Getting It Wrong

Writers spend a lot of time trying to get things right. We typically want our characters to behave in ways consistent with human nature, with their cultural context, and with their values. We want our plots to be at least internally consistent. We want our settings to measure up to reality, whether by accurately capturing real world locations or plausibly creating other worlds. And so on.

We work hard to get these things right, I think, because a writer’s ability to get things right is core to the trust relationship she builds with her audience. Readers accept the inherent artifice of writing specifically because they believe they’re going to get something true and useful out of the exchange.

But during this Hanukkah season, I’ve also been thinking about Rudolf the Green-Nosed Reindeer, a character created by Eric Samuelsen who helps rescue Snow White from the evil king Antiochus, leaves little children painted eggs in exchange for their lost teeth, and gets to pinch all of the other reindeer ten times each on St. Patrick’s day.

To me, Samuelsen’s Rudolf makes clear that writers can also get great mileage out of getting things intentionally wrong. A few thoughts about how this works:  1. Getting Things Wrong to Make Passive Audiences Active

I have often mourned our cultural tendency to talk far more about whether a film or book was good than to talk about what it was about. To me, such shallow conversations are a symptom of passive audience syndrome–a malady in which viewers or readers forget the central role they play in making meaning out of a work.

By getting it obviously wrong, Samuelsen’s “bad stories” demand engagement from his listeners. The same principle is at work in a childhood favorite of mine, The Hungry Thing, in which a mysterious creature keeps demanding foods, but with the names all wrong. By screwing up basic words, the book essentially asks for children to shout back at it–creating a dialogue rather than the monologue any print work technically is.

Mysteries work on the same principle, I think, as Rudolf the Green-Nosed Reindeer. We want mystery writers to give us clues in forms that create strong potential for initial misreading so that we can feel clever if we “get it right” before the detective does.

2. Getting things wrong to set up an expectation and twist

Another reason Samuelsen’s bad stories work is that they set up an expectation and then twist it. I don’t know enough about brain chemistry to know why this works, but something about our brains seems to make twists very satisfying.

A very simple example of the expectation/twist method of getting things wrong is the broken rhyme scheme. “A Boy Named Sue,” for example, ends by using the narrative and rhyme scheme to create one expectation and then overtly rejecting it.

The Mason Dixon Rebel Band’s song “Vote in 2012” also screws up on its rhyme scheme for effect. After the singer explains why he can’t vote for Romney, he says, “the other problem might be bigger / Barack Obama is a black man.” Here, the rhyme scheme mistake is orchestrated to draw the listener’s attention to an omission. By getting their structure wrong, they’ve highlighted just what is not being said.

The same principle can be applied to plot, of course. Imagine an alternate history short in which Osama bin Laden hides not in Pakistan, but on a Bermuda beach–clean-shaven, sipping martinis, and with his arm around a girl in a bikini. This image is both inaccurate and implausible, but quite engaging.

3. Getting things wrong to get human memory right

Another use of intentional mistake-making is (somewhat counter-intuitively) to get human nature right. Unreliable narrators, for example, get things wrong because people really lie and deceive themselves.  In Midnight’s Children, Saleem Sinai remembers whole facts about India wrong because Salman Rushdie thought that someone who get his nation’s history all right must be fake. The factual mistakes are there to reflect the way our memories are so often mixed up and composite.

4. Getting one story wrong to reference another

When Rudolf the Green-Nosed Reindeer asks his stepmother’s magic mirror whether he’s the fairest in the land, the “mistake” is also giving listeners the pleasure of intertextual play. The psychological principal is perhaps that we appreciate the reassurance of the familiar at the same time we are drawn to novelty. By mixing two stories, Samuelsen offers listeners both the empowering sense of recognition (“ah, I’ve seen these two before!”) and the delight of novelty (“but never together!”)

The Five Books of Jesus works constantly with this principle. On the one hand, I remain reasonably faithful to the amorphous sense most readers have of what the gospels say. On the other hand, I am constantly getting little things “wrong”–such as the James-as-Peter moment Scott Hales loved, or the casting of lots by the high priest over Jesus and Barabbas, or the strange mixing of a coda to the well-known Mary/Martha scene with a scene of the seventy prophesying.

