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Fallacy: The Primer for Surprise

photo by Latitia Miller [1]
photo by Latitia Miller

Today’s return guest is aspiring novelist Lancelot Schaubert [2]. Lance has published in markets like McSweeney’s, The 2016 Poet’s Market, Poker Pro, Encounter, and many others. He is currently shopping out his first novel and lives in Brooklyn with his attack spaniel and “the grooviest bride in the world.”

We like the way he thinks about story, and we hope you do, too.

You can learn more about Lance at lanceschaubert.org [3] and on Twitter [4].

Fallacy: The Primer for Surprise

In the middle of the first Robert Galbraith novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling [5], I found myself asking, “How do mystery writers do it? How do they surprise their readers?” I reflected on Chesterton’s Father Brown and Doyle’s Sherlock and Rowling’s Comoron and a weird idea came to me — for years I had been analyzing authors and their plots. I would think through an author’s knack for withholding information and how their plot would hit on every detail but the solution to the mystery. Wasn’t that the surprise?

Turns out I had started in the wrong place. The first question on the origin of surprise is this: What goes on in the reader’s mind the moment they’re surprised?

Story surprises happen not when a reader lacks important information that leads to the correct conclusion about story events, but rather when, through the abundance of misinformation, the reader is forced into wrong conclusions.

Said simpler, surprise happens when readers discover they were wrong.

For writers, this is good news. It’s our job to amplify and exacerbate bad ideas until they break. STORY author Robert McKee says:

STORYTELLING is the creative demonstration of truth. A story is the living proof of an idea, the conversion of idea to action. A story’s event structure is the means by which you must first express, then prove your idea… without explanation… [by showing] how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.

WU contributor and UCLA writing instructor Lisa Cron calls the first condition of existence the “moment of misbelief” that must be corrected. Whatever you call it, you’re inviting your reader into fallacious thinking right along with your protagonist.

We’re talking about “gotcha” moments.

Like I said above, I was halfway through The Cuckoo’s Calling. I’m a logician by heart, among other things, and I noticed some fallacious thinking in my own mind as I read. There was no reason for me to believe that other suspects had made their way into the Cuckoo’s apartment that fateful night when she was shoved from the balcony to the pavement. And yet I believed someone had snuck into her place. I believed this enough to argue the point with my wife who had already read the book. My fallacious thinking kept the heat off of the real suspects in the correct account of what happened that night. That kind of poor logic had sprouted from an abundance of misinformation: cameras, open doors, random irrelevant details like the motives of people who couldn’t possibly be there.

It’s a simple enough concept so we’ll move onto implementation, but if you want to debate with me about it I’ll be available in the comments. However, let’s assume for the moment that I’m right – readers are surprised when they discover they’ve been wrong about something for three or five or twelve hundred pages.

How do we encourage them in their terrible thinking?

Well, it’s simple really. We dress up logical fallacies in the garb of story events. The TV show The Blacklist did this at the end of season one. For two episodes, we are led to believe that this guard took the hand off of an inmate to whom he had been handcuffed. Why? In order to get away from this crashed prison transfer plane. The guard is allegedly a black hat named Berlin, the man everyone has been hunting. We’re encouraged in our fallacious belief through the testimony of one of the inmates: “He cut off his hand.”

We find out by the end of the first season that we – the viewers – have been forced into a four-term fallacy. We’re led to believe “he cut off his hand” refers to the guard (bad guy, now dead) cutting off the hand of the inmate (an innocent man). Rather, they’re one in the same person. The guard was already dead when the hand-cutting happened. The handless inmate – the real Berlin – cut off his own hand. “He cut off his hand.” We the viewers were forced to believe in two antecedents for two masculine pronouns, a lexical ambiguity. In reality there’s only one man – the inmate Berlin – represented by both “he” and “him.”

He cut off his own hand.

A similar thing happens in the film Chinatown when Gittes asks Evelyn, “Is she your daughter or your sister?” He’s committing a bifurcation fallacy – a false dilemma – and the reader follows him for the whole film until the moment Evelyn says, “She’s my daughter and my sister.” Darth Vader’s “No, I am your father,” falls under the same fallacy – we assumed he couldn’t be both Luke’s father and arch nemesis.

A red herring is not simply a diversion. A red herring is something you believe in more than the reality. Let’s think of some other ways to use logical fallacies in our stories.

Personal Incredulity. Often times when it comes to technology in science fiction, social norms in historical fiction, or magic systems in fantasy we, as readers, come across something difficult to understand. We tend to argue that because we’re unfamiliar with how it works, therefore it does not work. One of the best examples of this comes from the novel Jurassic Park. I think Don Maass mentions this in one of his books. Creighton has this unbelievable concept – that some Walt-Disney-meets-Dr.-Frankenstein dude cloned new dinosaurs. Creighton actually obscures this idea from us with sci-fi babble, but we believe it the moment the greatest scientist (and skeptic) in the book comes across the first dinosaur. The scientist laughs. He’s delighted. And we’re surprised because we were wrong: there really can be a theme park of dinosaurs.

Loaded Questions. We see these all of the time in stories. “You still watching porn?” or “How much heroin do you normally buy?” or “When did you start sleeping with your neighbor’s wife?” All of these questions assume something awful about the character being interrogated and immediately force the reader into the wrong conclusions. It’s one thing to prove the killer guilty. But a truly American story shows that the guilty man on death row was innocent all along. In this guilty-until-proven innocent culture, we default towards blame shifting. That means in terms of justice, our greatest fear is the false conviction. And it happens all the time in our country. Another way loaded questions are used are through unreliable narrators like Holden Caulfield and Tyrion in A Clash of Kings. They both hide their motives even from the reader by asking loaded questions.

I could go on, but we’re running out of space. Think of some other logical fallacies in the comments and ask yourself:

How can I make my reader come to the wrong conclusion?

Because if you can encourage your reader / audience to make the wrong conclusion at the start, you can surprise them when you reveal the truth at the end. This doesn’t just give them the experience of surprise or bolster your story’s argument, it actually helps your reader become a better thinker.

Over to you. Let’s dream up some good examples together.

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About Lance Schaubert [6]

Lancelot Schaubert [2] has sold his written work to markets like The New Haven Review, McSweeney’s, The Poet’s Market, Writer’s Digest (books and magazine), Poker Pro, Encounter, The Misty Review and many other similar markets. He reinvented the photonovel through Cold Brewed and was commissioned by the Missouri Tourism Board to create a second photonovel — The Joplin Undercurrent — that both fictionalizes and enchants the history and culture of Joplin, Missouri.