A Little Bit of Communications Theory: Familiarity, Surprise, Completion

A caveat: I studied communications a bit in university not much, but some. I graduated eight years ago and started my studies in the mists of the last millenium, so maybe this isn’t something people in communications still talk about or subscribe to. Since my knowledge on the subject is quite shallow, maybe this was never a serious theory. Or maybe this is the core of communications theory. Who knows? (Well, people who have actually studied the field probably do.) There’s a strong chance I’m using somewhat wrong terminology, but I can live with that.

Here’s the core of it: When you want to keep your audience’s attention, you need to remember the these three things: familiarity, surprise and completion.

Lets take a sequel to a movie.

People who’ve seen the previous movie or movies will want to see certain things repeated. They will want to see their favorite characters again and they will want to see the gimmicks that made the previous movies successful enough to warrant a sequel. Referencing previous movies is a good way to bring about warm feelings, as the watcher recognizes things. It also makes the watcher feel smart (which is something people generally want to feel).

However, people don’t want to watch the same thing again and again. Thus there needs to be a surprise. Or preferably several. Still, you have to keep in mind the need for familiarity. Its a balancing act. This is why there are movies which the people at the time don’t appreciate, but which become classics later. Citizen Kane is a good example of such a movie.It could be argued, that they can not be considered masterpieces, simply because they could not reach people at the time of their making. Sure, we are welcome to like them now, but we probably wouldn’t have liked them then, because we weren’t ready for them. (Of Course, it could also be argued that Citizen Kane is a wholly different matter, because its problems were largely due to negative press.)

And, finally, the completion. We can’t leave things hanging. People are like that. How many people do you know, who collect something? Well, since this is a nerdy crowd, we probably know quite a few. Something about completing things feels very satisfying to us. That’s why in many sequels many things need to be explained. This can bring a lot of baggage. Sometimes its handwaived by a shot of someone in a weird situation or a quick comment on someone, but even that helps a lot. If some key character or place is missing, we want to know why. If a certain thing is brought up as a plot point, we will wonder if its then dropped. From storytelling point, the key is to know which are the things the audience takes note of. (And then forget about the very, very pedantic 0.01%, which you can’t satisfy anyway.)

I brought up sequels, because they are something in which these things are easily recognized. You know, familiarity. However, this works with original stories as well. We don’t really read fantasy, because its where our imaginations can run wild. Perhaps once, long ago, that was the case. Now its all familiar ground. We are used to it. So, a fantasy world needs to have certain things which are familiar to us, be it elves and dwarves, magic, or just tyrannical leader taking over the world, or whatever. Swords and sorcery and all that. You can deviate it, and you should, but at the same time, you need to remember to keep things familiar enough. It also lessens your workload, but that’s another topic.

Than, after you’ve set up a familiar world, you’ll be able to go ahead and bring your own vision to it. Sometimes it doesn’t work (take the infamous twist from Iron Man 3, which I didn’t mind at all), but you still need to try to make something different to rise above the crop.

What I’m getting at here is that this is something you can (and should) think about when preparing for your sessions as a GM. If that wasn’t obvious, I didn’t do something right. Hopefully it was.

… and now for completion’s sake: Completion is tricky. If you are the kind of GM who preps a lot and has prewritten as much as possible, completion can be a bitch. Players will learn that they need to take into account all the little clues you’ve left for them, but they can’t know what are the real clues and what’s just color. Therefore, you might not be able to satisfy all of them. If, on the other hand, you’re the kind of GM who does minimal prep work and lets players take the reins as much as possible, you’ll find that the players will take the story to places where they will feel the sense of completion they need. You might get left out, though.

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