As a writer, I absolutely believe in my responsibility to get things right. And I feel inordinately proud of myself when I manage to do so: one of my favorite compliments on the book so far has been BYU Hebrew teacher Carli Anderson’s shock when she found out I’ve never been to the Holy Land (the book’s geographical detail and accuracy had led her to conclude that I had definitely spent time there in places she’s visited).

But accuracy isn’t a writer’s only tool. Sometimes it’s possible to get good mileage out of intentional “mistakes.” Just ask Eric Samuelsen.

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38 Responses to Getting It Wrong

  1. Scott Hales says:

    I think this post touches on one of my frustrations with Mormon historical fiction, which tends to fear error to the extent that every single chapter has to be followed up with notes, sources, and commentary. It’s an approach to history and storytelling that betrays an underlying misunderstanding of what the past actually is. But I’ll write a post about this later, I’m sure. I have a lot of opinions on the pipe dream of historical accuracy.

    One of the reasons why I voted for “Maureen Whipple, Age 16″ in the 4 Centuries contest was because I think it exemplifies the kinds of “risks” our writers need to be taking with “history” and “truth.” (That…and it was about Nephi Anderson.) I think Mormon historical fiction needs to be more willing to fudge the details of history.

    Earlier this week I actually taught the section of the gospels regarding the ear in the garden of Gethsemane. One thing I noticed–which I probably would not have had I not just read “The Five Books of Jesus”–is that only the Gospel of John outs Peter as the ear slicer. This led me to wonder what we would all conclude had John not done so. Would Peter have been our first choice? Probably not. He doesn’t really come across as a man of action in the gospels. He might carry a sword, but he’d never use it.

    Which leads me to the random idea that maybe James Goldberg substituted James-as-Peter as a way to place himself in the text, the way Mel Gibson substituted his own hands in The Passion of the Christ for the hands of the person who nailed Jesus to the cross. Wouldn’t that open the floor to some interesting speculation?

    • Mark Penny says:

      Science fiction frees you from all that. Think about it, man. But maybe that’s the problem: You’re a fact-fantasy brinksman. You get your jolt on the narrow, brittle edge between the real and unreal. Sci-fi declares itself unreal.

      • Scott Parkin says:

        Some does. But I would argue that speculation on what’s possible/plausible and the simply unreal are entirely different things. When it’s implausible we call it fantasy; when it could happen (whether it has or not, whether it’s likely or not), we call it science fiction.

        There is a difference, and choosing your form is just as important in sf as it is in any other genre. IMO.

        • Wm says:

          China Mieville disagrees.

          Most science fiction isn’t really about things that could happen.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          If you want to engage the science fiction vs. fantasy jihad that has now raged most of a century, I’m likely to politely decline; it’s an argument that I (personally) find neither generally interesting nor useful, though some arguers (such as Mr. Mieville, apparently; I’ve only watched the first two of six segments so far) bring refreshing calm and non-judgmental or non-dismissive arguments to the debate.

          I read and write both with equal love and respect (45k into writing a YA fantasy novel right now; next up is either a firm science fiction extrapolative novel or a near future social science fiction speculative novel—which I do first depends on certain events slated to happen late this week or early next).

          But even where Mr. Mieville disagrees with my choice to separate science fiction from fantasy is creative forms, he accepts that the argument is both real and rampant and has been a point of contention (aka, fundamental definitional disagreement) among academicians studying the fantastic/mythopoeic/speculative genres (and no, sf scholar is not an oxymoron, IMO).

          It appears we simply disagree on the definition, and that’s great. *For me* the difference is imaginative extrapolation on the known (or knowable) vs. creation of an underlying mythos as a purely imaginative act. The presence or lack of technology makes no difference to me; thus Star Trek and Star Wars are both fantasy stories (science fantasy, if you will) despite the trappings of technology.

          Though nearly all of the technological, historical, and physical details of my YA fantasy novel set in ancient China are (reasonably) well researched and documented, the underlying conceit of the reality of dragons is pure make-believe, and thus I see it as fantasy rather than historical.

          I like some of the ideas of both Mr. Mieville and Mr. Suvin (with whom he is primarily arguing in the talk you reference), but accept neither of them as authoritative references on what the differences are between science fiction and fantasy.

