Feeding patterns to the human brain makes fiction plausible

A few notes on patterns in reading and writing fiction

Human brains are hard-wired to look for patterns in their input: being able to classify incoming phenomena quickly into categories means the brain can use easier rules to deal with the new input, which is easier than having to always deal with things that haven’t been seen before.

In helping a child clean her room, it helps to sort into piles or boxes: socks in this drawer, dolls into the two bins under the bed, shoes in the closet. From a couple hundred random objects on the floor – almost impossible to get under control – to a neat subset of things which have places in groups is easier for a brain – and a child – to learn. It feels right – it IS right – because the brain prefers the simpler system of a few categories to the complicated work of keeping track of many more individual items.

Fooling brains with patterns

Seth Godin (Looking for patterns (where they don’t exist)) has commented on this desire for patterns, to the point of cautioning that

“Human beings are pattern-making machines. That’s a key to our survival instinct–we seek out patterns and use them to predict the future.

Which is great, except when the pattern isn’t there, when our pattern-making machinery is busy picking things out that truly don’t matter.”

I sense useful insights for writers

For writers of fiction, pattern-seeking and pattern-making are just more tools. Because if the human brain is set up to detect patterns, and is happier when things fall neatly into categories because they somehow ‘feel right,’ then it is easy for a writer to reverse the effect, and make something appear much more plausible than it really is, by inserting the information into a story in an easily-perceived pattern.

Thriller writers and mystery writers do this all the time, but it is equally effective for general fiction: whatever is implausible and hard to believe can be made more palatable by planting clues and letting the reader detect a pattern.

This is a subset of the subject of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is one of the most useful tools a writer has, because the ability to go back and plant clues makes us look prescient when the reader finds the clues: it looks as if we know what we’re doing. If the planted clues form a pattern, so much easier for the reader to catch on.

Using patterns when you write

Characters in fiction are bundles of patterns. Once a character trait has been transmitted to the reader, the reader expects this trait, once it is established by being mentioned a couple of times, to then be dependable.

A character may change, but the reader will then require being clued in that trait A – hates politicians – has changed to trait B – thinks politicians are our salvation – with a credible motivation and a path that shows how. Because a reader isn’t going to be happy when you go to the trouble of establishing a pattern – and then break it with no warning.

Putting a bunch of scene description details in a sentence is another useful pattern: if you need to hide a clue in plain sight, put it third or fourth in a list of objects a detective notices in a room – and later have the detective have a reason to go over that list again in view of additional information. The readers who noticed the object when first listed will feel satisfied that they caught a clue, and the ones who didn’t can’t fault you: it’s right there in the list – and they, along with the detective, missed its significance at the time.

Speech patterns identify people as clearly as visual details. Writers are warned to make sure their characters are distinct in speech. There’s a particular flatness to a novel in which none of the characters use contractions (I’d guess the writer might be someone whose first language isn’t English). If a character is pretending to be someone else, a favorite word, mispronunciation, or phrase might give her away.

These are just a few of the places where awareness of the human penchant for patterns – and the deliberate creation of them to set up a particular reaction in the reader’s brain or destruction of a pattern to get an opposite effect – are more of the tools that a writer takes from being implicit to being explicit and uses deliberately.

Stereotypes

A reader can never know everything about a character: books are too long as it is. So patterns – stereotypes – come in convenient sets. Trait A in real life is often paired with trait C – establish trait A in a character, and the reader won’t be surprised if the character also shows trait C. If a character is a smoker, the reader won’t be surprised if the character has a habit of periodically disappearing for 10 minutes. If you’re clever, you can establish that this happens every hour – and then sneak in an extra disappearance during which someone is murdered.

The very choice of words to identify a stereotype is a pattern: describing a woman as hefty brings to mind a whole set of traits – where describing the same woman as Amazonian gives you a different set. For good or evil – these are choices writers make every day.

The Rule of Three:

Final point: it takes around three repetitions of a story ‘fact’ for most readers to remember – especially if the repetitions are buried in odd places. The more important the pattern is, the more times it must be emphasized if you need the reader to hold it solidly as part of the ‘story truth’ required by the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that the reader is being asked to accept.

Minor ‘facts’ can get by on being mentioned once or twice, but major ones can’t come out of the ether, or the reader rightly claims ‘Deus ex machina’ – and throws the book across the room.

Another tool for the toolbox

Some writers produce patterns in stories unconsciously as they would tell them out loud – the repetition happens without being deliberate.

I can’t do that. But my brain does notice when I’ve said something before, and it bugs me until I track it down, and decide whether I’m using the rule of three right, or I’m being needlessly repetitious.

When I’m completely finished with the WIP (Pride’s Children), I’ll ask myself whether the major patterns are excessive or too skimpy, whether the repetition is required to the degree I’ve used it. I’ve added this to my list of whole-book edits. Right now I’m too close to the trees to see the forest.

The pattern-perceiving human brain can swallow the most outrageous fantasy or science fiction – as long as it has been warned. I have my own set of implausibilities – my own ‘What If’ set – to be properly motivated and set up. Noticing the patterns – and inserting them deliberately – helps.

How have you used patterns in writing?

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4 thoughts on “Feeding patterns to the human brain makes fiction plausible

  1. clairechase51

    Whew!!! So much more to writing a book than just putting words on a page. I knew that, but I had never considered all the details. Thanks again for opening my mind to something new. 🙂

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    Reply
    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      For me the words on a page are the beginning. It gets stuff out of my head so I can think. But the first draft is rarely usable as is.

      Getting the ideas out leads to BETTER ideas, riffs on a theme, deeper thoughts, maybe a place to stick a bit of wicked humor.

      Trust me: you don’t want to see the first drafts.

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      Reply

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