Open loops in fiction

A fiction-writing trick I find particularly compelling are open loops.

A cliffhanger is an example: you want to know how the hero survives, so your thoughts keep looping back to the situation, trying to figure out what happens next. But you need the author to tell you.

Really good writing uses open loops at the sentence level as well. The first sentence of the story is meaningful on its own, but also makes reference to something else; that something else is required to understand the full meaning. That sets up an open loop; I want to know more.

The following sentences provide additional context, helping close the first loop, but in so doing they make reference to other things. Even as loops are closed, new ones get opened. As the author is doing this, various characters are established. Their goals and intentions set up long-term open loops: ones that require a whole chapter or the whole story to resolve.

At any given time there may be a dozen open loops of varying timescales.

As a concrete example, let’s look at a few early sentences from the novel that prompted this thread as I started reading it and appreciating all the loops it was opening: Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince.

We open with: “Prince Zeheva squinted into the sunlight and smiled his satisfaction.”

This establishes that our character is a prince and satisfied with something that he sees. But to fully understand the situation, we need to know what he sees that satisfies him. Curious.

A somewhat different sentence would have been much less compelling: “It was a bright day, and Prince Zeheva smiled.”

This sentence would have made it sound like Zeheva was just smiling at the sunlight. He’s not actively looking at something – squinted into – and it feels like we can already understand the situation from this sentence alone. There’s no reference to something else left hanging.

Next sentence: “All the signs were good for the hunt today: claw marks on the cliffs, wing marks on the sand, and the close cropping of bittersweet plants along the canyon ridges.”

This closes the first loop – we now know what the prince was looking at that made him smile. It also opens new ones. What is he hunting, and what is going to happen next? The “claw marks” and “wing marks” suggest to me some griffin.

Notice how this sentence sets up both short- and long-term loops. The most immediate loop is “what is the prince hunting?”; that will get resolved within a few sentences. “How will the hunt go” will be an ongoing one.

“But the prince’s perceptions were more subtle and had no need of these obvious signs.”

This suggests that there’s something special about the prince’s senses. How are they subtle, and why are they special? Those are the third and fourth loops we’ve got open.

“He could feel the presence of his prey all along his skin, scent it in the air, sense it in every nerve. His admirers said he could tell when the time was ripe for the hunt simply by glancing at the sky.”

That resolves the ‘how are his senses subtle’ question. Down to three loops.

“His enemies said it was not surprising that he could sense such things, for he himself had been dragon-spawned.”

We are told that the prince’s senses are special because he’s part dragon. That resolves the loop of “what makes his senses special”, even as the reference to his enemies – who are they? – opens up a new one, keeping us at three.

The second paragraph opens with: “In truth, he seemed a human version of the dragon he hunted today.”

So he’s hunting a dragon. In the space of just one paragraph and one sentence, Rawn opened at least six loops while closing four of them, thus keeping the reader interested. We still don’t know how the hunt will go, so we want to keep reading…

Different kinds of language proficiency

It’s funny how forms asking for your language proficiency use “native language” to mean “best possible proficiency”.

My native languages are Finnish and Swedish, but I’m out of practice with Swedish so my English vocabulary is way better than my Swedish. Though interestingly, speaking either Finnish and Swedish with someone give me a sense of emotional connection that’s lacking if I use English.

I feel I know English words better than Swedish, but Swedish words have a sense of subtle emotional nuance that’s missing from the English ones. So there’s a dimension on which my Swedish does feel better than my English, but it doesn’t seem to translate directly to fluency in the traditional sense.

Something like… the place in my mind that holds Swedish contains less stuff, but also feels like less effort to access.

Mark Lippmann once described “the felt meaning” as “the place your mind goes to when looking for words”. My Swedish place feels closer to where I am, and easier to go to, than my English place – even if the Swedish place is smaller and has more cobwebs around things, and once there, I may need to rummage around to find where the heck I put that one word again.

That sense of closeness also translates to increased emotional closeness when talking with someone in Swedish. Both Finnish- and Swedish-speakers feel like “my people” in some sense. With English, it always feels like there’s some amount of a chasm between us. We can communicate, and we can definitely connect in quite a few ways, but it’s always shouting over a chasm – even if its presence is sometimes easy to forget.

Bedtime reminiscences

Things that I imagine would be cool to do with my kids (if I manage to have some): taking bedtime as a moment to reminisce about the day together.

Recalling enjoyable moments is by itself enjoyable. So ask, what parts of the day did you like? What were some good moments? What about it was enjoyable?

At first, it’ll be just me mentioning things I noticed on that day: “You seemed to really like playing with those toys today.” “You looked happy being with uncle X.”

Hopefully soon the kids will notice that this is enjoyable and start paying more conscious attention to the good moments throughout the day – and start bringing up things on their own. (And feel like that was their own idea to also contribute, rather than it just being their dad telling them these things.)

Later, start also covering the moments when they were unhappy or upset. Are they feeling okay now, anything about it that they still want or need to discuss? Even if they’re fine now, make sure to take those moments and reframe them in an explicitly accepting light (all emotions are fine, including negative ones):

  • “That really was upsetting for you but now you’re okay, all bad feelings pass eventually.”
  • “You held yourself together back there even though you were really unhappy about it, that was great. You could have chosen not to even try, but you did do it.”
  • “We both got a little mad at each other earlier but that’s okay, kids need to be mad at dad sometimes and sometimes dad gets mad back. I try not to, but that’s on me, and I love you no matter what.”

