The Competitive Edge of Surprise

I'm a fan of Reno 911!, a show about a lovable but flawed group of misfit policepersons in Reno, Nevada.  A parody of shows like "Cops", what makes it intriguing is a lot of it is improvised.  Though there's many running jokes, this level of spontaneity adds a charm to the series, and makes it more human.

There are other forms of media "spontaneity."  The Random House/Stardoll deal that allows for people to vote on the outcome of a story for instance.  There is the unpredictability of reality shows – much as I'm not a fan of most of them – that appeals to people.  I've been addicted to both Borderlands and Dragon Quest IX – games with randomly generated content to keep the games fresh.

Such things got me thinking about spontaneity and unpredictability.  These are things you can't really fake in media – and these are traits people like in their media, be it books, or shows, and so forth.  We love having an unknown to explore, something that doesn't fit our expectations (yet does).  In short, in an age where there's so much competition for attention, can the media we produce be more competitive if it adds spontaneity and unpredictability?

I think so.

One of the things that I'm concerned about in the modern media geekonomy is that there's a lot of stagnation and repetition.  It seems we're having endless remakes.  It's not hard to shovel out the same old thing in a book or a comic as long as you have a good marketing campaign.  If people want to be competitive (and if you don't have a huge marketing budget) you have to offer something more.

Unpredictability and sponanenity are something you can't fake (at least not easily).  People like them, there's something deep in us that likes a surprise.  That may be the edge you're looking for in your book, comic, film, webseries, and so on.

Consider the advantages:

  • You're not following the same old same old if there's something unpredictable or spontaneous.  That alone can get you attention in an age where it seems things are a bit too much alike.  It may not even be original, but it may be interesting to see what not-quite-originality shows up.
  • You're adding surprises.  People love surprises.  They'll want to see how things end up.
  • You're adding humanity.  People are spontaneous, and putting spontaneity into your work will make it more human.
  • It's inspiring.  Having stuff happen randomly or unpredictably and uniquely is going to shake up your imagination.
  • It can't be duplicated.  Be it the unique cast of your semi-scripted web show interacting or a secret voting for how your webcomic goes, no one can duplicate what you're doing.

How could this be done?  A few thoughts:

  • In anything with a cast – from multiple writers to multiple actors – lighten up on some of the scripting to see what people come up with.  Make a point to emphasize that in your marketing.
  • Try things like having the audience vote on things – people may tune in just to vote as well as see the results.
  • Have a contest among your watchers/viewers/readers to come up with ideas that you use – being careful to have the proper legal disclaimers of course.
  • Incorporate actual present-day events if you're doing, say, a real-life comic or show.  It may shift your story or media focus, but it'll be realistic and as unpredictable in real life.
  • Actual Randomness – This mostly fits computer games or other things where randomness is something you can automate, but those are awful easy environments add randomness with (as I should know!).

You can't easily fake spontaneity.  Why not embrace it to make your media project more interesting – and more unique?  You can have something no one else can have – and that may be the edge you need!

Steven Savage