Our minds are programmed in such a way that when we click on a topic or subject we expect a specific response to appear.
For instance, if we think “grandmother” we expect an image of our grandmother to appear in our mind. If, however, an image of our first dog appears, it is counter-intuitive. That’s not at all what we were counting on, and there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason for Tipper’s image to appear. After a long period of consideration we may put the pieces together that the dog played a major role in our grandmother’s life, and the dog’s image was just a trigger to get to that connection. But it’s not at all what we expected.
Counter-intuitive experiences are very important to a writer. There are moments in a story, a screenplay, or even a poem when it is important to startle the reader. If the reader is plowing along through a novel and is on a track to expect the next event, it is a powerful thing to insert something which is totally out of context, but which turns out to be vital to the story.
We see it all the time in TV drama. A tip is called in to the police precinct that there is a domestic abuse situation at a particular apartment. The team moves in, guns drawn, and bursts through the door, hoping to catch the perpetrator in the act of abuse. But instead, there is an infant in the center of the floor, playing with a doll. The shock of the discovery lasts for a few seconds. Then the team approaches the child, hoping to protect it. But strapped to the child is a bomb with a clock that is ticking down the minutes or seconds before it detonates.
The whole discovery is counter-intuitive and requires us to stop, catch up with our vision, and try to put the images that confront us into some context that makes sense. Only then will we (and the police team) find ourselves able to move to the corrective moment.
What a great opening for a TV segment. The viewer’s heart is already pounding, and when the screen moves to an advertisement the intensity of the moment is heightened. The viewer has been captured.
The same thing happens in written drama in the context of novels, short stories, and even poems. It need not be acted out on a screen, whether large or small. Good writing will achieve the same drama.
One approach is to consider surprise, along with its close cousins contradiction, irony, and suspense. Readers and audience members demand surprise. They want to see something new. They want a book to be original. They want a story they haven’t heard before. When they describe a movie as predictable, they’re condemning it as an artistic failure. If a writer can craft a story that feels emotionally true yet provokes genuine surprise, presenting readers with experiences and ideas they’ve never encountered before, she’s well on her way to creating an original work of art.“*
The long-term value of counter-intuitive thinking is to force the mind to be fresh, anticipating that which is not obvious and easing the way for surprise. That is not restricted to writing or drama; it can be a factor in one’s every-day exercise of life. Just think about the advantage for a parent in dealing with the mystery of child-rearing. Especially in this day and age of accelerated change, the person who embraces counter-intuitive thinking is well ahead of those who are mired in the expected and rejecting of variation.
I love counter intuitive thinking because it challenges you to think differently. It forces us to think hard and deep about what something we were sure about.
Only good can come from that.
It can lead to some amazing insights or strengthen the already held belief.
Encourage yourself (and your staff) to question everything. Not out of stubbornness, but to gauge if the best decision or action is being taken, or simply because “it’s the way it has always been done”.
Give me someone that has the courage to question commonly held beliefs above someone that follows the stream any day.”**
Illustration Credit: @KarinaMorenamusic