What Star Wars, Pixar, and Radiohead Got Right: The Psychology of the Familiar Surprise

“Star Wars is a bunch of clichés, but it works because it’s not just one cliché. It’s all of the clichés celebrating a reunion in outer space.”

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author of the new book, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. He recently joined Tim Urban, mastermind writer and illustrator behind the popular blog Wait But Why, for a Heleo Conversation on what we can learn from the careers of genius creators, and why the greatest hits aren’t necessarily the most original.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below. 

Derek: In many ways, [Hit Makers] is an explainer book, a look at why certain things became popular—whether it’s the success of Facebook, Star Wars, or the impressionist canon. You’re an explainer, too. How do you think about the art of explaining, and how to write explanations that score equally high on intelligence and interestingness?

Tim: I think of it like a tree. If you read an article on something you don’t understand, that’s like a branch or a leaf. If there’s no tree trunk there, it has nothing to hang onto. So you need to build a tree trunk.

As I’m building the tree trunk, I want to hook people in so that they’re interested by getting to stuff that they already understand, that they know, and then bring them to the next step. Then they realize, oh we’re here. Now there’s a bigger tree trunk. You up the steps gradually.

Derek: This is really similar to the way that I think about it, too. Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design, designed the most famous car of the middle of the 20th century, the interior habitat of the first NASA space ship, the modern greyhound bus, the modern locomotive. He was incredible. The pencil sharpener that looks like an egg? That was him. His theory, Most Advanced Yet Acceptable (MAYA), essentially said people love discovering new things as long as they instinctively remind them of old things. We love the discovery of familiarity.

I think of it as an upside-down U, like the relationship with a song. You hear a song in a slightly new genre—let’s say your favorite genre is pop and you hear a hip-hop pop song. The first time you listen to that song, you’re like, “It’s okay.” You listen to it again, you like it a little bit more. It goes up this curve. But you can wear out any song, so it comes back down the other side of the curve.

What you were talking about, that sweet spot at the top of that upside-down U, Raymond Loewy called it the shock point. You might call it the “make believe point.” It’s the point where people understand where you’re coming from but you’re allowed to optimally surprise them.

Tim: Music is a great example because a really great song that’s going to take off can’t be too derivative. It has to be fresh. Your ear has to be tickled by it. “Oh, I wasn’t expecting it to go there.” But not too fresh.

The Beatles were very “in-genre” in the first three years. “She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah,” [was] very “Twist and Shout.” Then, later, they were doing completely different stuff, but they had to bridge that somehow. Their album Revolver, the first one that departed—people didn’t like it. It wasn’t familiar enough.

Derek: With “the modern Beatles,” Radiohead, Kid A was the weirdest album to ever sell a million records. It is just incredibly strange. It sounds like aliens singing half the time. There aren’t even choruses on some of the best songs. It still went platinum. If Radiohead’s first album was Kid A, who the hell would buy that?

Tim: The Beatles were able to go there because they had already won people over, so they said, “People are going to give this a chance.” Same with Radiohead.

Derek: Right. You had Pablo Honey, then The Bends, then OK Computer, and then we’re going to blow your minds with some chorus-less weird prog-rock jazz music that is the strangest thing you’ll ever hear, but trust us.

Tim: Once you have attention, you don’t need to deal with balance as much. But at the beginning you have to be familiar enough to get people to go with you.

“It’s self-evident that a person’s best work happens later in their careers. They develop mastery, but the other thing that’s happening is that these artists and teams produced their most resonant work—Stanley Kubrick’s eighth feature film and Virginia Woolf’s fourth novel—after they had passed a certain threshold of popularity.”

Derek: If you think about some of the works of art that we consider genius… Radiohead’s Kid A was their fourth album. Led Zeppelin’s fourth album was their mythic masterpiece. Born to Run was Springsteen’s third studio album. Thriller was Michael Jackson’s sixth. Lemonade was Beyoncé’s sixth. It’s self-evident that a person’s best work happens later in their careers. They develop mastery, but the other thing that’s happening is that these artists and teams produced their most resonant work—Stanley Kubrick’s eighth feature film and Virginia Woolf’s fourth novel—after they had passed a certain threshold of popularity.

Tim: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights was much more standard. People wouldn’t have given him a shot on the stage with a rap musical about Hamilton. But because he was already a star, he had a chance.

Derek: You have to buy the audience’s acceptance in order to make something that’s truly advanced. To say, “I’m really going to push the envelope here, but I know I can do it because I don’t have to debase myself for your attention.”

Tim: The hard part is if you debase yourself too much, you’re not fresh enough. Then it’s derivative. People have a real ear for something that’s just derivative. It’s a really hard balance.

