Brain tricks (part two)
Last week in part one we thought about how our magnificent brains can be influenced—even sometimes utterly confounded—by stimuli such as optical illusion, visual context, distraction, and suggestion. Noted architects, great composers, fine artists, magicians, and used-car salespersons are adept at myriad forms of brain trickery. There are also many useful secret tricks in a skilled storyteller’s toolkit.
First, of course, we must be telling a story that’s intrinsically intriguing and plausible and based on some conflict of import. John D. MacDonald once said he would read the works of other writers either with envy or weary contempt, and what was always paramount was story, dammit, story. Put another way, no amount of lyrical cleverness or trickery will rescue a bad story. Conversely, a good story will nearly always survive a certain degree of clumsiness in the telling. There are long-time best-selling novelists with vast followings who are not particularly adept at, say, realistic dialog, but who nevertheless always seem to have an engaging story to tell us.
So, assuming we have that good story to begin with, what are some secret brain tricks we can use to make it even better?
The next time you watch an emotional movie scene, pay close attention to the background music. Someone once said, “It’s the violins that make you cry.” Added to fine acting in a good story, they certainly can. Every time.
We writers don’t have the benefit of background music, but we do have access to the whole wonderful scope of exquisitely expressive language. In the showing of a tender love scene or whenever we want to lead our readers to experience a reflective moment or to relax for a time or to dip into the innermost contemplation of a person in the story, we can choose smoother, longer, more soothing words with softer syllables strung out in somewhat longer sentences and paragraphs, gentling the reader along to stimulate empathy or vicarious pleasure or swelling pride. All of this is a sort of background music, really, because it’s apart from what the words are actually saying, yet it enhances the story. And it can work to great effect.
Now recall that bloody shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The background violins shrieking hysterically, razoring our nerves. Flashes of the shadowed killer and that wicked knife. The beautiful bewildered victim. The clutched curtain ripping loose, snapping its rings one by one. Threads of blood twisting down the drain. Those stark images scared a whole generation.
For such a written scene, we can chose harsher words, phonetically jolting and cutting words. Shorter paragraphs. Sentence fragments. Italics for the victim’s thoughts. Again, all of this is apart from what the words are actually saying. And again, if applied adroitly, these tricks can have stunning effect.
We can insert a soothing scene just before we crash the reader head-on into a violent scene, which will then seem even more shocking for the sudden sharp contrast. And isn't this often how it happens in reality, when a hellish night-cloaked tornado roars down on a serene sleeping village, or a drunk speeder runs a stop sign and T-bones a family SUV, or some deranged person pulls a gun in a holiday crowd on a fine cerulean day and begins shooting anyone in sight?
Using cutaways can be effective, alternating from a scene in our protagonist’s life to a scene with a scheming villain on the other side of town. As the story action ramps up and the inevitable confrontation looms, we can shorten the cutaways, making them more choppy, more harsh-sounding and vivid. Think of an intense movie chase with ever more rapid cutaways, with scenes reduced to breathless action flashes. We can simply do the same with words.
Adding a time element always enhances suspense. This could be the cliché ticking bomb, of course, but more cleverly it could also be some time constraint such as a protagonist being caught out at night in brutally frigid gale weather but not dressed for it, facing imminent disabling hypothermia yet forced to search for a friend in danger.
Studying any of the top writers will reveal other subtle brain tricks, and the more of them we can add to our repertoires and teach ourselves to use with skill, the more engaging and powerful our stories will be.