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Three approaches to writing fiction: Patience, violence, magic

Fiction works by connecting with readers’ existing beliefs and leading them to new beliefs (even if those new beliefs only apply within the fictional world). Writers need to be aware of the scope of their ability to touch their readers’ beliefs. Here, I mention a couple ways that we shape entire worldviews and another way just to have fun with how our assumptions inevitably limit our perceptions.

Nellie Smith recently wrote that someone’s worldview—which was formerly, for her, evangelical Christianity—is “your gauge for what is true in the world” and “is not a collection of facts. It is an entire reality, based not on logic but on a web of ideas, all of which must be wholeheartedly accepted for any of it to work.” That means that any doubt carries the threat of undermining everything else you believe to be true. Thus, when arguing with someone, be aware that “you’re asking them to punch a hole in the fabric of their reality, to begin the process of destroying their world.” Let them come to it on their own:

“Realities shift when ideas bloom and ideas are slow and patient, creeping in through unguarded portals and establishing themselves without much fanfare. However well-intentioned you are, bludgeoning people with fact after argument after fact will only entrench them in their position and reinforce a perception of being persecuted by the world.”

Meanwhile, give them “empathy, honest conversation, and a whole lot of patience,” and be one of those people who Smith remembers as having

“respected me, who accepted me unconditionally, and who stayed in dialogue, never shaming me even when I said things that were ill-informed or demonstrably false….everyday human kindness can absolutely be the catalyst for change. Misconceptions can be worn down by the substantive grit of a real story. But know that it takes time. It takes lots of time.”

What’s the opposite of letting someone come to the realization on their own? Propaganda, I suppose. Cynthia Boaz, in her 2011 article for, described Fox News techniques for swaying viewers. First it is important to recognize that their worldview—”what I’d call a ‘meta-frame’ (a deeply held belief),” as she puts it—identifies violence with nobility, morality, patriotism, piety, and power. They appeal to their audience’s Christian beliefs. They claim that they are on the side of the common people and that there’s an elite class that opposes them. They reject expertise and educational credentials. There’s character assassination, guilt by association, and scapegoating/othering. They engage in flipping (“taking whatever underhanded tactic you’re using and then accusing your opponent of doing it to you first”), bullying interlocutors into verbal submission, confusing the audience (by “insist[ing] that the logic is airtight and imply that anyone who disagrees is either too dumb or too fanatical to follow along,” or what I might call an Emperor’s New Clothes trick), or, when all else fails, changing the topic. All this serves the goals of panic mongering and revisionist history. Then they repeat the message over and over until it starts to sound real.

The above are two ways (there are surely more) to form a worldview: give the audience enough material so that they eventually tell themselves a story, or craft the story in a way that does not allow dissenting views and force feed it to them.

Once you have a worldview, you can play games with its boundaries without breaking it. One such approach was described in Jonah Weiner’s 2017 New York Times article on magic that explored the performances of Derek DelGaudio. DelGaudio believes that the idea behind a good magic show is to display reality in a way that gives it an aura of unreality the audience can’t resolve. The magic show succeeds insofar as the audience knows their worldview doesn’t account for what they’re seeing and they enjoy being challenged, seeing it as a playful interaction, not an assault on their ignorance.

All of this describes how fiction can work. At one extreme end of the spectrum (hands-off), the writer just gives empathy, honesty, and patience and lets the reader draw their own conclusions. At the other end (hands-on), the writer manipulates the reader into coming along for the ride with a violence-is-power metaframe by making them feel judged, stupid, or wrong for disagreeing or for having different preferences or interpretations on how the story ought to work. And, perhaps somewhere in the middle, the writer can just acknowledge that the reader has existing assumptions and preferences and can boldly play off them, hopefully to the reader’s amusement.


Novelist of matters surreal and magical. Studied philosophy and journalism. Worked in technology and finance. Knows about UX design and life coaching. Helps people write their books. Ask. Don't be shy. Author of TEN PAST NOON, BAD FIRE, PAINTING DRAGONS, and ENKIDU IS DEAD AND NOT DEAD.

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