I Know What You’re Thinking

Mind-Reading)

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.

It Sounded a Lot Better in My Head

selective focus close up photography of red eared slider turtle
Photo by Laurentiu Stoenescu on Pexels.com

A Peek Behind the Curtain)

It was pretty early on in this blog that I wrote a story that I didn’t like. In that moment I had to decide whether I was going to publish it or not, and I knew that this decision would set a precedent for all future story posts. I decided to publish.

One reason was that I simply don’t have the time to be writing posts, scrapping them, and then creating entirely new ones. Another reason was that I started this blog specifically to get me in the habit of delivering on ideas instead of sitting on them forever. And finally, I wanted to represent all sides of writing in this blog, both the good and the ugly. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that everything that I write is good. Some of it, frankly, is very much not.

I do feel a little guilty about a person who takes time out of their day to read one of my stories and is then disappointed by it. I don’t know how to avoid that, though. Even the pieces I am most proud of I’m sure are disappointing to some readers. Of course if I were trying to sell something, it would be a different matter. Asking people to give money for something you know is of subpar quality is not only a bad business practice, it is immoral. This is one of the reasons why I do not try to monetize this blog in any way.

There is still one more reason why I choose to keep the lesser stories in this blog, though, and it is because they still have valuable lessons to share. Sometimes learning from a failure can be more fruitful than reaping the rewards of a success. And that’s just what we’re going to do today. Let’s take a look at why our stories are sometimes so much worse than we thought they were going to be, and what we can do to reduce this frustration.

 

Sometimes You’re Wrong)

I’ve already mentioned in the past how a writer can have a great idea, but will then struggle to capture it properly on the page. In this case the idea is still good, and it is just a matter of practicing until one can transfer from their mind to their work with a high degree of fidelity.

But sometimes that isn’t the case. Sometimes the idea you had is just bad, and that’s all there is to it. You might be able to imagine something and you might be able to recreate that something, but that doesn’t mean that the imagined joy you had in that something will be present in the reality.

Often we know what we want in life, but sometimes we don’t. The dessert that “sounded” good ends up making our stomach turn, the new toy we wrote Santa for is boring within minutes, and the clique we were desperate to join becomes a toxic influence on us. People make bad choice all the time, thoroughly convinced that they were good ones.

One of my side-hobbies is that I like to make small mobile games. I think of new game mechanics all the time, and just like my story ideas I’m certain that all of them are good. And sometimes when I first try to implement them I have the parameters a little off and I have to tweak them until they’re just right. And other times I keep tweaking them for hours before I realize there just isn’t any “fun” in any version this.

 

You Are a Combination Machine)

There is a simple reason why this phenomenon happens. Your brain is an amazing piece of work, capable of inventing new things constantly. And as I mentioned in a recent post, it most often does this by taking two separate ideas and combining them into one. Any two items, no matter how random or disparate, can be combined in an infinite number of ways.

Door + Turtle = …

  1. That could mean a giant turtle with a door in its shell that leads to a fantasy kingdom inside.
  2. It could be a small hole cut into the bedroom wall for a pet turtle to walk through.
  3. Or perhaps it was a turtle crawling across the doorway at the top of the stairs to the basement; and Mom didn’t see it when she slammed the door closed and sent him on a grand, final adventure…rest in piece, Chuckles.

The point is there are an infinite number of things to combine in this world, an infinite number of ways to interpret each pairing, and we humans prosper by being able to generate and appraise these combinations at tremendous speed. This sort of inventiveness has been critical for our growth as a species, and it turns out that this behavior is wired into our very biology! A study in 2006 found that whenever subjects were presented with a new experience that a portion of their brain lit up and dopamine was released as a reward.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627306004752

This means that whenever you come up with that new combination your body makes you feel good for it. But in my experience this initial rush of excitement can be a poor indicator for whether an idea actually has value or not. It is good that I am thinking of new things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this new thing is itself any good. Some combinations are useless, no matter how we feel about them in the moment.

 

Prototype)

To make matters all the more complicated, sometimes the bad ideas appear like good ones, even from an impartial, objective point of view. The technology sector is full of devices (Zune, Google Glass, Betamax, Newton) that sounded like good ideas at the time but still flopped horribly.

Most recently I was surprised that I ended up disliking Hello, World. I thought there was good reason for it to be a success because it reminded me of my other tech-heavy, snarky piece Phisherman, which I am really quite proud of. But “close” to a good idea is nowhere near to being a good idea.

So how can you tell whether your idea is really as good as you think it is? Quite simply you have to test it. In the game industry there is a common understanding that you have to make a prototype of your new idea as fast as possible. The reason being that the sooner you are able to actually taste the reality of your imagination, the sooner you can truly discern its value. It would be pointless to spend months writing music and making art for a game only to then discover that its core mechanic is boring.

And it turns out that a story can be prototyped as well. Try writing an isolated chapter to see if it still speaks to you or not. Frankly one of the main purposes for this blog is to be a test-bed for all my ideas. I’ve been able to quickly and accurately pinpoint which ideas are hollow, and which are really going somewhere. I’m never going to put a thousand of man-hours into making a complete novel out of Hello, World, but I might for Deep Forest, Phisherman, or Glimmer.

 

A final piece of advice is once you discover that your latest idea is lacking, don’t waste time trying to “make it work.” If you try really, really hard, maybe you’ll be able to dress it up to the point that it looks “okay.” But why settle for “okay” when you could be putting your time into something that is effortlessly beautiful? Like I said above, our minds are coming up with new ideas all the time, a really good one is going to hit sooner or later.

That being said, I also don’t want to be guilty of not giving Hello, World enough of a chance either. Nor would I want to deny the closure to anyone who was actually enjoying it thus far. To that end, I will dedicate just three more days to writing out the second half of that story. Come back on Thursday if you want to see how it turns out, I promise it will only get stranger from here!