A writer’s trick: the sore tooth gambit

I recently reconnected with an old friend from my competitive Scrabble days when he dropped a note on one of my posts. Digging deeper, I discovered an article on his blog that got me thinking. His article is about a bizarre Frankensport called chessboxing which I assure you, has nothing to do with packaging up the rooks and pawns for shipment. What intrigued me, however, was the viral nature of the idea. Not only does this phenomenon serve as an excellent case study for the concept of virality itself, but in doing so, it also illuminates a quasi-psychological concept that I’ve seen exploited in fiction – something I call the sore tooth technique.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into what makes an idea viral, but suffice to say that, like the chessboxing example I mentioned above, viral ideas must have some quirk to them, some element that makes the reader/audience do a mental double-take. The best of them, I think, are the ones that take an elegant new look at an old idea, such as the windbelt concept developed a few years ago by Shawn Frayne. Pure, breath-taking cognitive elegance. Most viral ideas, however, are of a cruder nature – think Pride, Prejudice and Zombies. An idea like that is pretty much the opposite of cognitive elegance. It’s a cognitive train-wreck.

And that’s what we find fascinating. It isn’t simply the juxtaposition of incompatible ideas that fascinates us – that part’s easy. If I say I’m going to lead a military strike against a diaper factory with my army of trained baby seals – that’s got all kinds of incongruous juxtaposition, but it hasn’t got a shred of virality. What makes those odd-bedfellow ideas contagious is the fact that, for one moment in time, in one particular context, those disjoint ideas have been forced to make friends. Logically or aesthetically, those once-incompatible notions are put into a new framework that, somehow, makes them compatible. But only sort-of.

When we talk about chessboxing, it isn’t the fact that chess and boxing don’t seem related at all that makes the idea spread. If that were true, this posting of mine would become ground zero for the rise of baby seal militias and an end in this world to all things diaper, which we all know is not going to happen. What makes a viral idea spread is that for some short while, we cannot get the idea to drop out of our heads. Boxing? And chess? But doesn’t the brain take a beating in a boxing match? And don’t you need your brain to play chess? That makes no sense! But yet, we see evidence to the contrary. Chessboxing has an actual league. It’s happening every day. It’s real. So we are getting conflicted messages: on the one hand, our instincts tell us that chess and boxing have nothing to do with each other, but on the other, we have evidence that they do. And there is nothing that commands our attention like an apparent contradiction.

You see, our brains are pattern engines – we seek out and find patterns in the world around us, wherever we can. We then use those patterns to make predictions about how the world will change over the next minute or year. Speaking in evolutionary terms, we do this as a way of predicting potential threats from our environment, and by so doing, hopefully we’ll be able to avoid them. That’s what we humans do. It’s our big competitive advantage in the survival of the species sweepstakes, so we practice this all the time in a process Steven Mithen calls expectation satisfaction play in his book, The Singing Neanderthal. [1]

More to the point, because this process is so important to us, survival-wise, it is hard-wired into the cognitive circuitry of every single one of us. We literally cannot abide a pattern puzzle that resists understanding. Boxing and chess fit together? Well if that’s true, then my understanding of those concepts must be flawed, and if that is true, then I cannot rely on my pattern predicting systems, which in turn puts me at risk of death. An overstatement, perhaps – especially when uttered consciously – but our subconscious has been evolved to actually fear these apparent logical incongruities. And since it can’t tell the difference between a simple puzzle and near-death experience waiting in the shadows, we sometimes end up with simple and harmless incongruities capturing our attention with just as much force as though our lives depended on it.

So we worry at these incongruities. We roll them around in our brains, teasing at their corners, trying to pry something loose that will suddenly allow us to see how they do fit together. Once we do that, we can safely store them away and move on. But until we do, we just keep probing. Like your tongue probing a sore tooth that refuses to just fit in with all its neighbor teeth. Prod, prod, poke, poke. Eventually, we either figure out a way to reconcile the ideas, or we poke them so frequently, but without triggering any tigers leaping out of the shrubbery, that we assess them as safe. But either way, we place a value on this puzzle. It represents a new and distinct data point that has to be folded into our patterning system. So we do two things: we remember it, and we talk about it. Remembering ensures that we’ll keep it in our pattern system, and talking about it ensures that our clan will share the benefits of the new wisdom, thus further increasing our survival chances.

This is the heart of what I think virality is all about – it is our pattern predicting subsystems assimilating new data and then broadcasting it to our support network, in much the same way we would scream “Tiger!” just before being eaten.

But how do we exploit that in our writing? The world only has so much patience for Victorian zombie romance, so I’m not suggesting that writers should exploit the conspicuous train wreck approach to book premises, although feel free to go that way if you like. The way I like to use it is more subtle. I first became aware of this technique when reading Philip K. Dick’s short story, The Minority Report. In it, the protagonist is John Anderton. Not Anderson, but Anderton. And there it is. A brilliant, simple, but cognitively mesmerizing conflict. My brain will not let that name sit quietly on my mental palate. Every time I read it, I can feel my subconscious spinning up its pattern engines, trying to make it fit. We’ve all experienced this in one form or another. The song lyrics that you can’t quite make out. (Did he really say “bolemium?”) The twist ending that makes us completely re-evaluate the movie. Fill in your own examples here.

It even works when you use words or names with ambiguous pronunciations. I used it to some effect in Strange Places with the name of my antagonist: Lord Angiron. I know it’s working because of all the questions I get about how to pronounce that word. Is it a hard ‘g’ or a soft one? Where’s the emphasis? Anj-iron or Anger‘-on? I sometimes tell people that the ‘g’ is pronounced like the ‘j’ in fjord, just to watch their eyes roll back in their heads as they try to process yet another possible pronunciation.

So that leads to a question. Have you seen this technique at work before? Have you used it in your own writing? I’d love to see your examples of this principle being used in the wild. Just drop a comment below.

Has fantasy been de-naturalized, too?
How work can inform your fantasies
  1. [1]Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: The origins of music, language, mind and body, 2005.

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.