A Brain Link and Blog Holiday

The holiday season is here, along with the sporadic internet access that it often entails. Therefore, the blog is also on holiday until after the New Year. I have grand plans of hunkering down with the work-in-progress during my downtime -- we'll see if that actually happens

I leave you with a link. Denver Bibliophile wrote an article about the same study that Narrative and the Brain was based on. He has some interesting things to say about using scripts in narrative.

See you in 2010!

Theory of Mind and Character Interaction (When You Reach Me)

Note: Thanks to Iapetus for inspiring this post with his comment on The Fundamental Attribution Error and Character Sympathy

The False Belief Task is often used by psychologists to test social cognition. One version goes something like this.

1. Sally has a favorite marble. She puts her marble in a basket, and then leaves the room.
2. Anne, being very mean, enters the room when Sally is not there and and moves the marble to the cupboard.
3. When Sally comes back into the room, where does she look for her marble?

If you answered, the basket, then congratulations, you have well developed theory of mind abilities. Of course, Sally doesn't find the marble there. She has a false belief about the location of the marble.

The tasks seems trivially easy for adults, but kids below the age of five consistently say that Sally will look for the marble in the cupboard, where Anne put it. It seems that the ability to represent someone else beliefs as something different from what you know about the world develops later on in childhood.

But even though adults can do the Sally-Anne task, we sometimes still fall prey to the mistaken notion that other people think the same way we do. Lets take an example from When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead.

Sixth grader Miranda doesn't like Julia because she's annoying. When making self portraits in art class, Julia asks for "cafe au lait" construction paper to match her skin. She also brags about the fancy vacations she takes with her parents and shows off all the souvenirs her parents buy her. Miranda can't understand why her friend Annemarie used to be best friends with Julia.

One day, Julia shows up at the restaurant where Miranda and Annemarie work. Miranda first worries that the restaurant owner will invite Julia to work with them. But to her surprise, Jimmy (the restaurant owner) immediately kicks Julia out of the restaurant and tells her never to come back. Miranda is delighted.

"Out," Jimmy said, practically growling. "Now."
After she left, I pretended along with Annemarie that Jimmy was a little bit crazy, but as we walked back to school with our cheese-and-lettuce sandwiches, I carried a new warm feeling inside. Jimmy could be a grouch, but he saw right through Julia, just like I did.

See how Miranda automatically assumed that Jimmy disliked Julia for the same reasons she did? It's only later that she realizes Jimmy had completely different reasons. Julia was black, and Jimmy didn't want her around because he believed black people were genetically wired to be dishonest. It was a nice twist and an important moment of growth for Miranda.

Have you ever read or written anything that used false belief to good dramatic effect?

What killed omniscient POV?

Today's post is inspired by a conversation I had with Simon Larter and Jordan McCollum in the comments of Subtle Narration in the Graveyard Book.

Omniscient viewpoint, where the narrator can access the thoughts in every character's head, was popular in older literature. Nowadays, however, most books are written in a limited viewpoint, confined to the thoughts of one or a few characters. (Just to complicate things, limited POV with multiple narrators is also called Limited Omniscient, but for the purposes of this article, I'm just referring to the godlike omniscient narrator).

So lets speculate. What do you think killed omniscient point of view?

A few possibilities from our discussion:

1. It's a natural progression. The visual arts progressed from 2D cartoonlike ancient and medieval drawings to realistic 3D images as artists learned from the ones who came before them. Perhaps similarly, the art of storytelling has progressed from omniscient viewpoint to a more realistic limited viewpoint. (Jason Black has an interesting post on a similar idea.)

2. Changing societal norms. In How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James Frey says that society was important in Victorian times. Therefore, it was important to know everybody's thoughts in order to get society's viewpoint. Is limited POV on the rise now because society's role is less important?

3.Individualism - This is related to point two. Perhaps a rise in individualistic culture makes modern readers want to identify with one person at a time.

4. Freud - Is it the rise of Freudian thought and the desire to know the various motivations, conscious and subconscious, within an individual?

5. Just random chance - Or maybe we're overthinking things, and limited POV is popular for the same reason bellbottoms were popular in the seventies and crocs were popular a few years ago.

What do you think? Are there any literature folks who know of research on this?

