Curiosity, Surprise, and Closure: The Role of Emotion
When we think about storytellers who are experts at creating fear, perhaps no filmmaker comes to mind more often than Alfred Hitchcock. Hitch, as he was called by friends and enemies alike, understood a fundamental truth about fear: it happens in the build-up, not the event—a build-up that is a heady cocktail of curiosity driven by powerful emotions.
In the case of his movies, that emotion was a fear for the worst. And, he well understood that it needed closure…but not until it was nearly unbearable. One need only recall the scene in Psycho where Vera Miles creeps up behind who she thinks is Mrs. Bates. It’s a 7-second walk preceded by 90 minutes of dialed-up curiosity. The last 10 minutes of the film, the denouement, is the chance for the viewer to absorb the whole of the story logically, which also serves to calm us down; it removes us from the space of not knowing and, importantly, really wanting to know.
Anticipation, driven on by curiosity, is at the heart of more than just scary movies. It’s what drives the best stand-up comedy, sports events, and the nightly news. And yes, even good advertising. Anticipation is fed by the question, how is this going to end? The best storytellers know how to use that time to maximum advantage.
Anticipation, as Heinz once pointed out in a now-famous ad campaign for its ketchup, makes you wait. And that ‘waiting’ is not simply delay. Delay is a traffic jam or a queue at the grocery. Anticipation involves creating curiosity—and curiosity always involves an emotional investment. You have to want—some would even say need—to see what happens.
When a surprise is delivered as part of that story—as in the reveal scene in Psycho—there is a change in emotional state. One of the most powerful shifts in emotion at the moment of surprise is the shift from negative to positive emotion—what we refer to as the Emotional Pivot Structure. As Hitch would agree, this structure is most effective when the build-up of negative emotion is strong enough to make the shift to positive a dramatic one.
A real-life case in point: the now-famous debut of Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent. Though it’s now ten years old, this video continues to rank up the views; it’s currently at 239 million, and it will continue to draw people. It remains a powerful modern-day telling of The Ugly Duckling story.
We conducted research on this dynamic of surprise, using the Susan Boyle cultural event. We studied what happened if someone saw just Susan singing, without that build-up when so many cringed with fear for her potential embarrassment. And we compared that to those who saw the whole story, with all the front-loaded anticipation. The results demonstrate the role of that emotionally-driven curiosity in creating such a more powerful end-result. Click here to see the case study.
Thinking about all this from a brain-science perspective, when the brain encounters unexpected information from the outside world—what we all call a surprise—electrical information is released, and the brain basically lights up. That focuses attention and generates curiosity as it tries to make sense of what is going on.
As the brain works out the meaning of the new information, it calms down and returns to a state of rest. We get closure, at least for the moment. We demonstrate this dynamic using the classic Charlie Chaplin film, The Tramp, in another case study. Click here to check it out.
And, even when viewers notice a tonally incongruent ad, because of narrative co-creation, their minds can alter the ad’s story to match the experience they expect. As a result, a tonally incongruent ad will struggle to deliver the intended brand message.
Emotional pivots, surprises, resolution of anticipation….these are the moments that the human mind take into memory, and keep. And for filmmakers, and advertisers, those memories are pure gold.