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Using the Element of Surprise in Visual Storytelling

Instructor: Nathan Hurwitz

Dr. Nathan Hurwitz is a tenured Associate Professor in Theatre and has three books in print, two textbooks and a coffee table book.

How can you use the element of surprise to elicit humor, meaning, suspense and emotion among audience members? This lesson will examine how visual media in particular uses the element of surprise to tell a story.

What is the Element of Surprise?

In a civil uprising, the rebel forces hidden by camouflage have the element of surprise. The term the element of surprise refers to the advantage gained in a conflict by doing something unexpected.

Surprise is a key device in storytelling and has been for as long as people have been telling stories. Just as a group of armed combatants surprises the enemy, the storyteller catches their audience unaware. But instead of winning a conflict, surprise in storytelling can elicit humor, meaning, suspense or other emotions through unexpected revelation; any of these will keep an audience interested.

Plot Twists and Examples

Surprise in narrative is also known as a plot twist. Plot twists keep us tuning in to new episodes and new seasons of our favorite television shows. They also keep us riveted to our favorite novels and movies. Literary analysts categorize plot twists within some of the following devices:

  • Flashbacks create surprise by supplying unknown information from the past. This device can elicit a range of responses from humor to suspense.
  • Use of the unreliable narrator is when we learn midway through a story that we cannot trust the protagonist. This device traditionally elicits a sense of suspense.
  • Peripeteia is a Latin word for a protagonist's sudden reversal of fortune, as in Oedipus. This device is used to create suspense, humor, or a depth of understanding.
  • Deus ex machina is a Latin term describing an improbable sudden plot twist, like lightning striking down the villain. This device is used to create suspense, humor, or a depth of understanding.
  • Poetic justice sees goodness rewarded and evil deeds punished despite earlier narrative indicators. Poetic justice usually creates a sense of relief.
  • A red herring is a false clue, put there by the storyteller to lead the audience to an incorrect conclusion. The revelation that that information was erroneous surprises the audience. The red herring should cause a pleasurable frustration to the audience.
  • A non-linear narrative tells pieces of the story out of chronological order, revealing bits of information at different times that provide surprising context to the story. Non-linear narrative keeps the audience guessing at what surprising bit of information will be revealed next.

Visual Media Telling Stories Visually

When we begin considering stories, we immediately think of verbal storytelling like books, movies, and television. But storytelling extends far beyond words.

Visual media includes illustrations, photographs or video. They might be art, advertisements or other forms of programming. The stories of the day's hunt scratched out on the walls of caves represent some of the earliest visual storytelling.

Today we live in a post-literate age, meaning that we get more of our information from visual images than from words. Researchers claim that the human brain can process visuals up to 60,000 times faster than text. Visual storytelling is therefore much more appealing to advertisers and others presenting their message across than traditional,

text-driven storytelling.

Visual storytelling is passing a great deal of information on by using visuals rather than written or spoken text. Companies today use visual storytelling to brand and market themselves by inspiring interest in their product through visuals. The primary element in these visuals that keep our attention is the element of surprise.

Examples of Surprise in Visual Storytelling

Surprise is as effective in visual storytelling as it is in textual storytelling. Visual storytelling makes use of the same surprise techniques of text-driven storytelling, but it also uses incongruous images to elicit surprise.

Internet videos of squirrels or dogs water skiing attract millions of hits based on their incongruity. This kind of surprise compels us to become further involved in the story to sort out the mystery.

Advertising, marketing, and branding all use visual storytelling by creating narrative visually.

Notice how the visual surprises like heightened perspective and proportions add a dream-like quality.
Little Nemo visual story

Other visual surprise techniques include:

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