I was reminded recently of a study done in the US about five years ago that looked at the elements of video that really engage viewers. It was an in-depth study, but there were three nice big takeaway points that I remember.
Firstly, we like to be surprised. No surprise about that. But the study found that the intensity of the surprise was more important than how quickly it occurred. That makes sense to me. One of my professors used to talk a lot about how “getting people up the complexity curve” was a good thing. The more attention we give something, the more likely it is we will remember it.
Joy, on the other hand, according to the study, works the other way around. We seem to prefer a rush of joy and care less about how intense it is. But we do like to experience joy on an ongoing basis. The most obvious example is video content that includes regular doses of humour.
And finally, we want jeopardy. We effectively want a roller-coaster experience. Dickens is my favourite master (as the chapters in many of his novels were originally serialised), but Hitchcock, and every great filmmaker since, also brilliantly understood the concept. It is at the heart of storytelling. If you know what’s going to happen, why watch?