How to Pull Off an Amazing Plot Twist (When You Reach Me)

I wasn't quite sure what to do about this post. When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, has the best executed plot twist ending I've ever read. I want to pick it apart and blog about why it's amazing, but it's such a good ending that I don't want to ruin it for people, even if I put up a spoiler warning.

So I opted for a compromise -- I'm analyzing this plot twist in very abstract terms. If enough people tell me that this post makes no sense, I might post a version with concrete examples and the world's biggest spoiler warning in red flashing letters.

When You Reach Me had all the elements of a good twist ending. For me, this means three things.

1. The ending was hard to predict.
2. Even though the ending was hard to predict, it fit in with the rest of the story. My pet peeve with TV shows is when crazy things happen with no warning (*cough* 24 *cough*). Anybody can write in a completely unpredictable plot twist, but only with the good ones can you go back through the earlier portions and find elements that foreshadowed it.
3. The ending adds a new dimension to the story. A good twist ending will introduce new questions or themes. For example, the ending to the classic movie Planet of the Apes brought up questions about the nature of humanity. Ender's Game also does a good job with this, taking time at the end to explore the implications of its plot twist.

What really made When You Reach Me exceptional was the sheer number of clues Stead managed to cram in the the rest of the book without giving away what happens in the end. How did she manage to pull that off?

Well, here are some contributing factors.

1. Out of order narration -When You Reach Me is narrated in two interwoven threads. One is narrated in present tense. The other tells the backstory and is narrated in past tense. A while back, I blogged about A Northern Light, which also uses this strategy. I thought the approach was confusing in A Northern Light, and I also thought it confusing here. However, it did mix things up enough so that it was hard for a reader to piece the story together.

2. Clues that blend in with the rest of the narrative - Stead's narrator and the world she lives in (1970s Manhattan) are rather quirky. This makes it easier for Stead to work in bizarre clue elements without having them seem out of place.

3. Multiple storylines and red herrings - The main storyline revolves around some notes sent to the main character (Miranda) that seem to predict the future. In addition to this mystery, however, there are multiple subplots, as Miranda loses old friends, makes new friends, gets a job, and generally navigates 6th grade life. The subplots make it hard for the reader to guess which details pertain to the main question. Also, there is at least one red herring -- a seemingly important detail that turns out to be irrelevant.

4. Everything hinges on one thing, and that thing is really hard to guess -- Ultimately, what makes this plot twist so unexpected was just that it was really out there. The possibility just doesn't occur to people. Because the revelation was so unexpected, Stead was able to cram the beginning with all sorts of clues without having readers make that final leap.

What makes a good plot twist? How do you handle yours? (Please do your best not to give things away about this book or others in the comments!)

Conversation with Alan Rinzler About Reading and the Brain

I recently spoke with Alan Rinzler, an editor with John Wiley & Sons, about reading and the brain. You can check out the interview on his blog.

Does Your Voice Change?

Note: Remember the post a while back on Voice Finding Techniques, based on Will Write for Shoes: How to Write a Chick Lit Novel by Cathy Yardley? We have a special treat today -- a guest post on voice, from Cathy herself! Cathy writes women's fiction in several genres. You can find out more about her at her website.

Livia was nice enough to post about some “voice-finding” exercises I had written in my book Will Write for Shoes. Reading the comments, someone had written that her voice changes when she writes different things. I suggested that even authors who write for different genres have a recognizable voice, or voice element, that serves as a through-line for all their work.

I mentioned it on an author’s loop, and we got into a spirited discussion of whether or not you can have “character authors” the way you have character actors – people who are noted for brilliant work, but who are also able to defy pigeon-holing by working in vastly different areas. There are very few authors who work across different genres with any degree of success. We attributed that to the readerships: genre readers tend to like seeing one kind of book from authors, and are unhappy when they shell out eight to twenty-nine dollars for a book that then isn’t at all what they were expecting. It’s not a matter of whether the author has the talent to branch out – it’s whether readers will accept a voice change.

Of the authors who could straddle different genres, the one I focused on was Margaret Atwood. She can write touching, startling women’s fiction, then smack you with a dystopian sci-fi with equal skill. But I also think that she has a very strong “voice” through all her work. It’s a little removed, almost aloof, which only underlines the usually brutal things going on. She’s got great descriptions and a clinically lyrical voice, is the only way I can describe it. Sort of a cold poetry. I love her work, although I can only read it in measured doses.