          So I will happily amend my earlier comment (though I was quite careful to include both “I would argue” and “IMO” as rhetorical cues to suggest that I was expressing my individual view rather than claiming an authoritative truth).

          I see value in viewing them as different forms rather than merely as convenient marketing categories to define the presence of future tech versus past tech or magic. Because for me, I approach the development of underlying ideas differently when I choose to apply the rigor of plausibility to the driving elements of one story, but not another. I’m generally exploring different things, and thus use different structures to enable that exploration.

        • Wm says:


          I just wanted to complicate the notion of plausibility in science fiction, which I think gets unduly fetishized in some quarters, but also get unduly criticized in others (especially literary fictionists).

        • Scott Parkin says:

          Yeah. There’s a vocal school of science fiction people who want literary acceptance and believe the fantasy genre is somehow holding them back.

          I think they’re full of balloons and need to simply be comfortable with their chosen genre(s) irrespective of what they perceive to be the academy’s biases. The fact is that academia will never accept science fiction as a worthy genre, though they will (continue to) cherry pick individual authors or works.

          Sorry if I came on a little strong, there. It’s an old and pointless argument that has created legions of unnecessary enemies among people that I otherwise respect. Instead of either fetishizing your particular genre or dismissing your primary rival, I choose to encourage each to follow their own bliss and define their terms in whatever way motivates them best. I may not admire a particular genre, author, or title the way other people do, but I can appreciate the passion that cool people have for things that may not work for me—and respect that form from afar as worthy, if not quite my thing.

          (I’m lecturing again, aren’t I? Sorry.)

          *For me* “sci-fi” does not simply declare itself unreal (as Mark Penny suggested)—or at least when I write science fiction I do not approach it without boundary or rigor. For me it is a genre with specific conventions and expectations, one of which is (for many) that science fiction be at least plausible if not likely.

          In the end, though, stories are about characters, with the scientific, technological, cultural, religio-philosophic, political, romantic, historical, or other elements as the vectors of change in the characters’ world, not the reason for the story, per se.

          (Lecture really over now.)

        • Mark Penny says:

          Er. My point was that the science fiction label signals departure from unadulterated fact. We don’t read sci-fi as history or science, though real history and science may constitute a large proportion of the, uh, constituents. For example, if I wrote a time travel story about a historical event, even if the representation of the event were completely factual, you would still process the account with the fictional caveat in mind. The label forces you to. But if I write about the same event under the historical fiction label, you are more likely to trust the account. The historical caveat forces you to.

        • Wm says:

          I don’t trust history as narrative, but that’s just me. ;-P

        • Scott Parkin says:

          Which somewhat comes back to James’ point, I think. There is a difference between a sense of verity or true-ishness, and an accurate rendering of fact.

          When I want fact I use multiple (often dry) sources to triangulate despite inherent bias; when I want narrative (interpreted story not strictly bound by fact) I come to the novel, whether it’s labelled historical, speculative, or fantastic.

          Is there a responsibility in narrative to be purely accurate? I struggle mightily with that, especially in one of science fiction’s subgenres—alternate history. My personal ethic is to be accurate until I choose not to be for sake of story. But I write fiction as fiction, and fact or opinion as such.

          Which is the nice thing about writing about places that never were or whose details can’t be verified; I am indeed free to imagine convenient possibilities instead of being hedged in by verifiable contexts of actual, knowable history.

          I choose not to play, and as such agree wholeheartedly with (what I think was) the spirit of your comment that I reacted poorly to, Mark.

        • Mark Penny says:

          Is this where I say I forgive you–again?

          It’s just that you come to some genres expecting to be duped and to others expecting to be educated. All genres can dupe and educate, but if you want to do the unexpected in that regard, then you’d better give a clear hint at some point or watch out for glass candles.

        • Mark Penny says:

          Wm, you don’t trust history to be good narrative or you don’t trust narrative to be good history?

        • Scott Parkin says:

          Don’t hurt yourself.

        • Wm says:

          I don’t trust history to be accurate in the way it narrativizes. And the more history is written as narrative (especially grand narrative) the more I distrust it. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t still find it useful and interesting. I just experience it more as story.

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          I’ve also seen critics (conversely to Scott Parkin’s example) who see all imaginative fiction as essentially the same, and dismiss science fiction’s preoccupation with science and technology as nothing but window dressing. The snobbery can go both directions, and is equally silly and pointless in both cases.

