What objective observations can we make about strong creative? Studying the fine and performance arts, from painting to stand up comedy, we find that interest is generated in a purposeful disconnection, a tension, an imbalance. The artist chooses to cause a disruption from the ordinary events of life and capitalises on our desire for things to come to a resolution. This causes a purposeful tension of disunity between creative elements, which is critical in generating tension and interest.
The disruption begins as the artist upends our ordinary experience by selecting something for particular attention — it ceases to be ordinary, and will not return to its “ordinariness” until the conclusion of the piece. Our interest is then held during this moment of disunity until the thing returns to normalcy, when it ceases to be interesting or lives happily ever after in its new, permanent state.
Evidence of Disunity
Consider a classic commercial setup:
1) A character is unhappy due to a need — he has a sore throat.
2) The product is introduced and helps the character resolve the problem — he takes the medicine.
3) The character returns to normalcy — his throat doesn’t bother him anymore.
Or a joke. From the setup, it creates an increasing tension between our familiarity with the subject matter and expectation of a surprise. The joke remains interesting so long as we do not know what the resolution will be. Once we get the punch line, we laugh with surprise or relief at the conclusion, when the joke ceases to have any more interest. The tension has dissipated because we understand both the joke’s perspective and our own, and can accept the originally perceived distance between them.
Or a photograph. It selects a specific subject at a specific moment in time and presents it for our interest. An engaging photograph will have some element that we recognise as exemplary, unusual or otherwise worthy of our attention, and the stronger this disunity between our regular expectation of the world and the perspective presented by the photographer, the longer it will hold our interest. As our interest wanes, we move on.
Or a piece of music. Songs present a series of notes that catch our ear. It needs to exhibit qualities of a familiar style for us to categorise it, but then must deviate from the norm enough to distinguish itself to engage our interest. This is why one person’s perspective that “all the songs sound the same” can still be engaging to someone else — the first person doesn’t recognise the deviations, either through lack of familiarity with the style or some other element that offends them. Once the song runs out of variations on the element that makes it different, it starts to feel “too long” and comes to a conclusion.
Or a story. Any good one will have you asking, “and then what?”, otherwise interest has plateaued and your audience is gone. This characteristic of disunity is critical to storytelling. Often a character loses something then struggles to get it back, or it’s a struggle to get something they never had. As this disunity resolves itself, the story is over. But the device is a fantastic tool for creating interest, and can be introduced in other areas as well to boost interest in your creative idea.
Where else can we introduce this concept of disunity? Between story elements like character, location, situation, costume or dialogue? Formal elements like composition, framing, pacing, colour, editing or sound? I think these can all leverage disunity to stimulate interest, but of course it should be done selectively so that you’re not going all out in all directions at the same time. Let’s consider examples of what some of these characteristics might look like.
Character — a character is behaving other than you would expect from their appearance, like a Toreador being extremely gentle to a bull
Location — the story is staged in an unlikely place, like an old couple having afternoon tea and biscuits on the wing of a plane
Situation — someone is acting against the expectation of circumstances, like a man in an electric chair calmly reading a children’s storybook aloud
Costume — wardrobe mismatches the occasion, like a dentist dressed as an Elvis impersonator
Dialogue — aggressive or mismatched dialogue, showing that two people are not communicating in the same way
Composition — awkward framing, lots of head room or off to one side
Framing — the camera is positioned behind the actors so you can’t see what their doing very well
Pacing — the action advances slowly when it should move quickly, like a bank robber dilly–dallying when the alarm is going off and sirens are approaching
Colour — a character’s clothing blends or clashes perfectly with their environment
Editing — edits create an imbalance by being too slow or too quick
Sound — sounds are replaced with something of the opposite character, like a bomb going off with a child making a “boom” noise
As we can see, there are a great many places to introduce some disunity to create interest or energy in a story and, with a strong concept, it should be clear where is the most appropriate place to use the device. But while selective use of disunity can be a wonderful tool for creating initial interest in a video, as with any hook, the power will wain and you need to engage the viewer with another means. This could be extending the element of tension via another formal quality, or maybe your story has had enough time to engage us and we are already asking, “and then what?”
And what about selective moments of unity? Writing in a cut from black to white can be just as effective as a match cut of a door being opened across two scenes. These moments can be visual or idea–based, and accelerate involvement in the second scene because it removes the jarring quality of breaking one of the classical unities (location, time or action) that editing does by its very nature. This familiar element carries our attention across the break and we don’t even notice it happen.