As best I can discern, there was no formal discipline of cognitive psychology during the time of the ancient Greeks – no polls on google, no studies with mock juries, no control groups and no brain scans. Yet Aristotle penned advice that seems core to the force of narrative and how we might capture an audience’s attention.
The advice boils down to a single word – peripeteia (reversal of the situation). Here is the text from Aristotle’s Poetics:
Reversal of the Situation is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity. Thus in the Oedipus, the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is, he produces the opposite effect…
Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune. The best form of recognition is coincident with a Reversal of the Situation, as in the Oedipus.
There are indeed other forms…[T]he recognition which is most intimately connected with the plot and action is, as we have said, the recognition of persons. This recognition, combined, with Reversal, will produce either pity or fear; and actions producing these effects are those which, by our definition, Tragedy represents. Moreover, it is upon such situations that the issues of good or bad fortune will depend…
Two parts, then, of the Plot—Reversal of the Situation and Recognition—turn upon surprises.
[There are various translations of the Poetics online. One can be found at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html]
This essential of story-telling has not been tested in controlled, laboratory settings, so there is no research study I can point to that says ‘do this’ or ‘retention increases X% when a story begins with peripeteia.’ This is understandable if sad – as one book noted a few years ago, “empirical studies on storytelling by attorneys in actual trials are nonexistent.” Jessica D. Findley & Bruce D. Sales, The Science of Attorney Advocacy: How Courtroom Behavior Affects Jury Decision Making 171 (2012).
But peripeteia as an effective persuasion tool corresponds with our understanding of dopamine. As described in the book BRAIN RULES, “when your brain detects an emotionally charged event” the amygdala releases dopamine, which acts in effect “like a Post-It note that reads ‘Remember this!’” Medina, BRAIN RULES (2014) at page 112. And recent research on dopamine which confirms that stressful situations generate the release of dopamine and a resulting encoding of information. Dopamine’s Role in Learning and Memory, Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-and-behavior/202110/dopamines-role-in-learning-and-memory (last visited December 2, 2021).
Even with no direct studies confirming its power, peripeteia has been recognized by those who study the art of story-telling as a core feature and effective tool. In the classic MAKING STORIES: LAW, LITERATURE, LIFE (2002), Jerome Brunner writes that “narrative in all its forms is a dialectic between what was expected and what came to pass. For there to be a story, something unforeseen must happen.” Id., 15.
And while I am loathe to look to Hollywood screenwriters for any kind of validation, they too recognize the power of Aristotelean story-telling:
[W]hen you utilize peripeteia within your story, you’re rocking the world you’ve created and you’re putting your characters through surprising, shocking, and gut-wrenching turmoil. And because the reader or audience live vicariously through your characters, you’re rocking their world as well. And that creates a visceral reaction that is long remembered.
It causes fear and pity within the audience’s minds, pulling their heartstrings and creating a cathartic reaction. And catharsis is the most vital reaction that writers want their reader or audience to experience because it creates a lasting impression.
https://screencraft.org/2019/11/24/how-to-use-aristotles-favorite-plot-tool-peripeteia/ (last visited December 2, 2021).
And what does it look/sound like? Consider a fictional opening statement, one that begins “it should have been an ordinary day, a day where six year old Timmy took his regular walk to school, went to all his classes, and then made it home after the 3 o’clock dismissal for cookies and some down time before homework. But on May 21, 2021…”
Or take on from real life. Sam Schrager’s THE TRIAL LAWYER’S ART recounts an opening statement in a homicide trial in Philadelphia. I am in part loathe to use this because the prosecutor in question, now deceased, has recently had many of his cases called into question because of misconduct. But the power of the words and the advocate’s grasp of the efficacy of peripeteia warrant its inclusion here:
We will take you back in time and space to Monday, December nineteenth.
We will take you to a household preparing for Christmas.
We will take you back to that Monday when one Marci Jones, one Audrey Jones, and one Donald Jones were three alive people.
THE TRIAL LAWYER’S ART, 3.
As Aristotle explained, the plot “turn[s] upon surprises.” Advice from 2400+ years ago, advice that should resonate today. It’s all about reversal of the situation.