Then maybe recall some happy moments that we discussed when it was bedtime on earlier days, and which they might have forgotten otherwise. Keep those unhappy moments firmly sandwiched between good ones.

Also tell them about all the moments today when they made me and mom happy and how we love them. Then a bedtime story and wishing good night.

Hopefully the conversations should keep getting more sophisticated as the kids get older. Get into topics like the value of negative emotions, and what unmet need their unhappiness in that moment was a signal of. Help them brainstorm ways they could meet that need better from now on.

Then one day when they’re adults, hopefully they’ll be so firmly in the habit of going through the good moments and the lessons-in-the-bad-moments that they won’t need me for it anymore, and it has just become automatic.

And if it hasn’t, that’s cool too. At least we had lots of good moments together doing it.

(Or if this whole thing always just seems uninteresting and dumb to them, then we’ll just have to come up with something completely different that they’ll like more.)

Unwitting cult leaders

An insight that I’d kind of already had, but which this interview with Michael Taft (relevant section starts at about 32 minutes) helped crystallize:

We tend to think of a “cult leader” as someone who intentionally sets out to create a cult. But most cult-like things probably don’t form like that. A lot of people feel a strong innate desire to be in a cult.

In the podcast, Taft suggests that it’s rooted in an infant’s need to attach to a caregiver, and to treat them as a fully dependable authority to fix all problems – a desire which doesn’t necessarily ever go fully away. Once someone becomes a teacher of some sort, even if they had absolutely no desire to create a cult, they will regardless attract people who want to be their cultists.

There are people who want to find a fully dependable authority figure to look up to, and are just looking for someone who feels like a good fit for the role. (I should note that I have definitely not been immune to feeling this yearning myself.) To avoid having cultists, “not intending to create a cult” isn’t enough; you have to actively fight against people’s tendency to idealize you, by doing things that force them to confront the fact that you are actually just a human.

I’m reminded of something I recall Eliezer Yudkowsky once saying: “if you tell your doting followers not to form a cult, they will go around saying ‘We Must Not Form A Cult, Great Leader Mundo Said So’.”

Once people do start pulling you towards a cult leader role, it’s going to feel very appealing. What it feels like from the inside is “all of these people like me and say that I’ve done a lot of good for them, so clearly I must be doing things right, and since they also listen to me, I can use my position to help them out even more”.

It’s not just that the cultists are getting “brainwashed” by their leader; it’s also that the leader is getting brainwashed by their cultists to take the role that they want the leader to take. Cults are said to use “love bombing” to attract new recruits, but in at least some cases, it probably also happens that the cult leader is getting love bombed by their followers.

And the temptation to take on that role is powerful not only because it feels nice personally, but also because it does allow you to use your power for good. One definition for a hypnotic trance that I’ve heard is that it’s a state in which a person’s critical faculty is bypassed, which allows the hypnotist to directly make changes in the mind of the person being hypnotized. And you can do a lot of good that way, such as by implanting suggestions that help people overcome their addictions or phobias.

Being someone’s cultist (in this sense) is kind of like them having you in a hypnotic trance. It is possible for to use that power in a way that’s beneficial, because the critical faculty that might normally reject or modulate the leader’s suggestions gets partially bypassed.

But that same power makes it extremely dangerous, since people are not going to think critically about what you say, and may take your words far more literally than you intended, when you didn’t think of adding the obvious-to-you caveats about how it shouldn’t be interpreted.

I’ve been feeling this myself. I’ve written various things that people like. And I’ve been having a definite sense of some of my social environment trying to tug me more towards a role as a teacher and as an authority, getting the sense that some people are idealizing me. (And again, yes, there have been several times when I’ve had the cult follower energy myself, too – both towards online writers and in some of my romantic relationships.)

I’m reminded here again of Valentine’s essay on the “Intelligent Social Web” and of how people tend to take the kinds of roles that their social environment recognizes and rewards… and how people try to tug others into the kinds of roles that they can recognize and know how to interact with, and the collective power of everyone doing this causes the social web as a whole to try to pull people into recognizable roles – including the role of “charismatic leader”.

Here we come back to Taft’s suggestion that many people have an instinctive desire to get someone into a role that they recognize as a “trustworthy caretaker” one, because the “child” role is one that feels very easy to play – just surrender your judgment to the other person and do everything the way (you think that) they want you to.

And I’m also reminded of siderea’s analysis of kingship in Watership Down, and of how Hazel never thought of himself as a leader originally in the novel, until the characters around him started treating him as one – and how that might not be as good of a deal as our society makes “kingship” sound like:

If you demonstrate a concern for the wellbeing of the people in your people, they will start seeing their wellbeing as your concern. Start taking responsibility for how things go in a group, and people will start seeing you as responsible for how things go in a group.

This, right here, is what causes many people to back away from Kingship. Which is their right, of course. It’s totally legitimate to look at that deal and say, “Oh, hell no.”

Our society tells us that being King is awesome and everyone – well, everyone normal – wants to be one. “Every body wants to rule the world.” No, actually, they don’t. My experience tells me that most people are very reluctant to step into the job of King, and this consequence of the role is a primary reason why.

I don’t know, but it strikes me at least plausible that prospective leaders themselves getting partially deluded about what it is that they are up for, is what enables them to actually step into the role rather than just saying “oh hell no”.