Category Archives: The Writing Life

Authors Lie to Tell the Big Truths

When we pick up a work of fiction, we are seeking to lose ourselves in a beautiful lie. While some readers are driven by the need to escape their reality, most use fiction as an emotional exercise, a way to live vicariously through the adventures of another and stretch the limits of what is possible in our own lives. This latter sort of reader won’t be satisfied by fantastic worlds and flashy plots. While they may be entertained by these elements, they want to sink their teeth into some deeper meaning, a truth that resonates not only with the story, but with their own experiences.

The first step in delivering this deeper human truth is establishing a sense of empathy between the readers and the characters. No matter the culture, or even the species, of the protagonists and points of view, their motivations and choices must ring true. Would we be willing to accept a teratogenic dwarf that cons his way into the admiralcy of a space mercenary fleet? Sure, no problem. However, if Miles VorKosigan were to suddenly give up his military dreams and decide to become a farmer? We’d call shenanigans. Readers invest in characters, not stories. We must see them struggle against impossible odds and make choices that lead them to victory. No matter how fantastic the persona, it is only when our characters are true to their natures and goals that we as readers can invest in their struggles.
Once our readers invest in character, they will begin to look for a link between the protagonists’ fictional journey and the questions and struggles they face in their own lives. Sometimes these truths are topical and current. As an example, I can write countless blog posts about racism, discrimination, prejudice, and fear, but for the most part will have a hard time convincing those who disagree with me. Rather than arguing with my audience, I could make my characters argue for us. Furthermore, by couching my argument in the terms of a fantastic lie, I remove ego and defensiveness from the equation. After all, I am talking about my characters, not about them, right? I could make my protagonist an anthropomorphic bunny who is trying to break a species barrier and fulfill her childhood dream of being a police officer. I pair her with a fox conman and force her to question her own views of predators and foxes in particular, with whom she has had bad experiences in the past. As she questions her prejudice and preconceptions, so will the audience. In so doing, I use my fantastic lie to proxy larger, current social struggles and make an argument for diversity and inclusiveness that is more likely to achieve meaningful success than a thousand angry blog posts.

However, as writers we aren’t limited to current social questions. There are some truths so profound to the human experience that variations on their stories are repeated across generations and cultural barriers. We want to believe in a world where a hobbit from the Shire can face and destroy the greatest evil of his world because sometimes we feel small and powerless. We want to see Aragon and Arwen marry because if they can find a way for their love to survive war, distance, and hardship, then our own romantic futures aren’t hopeless. We want to return to the Shire with Sam because we need to believe that all the chaos and pain of living is for a greater purpose – home and family. Though we might not have the perspective to see the arc of our own lives, we can spend hours, days, or weeks with a story to gain the catharsis we need to push through our own struggles.

As writers, we rely on our readers to willingly suspend their disbelief in order to work our storytelling magic. However, no matter how fantastic and entertaining we may be, our stories must ring true on a deeper level for our readers to commit to the tale. It is only when our characters are believable, empathetic, and when their decisions and struggles resonate with our own experiences that we can truly connect with a story. Readers want to believe the lie, not only because they seek to escape reality for a time, but also because in so doing we seek to understand the truth of our own world.

Artificially Intelligent Liars

One of the most pivotal scenes in the movie (and novel) 2010 comes when Dr. Heywood Floyd, Dr. Walter Curnow, and Dr. Chandra discover the reason for the HAL 9000’s actions in 2001 aboard the USS Discovery. As the ship’s near-AI system monitor, HAL 9000 killed three crew members in hibernation and caused the death of astronaut Frank Poole before being disconnected by Commander Dave Bowman. The lingering question in the nine-year intermission was “Why?”

As it turns out, HAL 9000 received two sets of instructions and the logic between them did not compute. As a result, he was forced to interpret the results as best he could…and he learned to lie.

The concept of an artificially intelligent liar is one that’s been around a long time. I can think back to an 80s movie called D.A.R.Y.L. where a defense robot with an AI capability was built with a body of a young boy. I admit that seeing the kid wearing an orange high-altitude pressure suit and flying an SR-71 was really cool having been fairly young myself, but the scene that strikes me the most fro that film is DARYL learning to play baseball.

He’s a natural. He hits every pitch a mile and instantly becomes the star player and the coaches love him, but the kids don’t. Especially his best friend on the team. So, DARYL learns to lie and in the big game moment, the whole “bottom of the ninth and the score is tied” trope, DARYL strikes out.

HAL 9000 and DARYL both learned to lie in order to deal with complex human relationships. While HAL’s is extreme, DARYL’s is one that captivates us as the robot asks and answers the question “What does it mean to be human?” in a way that we can all understand. How many of us have had that big moment and failed? I’d venture to guess that we all have.

Now, there are other examples of artificially intelligent liars (CLU from Tron: Legacy) who lie to humans to get the humans to do something in particular and humans in those films are gullible enough to do it for them. Don’t get me wrong, I am a HUGE Tron fan, and the concept was great in Legacy, but would Sam really go to the arcade? Wouldn’t Alan just call the number? Anyway, I digress…

The artificially intelligent liar found its way into my own writing. When I sat down to write the original version of Sleeper Protocol, my plan for Mally (the artificially intelligent protocol) was to simply act as a benevolent character looking out for Kieran Roark as he tries to discover his identity. When the book stalled in Act Two, I knew that my chosen antagonist wasn’t doing enough to hamper Kieran’s development. The lightning bolt of realization that Mally could become the antagonist accelerated the re-development of the book and I pounded through a new, longer draft in less than two months. And guess what? Mally became the artificially intelligent liar and the story was better for it. I’m looking very forward to Vendetta Protocol‘s release later this year as Mally learns about what it really means to be human.

