maps. Waze isn’t a thing. And Apple Maps still doesn’t work.
You kinda know where you are, but you’re not completely sure. You keep driving.
You pass a sign. It tells you the town you’re in. You let out a sigh of relief.
In other words:
When we are lost in the woods, the sight of a signpost is a great matter.
Every scene in your story needs a signpost of some sort. Without one, you risk your audience becoming that confused, lost traveler.
Remember: Twists and surprises are good. Confusion is not.
And signposts help fix that confusion.
When should you use signposts?
You want to use signposts when there’s a transition in your story. Let me give you 4 examples:
1. Indicating progress or milestones
Constant progress toward the story's goal doesn’t let the audience’s attention wander. But how to demonstrate that progress? With signposts. Heists crush this:
In Ocean’s Eleven, Danny and Rusty lay out the plan to rob the casino in steps. Then, throughout the rest of the movie, these steps are checked off as they’re accomplished. That’s a brilliant use of signposts.
2. Changes in time or setting
When the story shifts from one location to another or moves between different time periods, signposts help the audience adapt to the change.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, it’s the adult Scout who tells the story but she does so from the perspective of six-year-old Scout. That could get tricky, but Lee uses signposts to keep it clear.
Forrest Gump uses historical events and settings as signposts to show the passage of time and how Forrest's life intersects with significant moments in American history.
3. Introducing new characters or plotlines
When you bring in an important new character or plotline, you want to stick a sign over them telling your audience, “Hey! This new character (or plot) is important.”
Allow the audience to recognize their significance and understand their role within the larger narrative as soon as possible.
4. Foreshadowing future events
If you know something big’s coming, you can start dropping hints. Think of these as signposts pointing your audience to that thing in the future. Build that anticipation, foster that tension, and create that excitement within your story.
In John F. Kennedy's "Moon Speech," he talks about the upcoming efforts to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Seven years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. JFK didn’t know that’d happen — but his speech helped build public support.
Great storytellers weave in signposts naturally. The audience intuitively knows the story’s moving forward (or backward), but they don’t jump out of their seats upset they just saw a signpost.
Good writers are in the business of leaving signposts saying, ‘Tour my world, see and feel it through my eyes; I am your guide.’
Look through writing that keeps your attention for huge periods of time. I bet you notice signposts everywhere.
Hope that’s helpful,
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A hilariously accurate quote from him: “If you're a writer, particularly if you're a writer or a storyteller of any kind, there is something already kind of monstrously wrong with you.”
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