I Know What You’re Thinking


In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the nameless narrator is silently deliberating the plight of an unsuccessful local actor. Just as he comes to this particular piece of consideration, his companion, the ingenious detective C. Auguste Dupin, interjects to say that yes, the local actor talent’s would be better matched to a role in the variety theater.

Understandably, the narrator is confounded that Dupin could have known exactly the matter that he was privately thinking on. Dupin explains that it was merely a matter of simple deduction. Fifteen minutes ago a fruiter had stumbled into the narrator after tripping on the poorly cobbled street. From that point Dupin had anticipated the logical train of thought that his companion would follow, and used little clues to confirm his theories, such as when the narrator would mutter something under his breath, look heavenward, or display a particular expression on his face.

This same novelty is played out to much the same effect in two Sherlock Holmes cases, where he logically follows the thoughts of his companion Watson. It is a bit of a stretch, of course. Only in the perfect world of fiction would one be able to so perfectly predict the exact train of thought of another. Such a thing could never occur in the real world.

A Magical Joke)

Or could it?

When real-life magicians pull back the curtain and reveal the methods of their tricks, they invariably all come to the point that magic is nothing more than the art of misdirection. They conceal where the triumphant reveal is coming from by distracting everyone with something else instead. So they not only know what you aren’t thinking about (the solution), but also what you are thinking about (the red herring).

And this is not the only practice where a performer reads the minds of others. Many jokes are built upon directing the listener’s thought to one conclusion, only to surprise them with another. The surprise at the end only works, though, if you know that the audience is thinking about the wrong conclusion. Consider the example of this joke:

A young woman was checking out at a grocery store. 

The cashier scanned her products: one microwave dinner, one bottle of soda, one pillow, and one toothbrush.

"You must be single," he smiled at her.

"Well...yes, actually I am!" she laughed. "How could you tell?"

"Because you're ugly."

Now this isn’t actually funny because of the punchline at the end. It’s funny because of the second sentence, where it directs your thoughts in a particular direction. Hearing a list of one item, one item, one item has us logically conclude that the cashier knows she is single because she is only buying solitary items. And because we have been carefully put into this state of mind, then the punchline actually comes across as surprising, and by extension funny.

Directing the Reader)

So yes, it might be unrealistic to follow a person’s train of thought under normal circumstances, but you can do it if you have laid the track for that train to follow. Once you have a person’s attention, you have the opportunity to steer their mind to a place of your choosing. And knowing where their thoughts now are, you may subvert or confirm their expectations at will.

This is why the final scene between the Joker and Batman is so effective at the end of The Dark Knight. In this film our hero has been foiled by his nemesis time and time again. The Joker has expertly pulled the strings in one game after another, outwitted any who have tried to stop him, and hurt people that we thought were untouchable. All of his prior successes trains us to assume that he will only continue to be successful.

Not only this, but his antics, though terrible, are also fascinating. We find ourselves morbidly curious to see how each of his little experiments will play out. Will Batman break his one rule to save the woman he loves? Which will he choose between personal desire and the heart of the city? What does it take to topple a paragon of good?

And under this context we come to his plot at the end. There is a ferry filled with everyday, working-class citizens, and there is one filled with convicts. Each has been fitted with a bomb, and each boat has been given the detonator to the other boat. So who will destroy the other first? The hardened criminals, because that’s the obvious choice? Or the citizens, because their hearts are really just as self-interested as anyone else?

Joker has had his way every time before, so our intuition is that he will do so again. And the conundrum he has set up, while unethical, is fascinating. Both of these facts leave us expecting to see it resolve in one ship blowing up or the other.

And because the film has so carefully maneuvered us to this expectation, it is now able to surprise us. Because neither of the two possibilities that we anticipate are what come to pass.

Rather than preserve themselves, each boat decides that they would rather spare the other, even though it might mean their own undoing. No one dies at all. It is an incredibly impactful moment, but it only works because it catches us by surprise. If from the beginning we had been thinking that this outcome was possible, we would not be so moved when it happens. By controlling our minds, by knowing what we were thinking, The Dark Knight made a moment deeply meaningful.

In my own story I have just introduced Tharol’s conundrum: he depends on the order for support, but also taking issue with some of that order’s tenets. He wants to be a good student, but he just can’t make sense of these philosophies.

This line of thought is going to be continued in my next piece, encouraging my readers to grapple with these questions themselves, and to anticipate the story to continue its ponderous, theoretical bent.

But it’s not going to. The story is going to take a dramatic shift that I intend to have be extremely shocking. So much so, that it will hopefully be some time before the audience realizes that we’re still dealing with the same philosophical questions from before, just from a much more active, hands-on approach.

Come back on Thursday to see how I try to lead the readers’ minds into the channel that I want them to follow, and then pull the rug out from underneath.

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