Lying is a just part of being human. Isn’t it?

 

Amnesia

Why are books better than their movie counterparts? There are several reasons, but I believe the strongest has to do with insight into the mind. We are given a telepathic link to the point of view character’s mind. But that link streams data in bits instead of a massive info dump (in good writing anyway).

This can be problematic if not done right. We all love a good twist ending. That mental whiplash, once everything seems to be resolved, can be an exhilarating experience. I remember watching the Sixth Sense when the child psychologist discovers he’s dead.

I immediately wanted to watch the movie again. When I did, it was a totally different experience. But the twist wouldn’t have worked if he knew he was dead all along. Consider that for a moment. In twists where the characters know what is going on, but not the reader, a twist comes across more like fraud than hand-clapping thrill.

That’s because there is an unspoken agreement between the reader and writer. The writer promises a good story, an exciting tale, an emotional journey. The reader promises to go along with the ride and believe the words and trust the characters as they are presented. When the reader discovers that the characters were withholding critical information, even though there had been an apparent telepathic link, then that trust is broken and the reader feels deceived, not entertained.

There are many ways to help the reader discover along with the POV characters so that discovery becomes a journey. The one gimmick I’d like to discuss is amnesia.

The Maze Runner did it well, forbidding the reader much of the world where juveniles run mazes. Because of Thomas’s amnesia, the reader is sucked into the story, waiting with baited breath every bit of information they can glean together from the world before them.

I recently read a book where amnesia was used well. Sleeper Protocol by Kevin Ikenberry was a fantastic sci-fi novel where the main character discovers his identity and memories through a series of scientific supported phases under the supposition that rediscovery (integration) can be detrimental to the mind if it happens too quickly.

The sixth sense was essentially an amnesia story, disguised. That’s why it worked so well.

Others, like Dan Brown’s Inferno, use amnesia as a tool to propose a purpose and deciding event for the character in order to up the stakes, or increase the drama and embellish the character arc.

Arguably one of the best amnesia tales is Jason Borne whose head wound left him with no prior memory although he had exceptional skills, spoke foreign languages, knew martial arts and spy craft and so on. Also it allowed the reader to empathize with someone who killed people for a living.

Fifty First Dates used amnesia to tell an incredible, funny, and yet heart-wrenching love story.

I myself have an amnesia novel in the works. It’s temporary and as it wears off, the reader discovers the apocalyptic world, as fascinating as it appears, isn’t at all what it seams and instead turns into an exciting thriller.

To write the piece, I did extensive research on the brain and memory loss. In my world, it has to be, believable. Basically there are different parts of the brain where memory is stored. Episodic memory involving experiences and events are different than Semantic Memory involving facts and concepts. These two types are stored in separate parts of the brain. This is why Jason Borne doesn’t remember any specific event but he knows at this altitude he can flat out run for thirty minutes and not break a sweat.

This is also why is would not make sense for Thomas of Maze Runner to recall his name but nothing else. Unless of course there was some medical, scientific, magical reasoning for it that James Dashner covers well.

What are some of your favorite amnesia stories?

Jace KillanI live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page and learn more at www.jacekillan.com.

Deedle di ti dee…….Two Endings!


(Is the song stuck in your head yet?)

Whether it’s a sad ending, a happy ending (no, not that kind), or even a cliffhanger, endings can be hard to write. I know when I’m finishing a first draft I always wonder if there’s a thread I forgot to tie off or if there was enough denouement. Doubts like these can get the better of you. One doubt that doesn’t often pop into a writer’s mind is if the story needs two endings.

That’s pretty much what happened when I wrote Schrodinger’s Bar.

Schrodinger’s Bar is a short story I wrote for the Fiction River: Tavern Tales anthology. It’s about an alien refugee that finds a job at a very unusual dive bar. What makes this story really unique is that it has two endings that happen simultaneously. That’s right. Just when the reader thinks the story is over, not only do they get a second conclusion, it’s one that happens at the exact same time as the first instead of being another option.

Yes, it’s a very tricky thing to pull off. So how did I do it? I had a very good editor. No, seriously. It was all her idea and she walked me through it. Yeah, I know. That doesn’t really help you but I did learn how in the process.

Here’s the thing, gimmicks like this rarely work. Instead of it being a cool literary device it often comes off as cheesy or even lame. The only reason this one isn’t cheesy or boring is because of the title. Since the story — and specifically the dive bar — is a clever play on Schrodinger’s theory it gives me the allowance to do this. In fact, as my editor told me, this story really needed a gimmick like this to be good. Doing it with one ending would have been a missed opportunity.

But I hear you ask, “what if your story doesn’t have a quantum superposition but you still want to do two endings?” Well, that still has a prerequisite of sorts. Lets revisit the video I posted from Clue. Clue has three endings, each funnier and just as plausible as the others. Each of the possible solutions to the “who done it?” works because during the film, each suspect is without an alibi. It’s never highlighted during the film but if you watch closely you’ll see that it’s true. So if you want to pull off multiple endings, you need to do the same sort of prep work. Set up the scene, make sure you’ll have the plausibility you’ll need for each variation in each ending and at the final climactic moment, that’s when you start the divergence. In Schrodinger’s Bar that moment is when Myla has to decide to stay or go. In Clue, it’s the moment Wadsworth decides to reveal who the killer is and how they did it. The divergent endings all start at that same moment and progress to their individual conclusions. However the story as a whole needs to end before it becomes a Groundhog Day- like phenomena. You can certainly loop them around and around like that if you want it just takes more prep work.

Like I said. Tricky. Once you get it to work though, it’s really darn cool!

 

If you’d like to read Schrodinger’s Bar, you can purchase the anthology in print and digital here.

And you can find out more about Kim May here.