I’ve written within the women’s fiction genre: romance, Chick Lit, erotica, some YA. I’ve always dealt with stories that showcase women’s journeys. My voice tends to be humorous; Will Write for Shoes is probably the closest to my speaking voice. I also know that the humorous aspect has influenced my writing choices. Chick Lit and humor? Big yes. Slapstick erotica? Not so much, at least not according to my editor.

After speaking with my editor, I wrote darker, more intense stories. I’d like to think I was successful, but I also know it wasn’t as comfortable a fit. That doesn’t mean I’m trapped writing light and fluffy stories. It does mean that I’ll stuff banter into any situation possible; that if I don’t lighten my stories with some kind of humor it winds up as angsty as a teenager’s diary; and that I need to take my writing (and my life) a lot less seriously as a general rule.

How about you? How would you describe your writing voice? What’s your through-line?

The Seduction of the Brain Picture

When I posted my article on Narrative and the Brain a few weeks ago, I had no idea it would be my most popular article by far, both in terms of article views and in terms of number of times it was shared on different social media.

It's nice to see people as excited about neuroscience as I am. I'll try to tie in more of the relevant brain stuff in future posts as it relates to writing and literature. However, I also feel some responsibility to make sure my readers are well equipped to interpret brain imaging results. Because brain data has a rather high "sexy" factor, it's easy for it to get overblown or misinterpreted in the popular press.

More Discussion on Writing Rules

There were a lot of interesting comments on the Neil Gaiman Breaks Writing Rules post. I thought I'd highlight some of them to continue the discussion.

Several commenters drew parallels between writing and other art forms.

Emily Bryan: When I studied music composition in college, one of the first rules we were taught was no parallel fourths. Then I went to my first Pucinni opera and how does the overture start? With parallel fourths.

Rules exist because only the masters of the craft know how to break them successfully.

Kat: I also studied music composition like EmilyBryan, and yeah, the rules are there to stop intermediate composers from shooting themselves in the foot. They're generally good guidelines that help make things sound better.

It's probably the same with the writing rules. For beginning or intermediate writers, the rules probably help them express their ideas better. For masters, perhaps they've gone beyond the need for rules, just like a good jazz player who can't remember the names of chords anymore.

HowDidUGetThere:I find that those who really know the rules are the best ones to break them. That breaking the rules is an art in and of itself.

Take Picasso for example. Never been a big fan of his-- too disjointed for my taste-- but I went to his museum in Paris and saw how wonderful his early works were.

He knew what he was doing, and I assume had the respect of his contemporaries on some level. So when he took art to a new level it was a break through, rather than a failure. I think this aspect is often forgotten.

I'm not an art historian, but that lesson wasn't lost on me. Art seems to be easier to put side by side, in chronological order, for anyone to see the progression. Books take a bit longer!

Amitha was the only commenter to say that she didn't like Neil Gaiman's approach. Is there anybody else out there who would have preferred it if he hadn't broken the "rules" discussed in the previous post?

(For those who didn't read the last post, the principles were 1)Don't break POV and 2)Build the plot and increase the tension with every scene, taking out any scenes that do not advance the plot.)

Amitha: I actually didn't like that it was an episodic kind of a book. No matter how well episodic books are written, I have trouble picking them back up after putting it down. For the Graveyard Book, I got stuck for a long time on one of the early chapters. I think he did this in part because he was trying to parallel the Jungle Book in some ways but for me it was like reading a book of short stories (which I generally don't read) :P Towards the end though, it became less episodic and I found it much more interesting.

That being said, I totally agree that you can break the rules and still have a great book. It's just really hard while you're writing to tell whether or not you're one of the people who can pull it off ;)

And finally, Graham had an interesting comment about how readership affects "the rules:

Graham: "The rules" exist for the reader's benefit. The more closely they are followed, the wider the audience your book will have. They ensure that your writing stays within the comfort zone of the largest number of readers. The more your writing moves outside this comfort zone, the smaller your audience will be. Each of us, as writers, picks the audience we want to appeal to. "Head hopping" is harder work for for the reader but we might still choose to write for those readers who find it easy, or who are prepared to put in the effort.

Further thoughts, anyone?