Why fiction works

In my latest Locus column, "Cheap Writing Tricks," I ruminate on what makes fiction work — why we perceive stories as stories, why we care about characters, and how the construction of stories interacts with the human mind (and why How to Win Friends and Influence People is a great writing tool).

There are lots of classes of problems you can throw at your character, from bombs to defuse to tricky parallel parking problems, but the stickiest, most nosiness-evoking problems are the ones that involve other people.

We've been solving the ''other people'' problems since our hominid ancestors began to divide up their labor and work in tribal groups that allowed them to accomplish more collectively than any one individual or family could manage on its own. Solving the collective action problem is the reason for everything from corporations to churches to crime syndicates. It's no wonder that it's so hard to avoid eavesdropping on bickering couples or bosses who dress down their subordinates in public.

Best of all: our world is littered with catalogs of the ways in which human misunderstandings turn into problems, and how those problems worsen if not properly tended – they're called self-help books.

Take ''Twenty Four Standard Causes of Human Misjudgement,'' the classic 1995 speech by Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet's business partner. Munger based his work on Robert Cialdini's 1984 book Influence, a text on marketing techniques. Munger shows how the cognitive blind spots exploited by marketers are also the source of grief in many other walks of life.

For example, the human sensory apparatus is more sensitive to contrasts than it is to absolutes. You're better at telling whether one thing is hotter than another thing than you are at telling whether something is ''hot'' on some absolute scale (that's why you boil a frog by slowly turning up the temperature).

This manifests in human history in all sorts of horrible ways. Whenever you hear about people enduring (or participating in) horrific abuse, chances are the abuse started with small things, little nastinesses that became the new normal. Then the abuse got worse, but just enough worse that those people living within its range became accustomed to it, and then it got worse again. Lather, rinse, repeat and all of a sudden you're hearing about an old folks' home where the staff learned not to worry about rats gnawing on the inmates faces.

Cheap Writing Tricks