Derek: Maybe this is where my outlook is a little more skeptical than yours, but I do think that people are more accepting of derivation and familiarity than most people expect. For example, even though we do love discovering new songs, we really love discovering songs that sound like the songs we already like. 90% of the time we’re listening to music, according to [researcher in the field of music cognition] David Huron, we’re listening to songs we’ve already heard.

Look at Hollywood. The word in Hollywood is pre-awareness. People only buy tickets to see characters that they recognize.

Tim: Same format for Pixar movies. You have the hero that wants just a little from life, and then you have the villain who wants everything.

Derek: That’s really important—even the movies that score highest in both critical acclaim and commercial success, like the Pixar films, are unbelievably formulaic. They’re always the bumpkin bunny, who only wants a small thing in life, goes to this strange new world, and confronts a villain.

Tim: But this is the balance—Toy Story wasn’t just another [movie], there was something different about it, too. Finding Nemo, I hadn’t seen something quite like that before, but Nemo and his dad were characters we’ve all seen before.

Derek: One thing James Cameron said about Avatar is, “I want to make this movie Pocahontas. It has to be a story that audiences recognize, because I want them to focus on the visuals. I don’t want their heads distracted and clouded by, ‘Wait, what’s going on? The white guy went to the native world, but now he’s a native?’” This is not about the story. This is about the world, and it’s a technological movie.

Tim: And you can’t also have them saying, “Is this a good guy or a bad guy?” It has to be very clear. Good guy, and then evil imperialists coming with their profit motives.

Derek: On the topic of popularity, to what extent do you have a scientific sense of what works in [your] pieces? Is something exogenous at play, where you cannot predict what piece you write is going to be the most successful? Sometimes success is serendipitous.

Tim: It’s in the middle. I’m starting to get a better sense of what tends to be more virally shared and commented on.

There’s a few different things. One way that a blogger or journalist can go viral is you find the Emperor’s New Clothes situation, something where everyone is thinking it but no one is quite saying it, because it’s not quite right to say it, or because everyone assumes they only think it. It’s not conventional wisdom. And you just say it. People will say, “Yes!”, and then they’ll forward it.

Derek: In headline writing, I think of this as like holding up a mirror to show somebody something on their face that they never quite saw before. In the headline of the story, there’s an “aha” moment where they’re like, “Yes! That’s always been lingering in my head. I haven’t verbalized it, but those ideas were always there, and now I finally see a reflection in a headline, in an anecdote.”

Tim: If you’re tapping into something that’s already there, you’re not convincing someone to care about this. They’re on the verge of caring about it, they’ve always wanted to be interested. In other words, there’s all these viral things that are already 80% of the way there in people’s heads, but the key is to go the last 20% and not start at zero.

I’m sure a lot of what you studied, a lot of these examples probably have some theme where society was already ready for something, and someone nailed it.

“Umberto Eco called Star Wars ‘a bundle of never-before-bundled allusions,’ and he said, ‘Star Wars is a bunch of clichés, but it works because it’s not just one cliché. It’s all of the clichés celebrating a reunion in outer space.’”

Derek: Yes, I call it a familiar surprise. It is something new, but the new product opens a door and there’s an idea that is immediately comprehensible, recognizable, and familiar.

Star Wars, for example, is just a lot of the genre conventions of a western but set in outer space, with a lot of the conventions that were established in the comic book universe thrown in to create a comic sundae based on different ingredients that already existed. Umberto Eco called Star Wars “a bundle of never-before-bundled allusions,” and he said, “Star Wars is a bunch of clichés, but it works because it’s not just one cliché. It’s all of the clichés celebrating a reunion in outer space.”

Everyone deep down knows what’s going to happen. Luke’s not going to die. Sorry, spoiler alert. That can’t happen in this world. It’s not Game of Thrones. It’s a lot of clichés, but because they’re all celebrating a reunion they’ve never celebrated before, we love it. It’s this beautiful wrapping together of things that are familiar.

Tim: Good versus evil—[these themes are] tapping into tribal things in us. Safety, dreams and hopes, and the satisfaction we all want to feel. You get to live vicariously through these characters.

Derek: One of the interesting things about cultural products, whether it’s television shows, movies, or music, is there’s this tension. On the one hand, they are transportive. They take us away from ourselves. Yet, at the same time, we ultimately want to map ourselves onto them. The reason heroes in Pixar stories or Star Wars are relatable and not overeager to achieve invincibility, is that we want to believe it started with us. We’re humble, we’re not heroes, and so we can step into the shoes of the bumpkin bunny in Zootopia. Or step into the shoes of the orphan in Star Wars and say, “That’s just like me, and now I’m going on this rogue journey with him.”

It’s the same in music. We don’t want the song to feel like the master of us, and we don’t want to necessarily master the song so much that we know exactly what’s going to happen, it no longer excites us. We want to have that tango where there’s this sweet anticipation of, “I couldn’t necessarily tell you right now what the next 90 seconds of the song will be, but every moment is going to thrill me as if it were new.”