Science of Story Building: Watch for Deceptive Cadences

Great stories live just at the edge of expectation. Consider your favorites. Do they turn out as expected? Not the best ones.

Once, when I was on Capitol Hill with a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grantee, we sat down to a meeting with a senate staffer. The grantee had built a program that provided a badly needed support system for parents of severely disabled children that relied solely on parents sharing their own experience and expertise. As she prepared to describe her work and ask for the staffer’s help, she pulled out a framed picture of her daughter. As she did, the staffer rolled his eyes and sighed. “You’re not going to tell me a story, are you?” At first, I wanted to punch him (I didn’t). But as I reflected on the experience later, it occured to me that he was exhausted from hearing one sad story after another. He didn’t know that the story he was about to hear was one of triumph, with a clear call action.

Sometimes we fall into habits and tell the same kinds of stories over and over again. You may have a bank of hundreds of stories, but if they all follow the same plot structure and evoke similar emotions, the result is story fatigue.

Scholar Keith Bound at the University of Nottingham studies horror film, and consults with the film industry to make horror films scarier. He told us, “People want stories that operate just at the edge of expectation.” In other words, he explained that we enjoy the comfort of knowing where a story is headed, but surprise keeps our attention. A similar concept appears in comedy, where it is called “benign violation theory.”¹ The term attributes humor to the coexisting situations of safety and violation, meaning that we observe something that would frighten or offend us, but because we’re safe and there’s no harmful outcome, we’re able to laugh.

We call these surprises “deceptive cadences,” a musical term Benjamin Zander ties to storytelling in his unforgettable TED talk about classical music.² Composers use them to regain their listeners’ attention by using a different chord than our ear teaches us to expect. Applied to storytelling, the term becomes an apt description for the twists and unexpected character developments that surprise readers and hold attention.

Harry Potter fans will recognize this idea in the character of Snape, who we’re led to see as evil until the end of the series. Deceptive cadences recapture our audience’s attention, and they may also create an opportunity for us to form an even deeper bond with characters. In a study of villainous characters, Matthew Grizzard, communication scholar at the University of Buffalo, found that some of our favorite heroes are those we once thought were bad guys.³ He says, “We find that characters who are perceived as villains get a bigger boost from the good actions or apparent altruism than heroes, like the Severus Snape character from the Harry Potter books and films.”

Every click-bait header is certainly a practical example of how deceptive cadences can seduce our attention. But so is this guerilla campaign on the New York Subways, a subversive turn on the “See Something, Say Something” message we’ve been hearing since September 11, 2001.

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Citations:

  1. Warren, Caleb and McGraw, A. Peter, Benign Violation Theory (February 2, 2015). Mays Business School Research Paper №2015–11. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2559414
  2. Zander, B.. [Ted]. (2008, February). The Transformative Power of Classical Music [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/benjamin_zander_on_music_and_passion
  3. Gambini-Buffalo, B. (2017, May 08). Why we stay loyal to villains on screen. Retrieved from http://www.futurity.org/villains-morality-1421932-2/