The Surprising Science of …. Surprise!

Surprise involves many brain areas working together. The amygdala processes emotions, the prefrontal cortex integrates the new information, the hippocampus encodes the new memory, dopamine creates pleasure or excitement, and the anterior cingulate cortex monitors attention and conflict.

Surprise can have various emotional effects depending on the context and nature of the surprise. It can trigger joy, fear, confusion, curiosity, or awe. It keeps us engaged, curious, and intrigued in our experiences.

As humans, we are naturally drawn to surprises and unexpected experiences. Surprises create a sense of excitement and wonder, and can trigger emotional responses like joy, fear, or anticipation. This is true not just in storytelling and game design, but in many aspects of our lives.

In different forms of media, surprises can provide a sense of novelty and keep us engaged. When we watch a movie or read a book, we want to be surprised by the twists and turns in the story. When we play a game, we want to be surprised by the challenges and obstacles we encounter. And when we listen to music, we want to be surprised by unexpected melodies or changes in tempo.

Surprises can also create a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment. When we are surprised by a well-executed twist in a story or a clever solution to a puzzle in a game, we feel a sense of achievement and reward. This can create a positive association with the media we are consuming, and make us more likely to seek out similar experiences in the future.

Finally, surprises can also create social connections. When we watch a movie or play a game with others, we may share in the surprise and emotional reactions together. This can create a sense of shared experience and community, and make us feel more connected to the people we are with.

In storytelling, surprise is a powerful tool. It can keep the audience engaged and on the edge of their seat, wondering what will happen next. However, as with any tool, it is important to use surprise effectively and not rely on it too heavily.

As author George R.R. Martin once said, “The best surprises are the ones that make sense.” This is an important point to keep in mind when crafting a story. If every twist and turn is completely unexpected and comes out of nowhere, it can become exhausting for the reader or viewer. They may start to feel like they can’t trust the story or the characters, and that there is no point in trying to predict what will happen next.

On the other hand, if everything is too predictable, the story can become boring and formulaic. It’s important to strike a balance between surprise and predictability, and to allow characters to behave in ways that make sense for their personalities and motivations.

When surprises do occur, they should feel earned. In other words, the story should have set up the surprise in a way that makes it feel like a natural and satisfying payoff, rather than a cheap trick or gimmick. A well-executed surprise can leave a lasting impression on the audience, but if it feels forced or out of place, it can be just as easily forgotten.

As a writer, it’s important to keep the audience’s trust and engagement throughout the story. If the rug is constantly being pulled out from under them, they may start to feel like they can’t invest in the story or the characters. Instead, surprises should be used to enhance the story, rather than dominate it.

The concept of surprise and predictability is also relevant in game design. Games, like stories, can benefit from the use of surprises to keep players engaged and excited, but the element of surprise should be used thoughtfully and in a way that makes sense for the game.

One way to use surprise effectively in game design is to vary the gameplay experience. Players can become bored if every level or challenge is too similar or predictable. By introducing unexpected elements, such as new enemies, obstacles, or environmental changes, the game can feel fresh and exciting, and players will be more likely to stay engaged.

Similarly, games can also benefit from having some level of predictability. Players need to be able to understand the rules of the game and have a sense of how to progress through the game. If everything is too unpredictable or random, players may become frustrated and feel like they have no control over the outcome.

Game designers can also use surprise to create memorable moments for players. Just like in a story, a well-executed surprise can leave a lasting impression on the player and create a sense of excitement and wonder.

However, it’s important to note that surprises in games need to feel fair and earned. If a player feels like they were unfairly surprised, for example, if they were killed by an enemy that suddenly appeared out of nowhere, they may become frustrated and lose interest in the game.

Creating surprise in storytelling, game design, or any other medium can be a powerful tool to engage your audience. Here are some tips on how to create surprise:

  1. Set up expectations: Create a sense of expectation or a pattern in your audience’s mind, and then subvert it. This could be through the introduction of a new character, a sudden change in setting or tone, or a plot twist that goes against what the audience is anticipating.
  2. Use misdirection: Misdirection involves leading the audience’s attention in one direction while the actual surprise happens elsewhere. This could be through a distraction or a false lead that misdirects the audience’s attention.
  3. Play with timing: Surprise can be created through well-timed reveals or events. Timing can be used to delay a reveal or make it come sooner than expected.
  4. Use foreshadowing: Foreshadowing is a technique in which an event or detail is hinted at earlier in the story, giving the audience a sense of anticipation for what might happen later.
  5. Create contrast: Contrasting elements can create surprise by subverting expectations. For example, a serious scene might suddenly become humorous, or a character’s actions might go against their usual personality traits.
  6. Make it believable: A surprise should feel earned and make sense within the context of the story. If it feels forced or out of place, it may not be as effective in creating the desired reaction from the audience.

Remember, surprise is a tool, and like any tool, it should be used in moderation and with care. Too many surprises can create a sense of unpredictability that may disengage the audience. However, when used effectively, surprise can be a powerful way to engage, thrill, and entertain your audience.