Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

ilovemath224 comments on Serious Stories - Less Wrong

39 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 January 2009 11:49PM

You are viewing a comment permalink. View the original post to see all comments and the full post content.

Comments (100)

Sort By: Old

You are viewing a single comment's thread.

Comment author: ilovemath224 19 February 2012 06:05:41PM *  0 points [-]

Ironically, this post about how hard it is to write good stories about things that have good outcomes has given me inspiration on how to write those stories.

The biggest revelation I had? Use the reader's uncertainty as a source of conflict..

If you can make the reader uncertain about what you're writing about, then there's a perceived conflict in the story by the reader, making him/her ask, "Is this really a good thing?" This perceived conflict between reality and what the reader wants is definitely enough to drive a story, as now the reader wants to know whether it is a good thing or not. Creating that conflict is the easiest way, or one of the easiest, to write a good story about any situation where there shouldn't be much pain and conflict, such as a positive Singularity. When you're struggling to come up with good conflicts for a difficult subject to think about, it helps a lot to have an easy way to create more conflict.

One of the easiest ways to create the above conflict is to think of something positive but seemingly unreasonable to happen within that story, as described in one of the previous subjects here. (I forgot which one, but it's only a few topics back, at most.) By doing so, you create an internal conflict between what society thinks is good and what the reader thinks is good, which, for the average person, can be very powerful. Another way to create the above conflict is to show trust issues that would pop up.

For example, why would any politician want to use an FAI? They could do it, seeing the potential benefits, or they could fear for their inner, corrupt system to be unraveled and that they will no longer be in a position of power, causing a blantant, yet stupid refusal to adopt one. That latter situation is realistic and definitely creates conflict, so long as the FAI has been newly made and people are still getting used to it.

Offering the reader a choice of opinion also can help to create the uncertainty conflict. After all, if they are presented both sides of an argument, now they have to try and figure out which one is better, even if they do just go for the first presented, and even then, the choice not to take the first presented option will still create uncertainty.

For example: Let's say that there are cranes that use antigravity technology in the future. An article is presented to you about the antigravity engine of one of these cranes failing, crashing to earth and killing the operator inside, depicting it as an immense tragedy. But then an article saying that the cranes work correctly 99.9% of the time, with over 10 thousand hover cranes operated worldwide without incident, is shown to you, also indicating how much building speeds have gone up from the usefulness of having a crane with unlimited vertical range. Now you have to make a choice, are hover cranes a good thing, or a bad thing?

Now, I have no doubt that writing a book like this can be seen as too extreme, and push people a bit too far. However, looking back up at the main piece of advice, "Use the reader's uncertainty as a source of conflict", one can notice how that and the definition of humor, "The contradiction between Form and Content", can line up. As you're already contradicting the reader to make him/her uncertain, it shouldn't take too much effort to make the Form and Content also contradict, writing something one way while the actual information that you receive is going another way. This has the benefit of making readers less angry at what you're trying to say, as they'll let certain messages in a comedy slide that they wouldn't let slide in a more serious work.

Of course, some things are naturally funny to begin with, like, for example, a human telling a humanoid FAI a good joke, the FAI actually laughing, the human being confused, and then the FAI entering a detailed academic discussion on humor, knowing full well that the human would find that funny-after all, nobody expects robots to have a sense of humor! These things can definitely help ease the reader into a story, even if it is an otherwise serious work, as now they'll feel more comfortable with something that would otherwise disturb them highly.

Of course, there are also situations where there might not be huge conflicts to deal with in a story. To make that story work, you can make striving for something a conflict in itself. Have the character striving for something fail a few times before they get that something. Especially fun. That's a continuing conflict that can be used throughout any story, and although seemingly bad, it can actually be written well if done right-and by right, I mean making it so that the reader is uncertain if the character is actually going to reach that goal or not.

For example: Teague, a character I plan to use in my book, is living in a post-singularity world. He helped make the FAI to help save the many lives of the people in the world, and in fact, saving that many lives was a major motivating factor in doing so. When hoverpacks become commercially available, he goes out and buys one, thinking that flying one is cool and that he'd have some fun. He has some initial fun due to the new experience, but it quickly fades away. It takes him awhile to realize he isn't having fun, and when he does, he starts to look for something new to do to help others. So he decides to do X to try and achieve that goal of helping as many people as possible. What X is may vary from story to story, but it could easily fail or succeed, and be nearly anything, so long as it isn't similar to what he first did. (If he barely got any enjoyment from flying a jetpack, then why would he get any enjoyment from flying a fighter jet?)

By making it seem as if attempts to have fun can fail, it makes the reader ask, "Will I really have fun doing this?" That question creates uncertainty, and if you're writing a book with the reader's uncertainty as the main conflict, then you're going to need the uncertainty. Of course, you want there to seemingly be a chance of failure and a chance of success, or else the reader will stop reading.

<Edit>Forgot an additional way to create the reader's uncertainty conflict: Uncertain characters. If you have characters that are uncertain of/discovering themselves, then the reader is going to be uncertain of them. This is a double bonus, in that you get to do quite a bit of character development, and that character development contributes to the conflict, and thus the plot, of the story.

For example: Greg isn't the bravest guy. He isn't the most self confident person in the world, definitely not the bravest, but he knows what he's good at. He just has significant motivation problems. So he spends quite a bit of time searching for motivators that he could use to help with his work, without much success. Eventually, he finds that X is exactly what he needs to get motivated, and X was in front of his face all along! Now Greg just has to remember to implement X.

By making a character that is uncertain of/discovering themselves, the reader is uncertain about whether or not the character will improve, and also prompts the reader to ask "Do I have anything I don't know about myself?" The only problem with this is that it needs to seem realistic, because (as far as I know of) very few fictional books, or other fictional media, portray conflicts like discovering oneself, and therefore, because there's little consistency with other fictional works to be had, it has to have some consistency with real life.</Edit>

But won't writing a book like this lead to a bad story? Well, if your main conflict is making the reader uncertain, then that pretty much rules out Mary Sues from the gecko, as they will certainly achieve what they want. A character that seems like a Mary Sue, or just an amazing character, in these kinds of stories should either make the reader ask, "Will it work?" or "Will this be a good thing?" to continue the reader's conflict. Having the future be entirely good is also not a good thing, as that does not provoke the question, "Will this be a good thing?" Having the future be mostly good can be a good thing, as long as that provokes the question, "Will this be a good thing?" Bottom line is: Using the conflict of making the reader uncertain is not only the easiest way to write a book about a good thing with a good ending, but it also acts as a catalyst for writing an entertaining story.

If you can keep the "Use the reader's uncertainty as a source of conflict" piece of advice in the back of your head while you write a book about some really good future, post-singularity or not, then you could potentially write a great story about that future. If you don't, well, you're going to fall victim to the trap so many bad writers fall into, and if you're uncertain whether you're good enough to write a story like this, then I'd strongly suggest you don't.

Geez, this is a long comment.