ConfusingRoadSignThe previous post The Confidence Game introduced the narrative strategy of manipulating the audience’s expectations through assumptions. Storytellers lead an audience into their confidence, carefully plotting the story so that certain aspects of the conflict are withheld. The audience’s comprehension of conflict comes through clear presentation of a character in pursuit of an objective while confronted with opposition. Clear associations between these three ingredients (character, objective, and opposition) may or may not be self-evident or explicitly stated in the narrative. And because audiences bring their own expectations, experiences, and associations with them to the storytelling, they rely on them to identify relationships between what appears to be an identifiable character taking clear action toward a likely objective while facing opposition under implicit circumstances. The storyteller not only knows what deductions the audience is likely to make, but strives to direct, or misdirect, the audience toward these false assumptions about the conflict. Then, the storyteller must direct the audience’s attention away from questioning those assumptions. The longer these assumptions remain in play, the greater the broken expectation upon revealing the false assumption. Take “The Sixth Sense” for example: the audience assumes that Dr. Malcolm Crowe was a living human being for most of the film, a false assumption that the audience was directed away from questioning by more immediate and pressing conflicts in the plot.

There are a number of ways to set up these false assumptions, so let’s begin with the deductive assumption.  This strategy relies on the audience’s inclination to deduce a relationship between two individual ideas. Take the following scenario:

Two trains speed toward each other on the same track.

The trains are the character, their objectives are to safely arrive at their destination, and their opposition is each other. The circumstance of being on the same track is explicitly stated.

Now let’s approach this scenario using a deductive assumption. Let’s study the following images:

freight train 1

This shot depicts a train traveling from West to East. The composition of the shot shows the train moving toward the right side of the frame.

large_126 yrs Freight Train Serv

This shot depicts another train, but traveling in the opposite direction, heading toward the left side of the frame. Because we’ve “edited” these two shots together, we’re implying a relationship between these two trains. This relationship has not been explicitly stated, but an immediate deduction comes to mind: they are on a collision course. This relationship may not be codified in the audience’s mind, but they will hold this as a possible conflict and then question: “will the trains collide?” The strategy is to present an implicit conflict while withholding some relevant aspect of the conflict’s true nature.

Let’s look at another example:


Here is a shot of a steaming pot of boiling water. Alone, we might make any number of associations: hot, burn, cooking, soup, etc. The fact that it’s filling the frame makes the boiling water seem “in our face.” That might lead the audience to more menacing associations. Now let’s follow it with this shot:


This storyteller knows exactly what you’re thinking. A deductive assumption creates a clear association between the shots while narratively we anticipate the answer to the question: “was I right?” Maybe this kitty will enjoy a hot bath.

A directed assumption follows a much simpler approach by having the Protagonist (or empathetic character) make an assumption about the opposition to their objective. This opposition may comprise an opposing character with their own objective and correlating (and/or mutually exclusive) opposition, any one of which may contain a false assumption which influences the Protagonist’s decisions and actions. Because the Protagonist “directs” the deductive reasoning through their own action or dialog, the audience accepts the assumption while focusing on more immediate causal reactions to the character’s active choices. In a sense, this is simply follow the leader, but requires careful misdirection away from questioning the assumption. If we evaluate how an audience’s attention is prioritized, we can simply direct their attention away from what we don’t want them to question. Very high on the audience’s priorities is immediate objective and action. Causality, action-reaction, in any moment takes precedence over broader aspects of conflict. Dr. Malcolm Crowe “directs” our assumptions quite easily because he assumes he’s still alive. Similarly, “The Others” opens with a false assumption already firmly in place and conveyed through the Protagonist’s own assumptions.

One other strategy for directing assumptions has already been discussed in the confidence game, the indirect assumption. This strategy relies primarily on the audience’s own propensity for drawing conclusions and setting their own expectations. We simply have to present them with a conflict that has a most likely explanation, which of course is a false assumption. Stereotypes, cliches, tropes, genres, rules, laws, anything that defines an identifiable pattern or structure can be used to misdirect an audience.

Without getting too theoretical, think of the audience’s mind as a constant stream of information that you the storyteller controls. You decide what information exists in this stream and the order in which this information is presented. This information is always incomplete because watching a film isn’t the same as first hand experience. Therefore, the audience’s mind works diligently to puzzle together the information into something as close to experiential understanding as possible. That involves recognizing patterns or associations in the stream of information that seem familiar or similar to known patterns and associations. That’s why stereotypes and cliches tend to surface more readily in the audience’s mind. And if you keep the flow of information moving, the audience will stay busy processing the immediate information, never having time to evaluate the gaps in their understanding of what has passed. That is, until the storyteller brings that information back around again.

Of course, clever storytelling relies on all of these strategies alone or in combination. They are tools that allow the storyteller to predict what the audience is thinking, where their attention is, and how to manage that attention from one moment to the next.

© Copyright 2013 Narrative Lens. All rights reserved

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