How to Challenge a Reader’s Sense of Reality

26 Jan
The hit documentary series, Making a Murderer, tells the story of Steven Avery, who was wrongly convicted of rape and then accused of murder.

The hit documentary series, Making a Murderer, tells the story of Steven Avery, who was wrongly convicted of rape and then accused of murder.

One of the smartest things ever said about writing fiction comes from Kenneth Burke’s essay, “Psychology and Form.” In it, he explains that suspense is built by manipulating the reader. He gives the example from Hamlet, when Hamlet and a friend go to a platform to meet his father’s ghost, but then Hamlet hears his uncle drunk in the streets. So Hamlet rants for a while about drunkenness, and we the readers are nodding along—and that’s when the ghost shows up. We’d forgotten all about it, and because we’d forgotten, we’re surprised at its arrival and eager to know what will happen next.

Here’s the takeaway: Shakespeare delivered exactly what was promised, the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The thrill, as a reader/audience member, came from having it given to us in a way we didn’t expect.

Once you understand that such manipulation is possible—and necessary—you will see it at work in every type of narrative. A example of audience manipulation on a mind-boggling scale can be found in the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer. If you haven’t yet seen it, you can watch the trailer here.

How the Show Works

[Spoiler Alert: This post discusses later episodes.]

The documentary tells the story of Steven Avery, who was wrongly convicted of rape and served 18 years in prison. After his release, he is soon arrested again, this time for murder. While many viewers are convinced that Avery is innocent again, the part of the show that has generated the most outrage among viewers is the treatment of Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey, who was arrested as an accomplice and interrogated alone with his attorney’s permission. Dassey was 16 at the time and a slow learner, meaning that his intellectual capacity to engage in a police interrogation may have been limited.

To illustrate Dassey’s limited ability to understand what was happening, the filmmakers show large parts of his interrogation by two detectives. The interrogation follows a basic pattern. The detectives ask Dassey what happened, he says he doesn’t know, and so the detectives suggest what they believe happened, punctuated with a line like, “Isn’t that right?” Then Dassey nods and repeats some version of what he’s been told. By the end of the interrogation, Dassey has confessed to awful things, but he’s done it after three hours of intense pressure and leading questions from the detectives.

The documentary also shows a phone call made to Dassey’s mother. In it, he tells her that the detectives have told him that his story is inconsistent, and he asks, “What does inconsistent mean?” She doesn’t know.

As a result, most viewers believe the confession to be worthless; they don’t believe that Dassey has told the truth. In short, when the interrogation comes up again in the show, viewers will have a strong point of view about it.

Of course, it does come up again. A judge has several opportunities to throw out the confession as evidence, but he never does, explaining that he sees nothing wrong with the confession. At this point, most viewers probably react with anger. They disagree with the judge, yes, but they’ve also been manipulated to react this way. This isn’t to say that the viewers are wrong—but this is what good storytelling does. It directs the audience’s attention. It gives the reader a sense of the basic reality of the story’s world—and then, sometimes, it introduces a character or fact that undermines or resists that reality.

When this happens, the audience reacts—and when it reacts, it becomes more deeply engaged in the story. This same strategy is used over and over in stories that hinge upon someone’s guilt or innocence: establish the nature and reality of the world and then introduce some element that calls it into question. Sometimes that element actually upends the world we’ve come to know, as happens in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. In Making a Murderer, however, the audience’s mind is made up, and what gets upended is the expectation that the viewer’s sense of the world will be accepted by everyone.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s direct the reader’s attention, using the documentary series Making a Murderer as a model:

  1. Establish the reality of the situation. Show the reader the world. Readers, like all people, trust what they see. We rely upon direct experience to build our knowledge of how the world works. Of course, all works of art (including documentaries) frame that experience. Readers can’t see everything, only what the author chooses to show them. So, show your readers the world in a way that seems uncontroversial. Build this reality with details. Give the story texture: what the world feels and tastes and looks like. And, more importantly, don’t get to the point too soon. In Making a Murderer, we’re shown clips from the interrogation of Brendan Dassey, and it’s slow going at first. Eventually, Dassey will confess to everything, but at first, he’s sitting in a chair, not really answering questions, and claiming that he doesn’t know what the detectives are talking about. It’s not particularly gripping footage, not like when he begins to give lurid details. But, it’s the details that show his demeanor in the room that set the stage for what is to come. So, at first, show your character doing something unremarkable like reading the paper or eating breakfast or driving to work. Make us believe in the reality of their existence, and then rev up the story’s engine.
  2. Establish the nature of the character. If the character is slow-witted, create a mundane situation in which that trait will be revealed. If the character is hot-headed, sentimental, easily rattled, cool under pressure, funny, irreverent, or depressive, create an everyday situation to reveal that trait to the reader. Don’t wait until an important moment. If someone gets mad easily, then that person likely gets mad at the drop of a hat—so, find a hat to drop.
  3. Create a scene that must be believed. Love stories are full of such scenes: someone is suspected of cheating and must prove that he/she is innocent. For crime fiction, of course, disputed scenes are stock in trade. Family life is also full of moments like this: parents asking kids if they finished their homework, a spouse asking the other spouse if a bill got paid or if the trash has been taken out. These scenes are usually built on unremarkable moments: I put my purse down right here, I’m telling you. What basic action might your character take that could, later, be questioned?
  4. Challenge the accepted reality. Offer an alternate version of events. You’re lying. You never brought the purse into the house. Or, I know you weren’t doing your homework. I could hear you talking on the phone. Or, I saw you go into her apartment. These challenges make life difficult for the character, but more importantly they force readers to question their basic sense of the world. As the writer, you can use that challenge in two ways. One, you can actually upend and revise the readers’ sense of reality. Two, you can confirm the readers’ sense but refuse to let every character buy into that version of reality.

The goal is to make readers react to the narrative and hook them deeper into the story.

Good luck.

2 Responses to “How to Challenge a Reader’s Sense of Reality”

  1. Bill On The Fylde January 26, 2016 at 8:02 p01 #

    I watched this series in 2 chunks of 4 episodes each and with each hour long episode I was finding myself becoming angrier and angrier at the evident connivance of the local police force and injustice of the county judicial system. With a bit of hindsight, however, I realise that I have seen a 20+ year process condensed into a 10 hour TV show. And I entirely agree with your premise of manipulation of the audience to create precisely the emotional reaction I found myself having during the show. It’s subtle but plainly evident if you think about it.

  2. michaelnoll1 January 26, 2016 at 8:02 p01 #

    I had the same reaction. I still suspect that the verdicts weren’t just, but, like you say, that is the conclusion the show is leading us toward.

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