          For me, the bottom line is that science fiction and fantasy, while related (and with a definitely squishy boundary area), are distinct genres — as evidenced by the fact that their readerships, writers, and conventions are different, and (for me) by the fact that though I enjoy both, the nature of the reading experience is different. As such, they need to be judged on their own merits.

          Which is one reason why I resist unifying labels such as speculative fiction, as it seems to me that they inherently tend to suggest a single standard of judgment/critical appreciation for a field with at least three distinct major categories (sf, fantasy, and horror).

        • Mark Penny says:

          Yes and no. They are different, for sure, but a lot of people like both–a lot. And write both–a lot. I actually like the all-encompassing label because it allows me to group them.

          In part, it boils down to worlds. A big part of the appeal of a story is the world it invites you into: the kinds of things that are in it and the kinds of things that can happen in it. It’s the daydreaming aspect of the story, the part that’s independent of the characters and their particular problems. That’s why you can take any story from any genre and transplant it and, if you’ve done it right, get people to like it even when they hated it in the original genre. More abstractly, Larry Brooks would say that it has a lot to do with what constitutes high and low concept in the given genre (world). I’m drawn to science fiction and fantasy because I know certain kinds of concepts are liable to be prominent.

    • Speaking of the Gospel of John:

      I thought it was actually pretty astute of Mahonri to point out the relative absence of John-specific material in his Five Books of Jesus review and to ask what the ideological impact of those omissions was. Since the comments mostly focused on the feminism issue (abstract, charged terms making the mess they do of the English language), that observation kind of got lost.

      But…that observation of Mahonri’s strikes me as interesting here. What’s the literary function of obvious omissions? And could a writer do something interesting when he/she knows that an audience will notice what’s left out. I’m thinking of film adaptations here–what would happen if you made a film that somehow made some kind of intentional reference to what it was missing from the book?

      Or that obviously changed focus by omission: I actually like the Liam Neeson/Geoffrey Rush Les Miserables for its glaring omission of most of the revolution plotline. The Val Jean / Javert focus is clearer in some ways because of what an informed viewer knows full well has been sidelined.

      • James,

        The “getting it wrong” elements of Five Books of Jesus, I thought, were very important to your narrative–which is partially why I had such a visceral reaction to how you presented the Mary/Martha story because you were pointedly making some changes that changed the dynamics of the story in some very major ways.

        I was also very interested in not only when you got tings “wrong,” but when you made purposeful omissions. The fact that we never see the after effects of the resurrection being a major one (even leaving the possibility for there not being a resurrection, if a reader so chose…beyond the angel Joseph being present, we never get any real evidence of Jesus’ resurrection in the novel). I thought this was an interesting choice, leaving Thomas, Mary, Peter and others in a kind of free fall of belief. That free fall then extends to us as readers, forcing us to fill in that final leap (of faith or disbelief) for ourselves. I thought it was a very interesting choice, and full of purpose.

  2. Th. says:


    Since you plugged your book and Scott plugged my story, I’m going to now plug my book. Everyone ready?

    Another reason you hinted at but never made explicit is getting things wrong for humor’s sake. I just wrote about playing with expectations of grammar and form in order to create comedic mood.

    Funny requires violation while keeping the reader safe. Getting it wrong is an appropriate path to this goal. Douglas Adams is a master of this sort of wrongness.

    In response to Scott, I’ve been thinking about this a lot as one of my current projects requires an alt history of Mormonism and California, and I’m constantly struggling with What do I keep the same? What do I change? How much do I need to signal the difference?

    In the end, I think I’ll just have to stop worrying about it. If people think I made up Congress threatening Utah with women’s suffrage if they don’t stop polygamizing (which plan dies when Utah enthusiastically endorsed it), oh well. If they think there really was talk of putting a temple on Telegraph Hill, c’est la vie.

    It’s a novel, darnit. Not a history lesson.

    • Mark Penny says:

      Yeah, but then I had the same sort of reaction to “Monsters and Mormons and the Deseret Book” as a lot of people had to The Da Vinci Code and Orson Scott Card’s writing group had to Lost Boys: the author wasn’t playing fair by blurring the lines between fact and fiction in places the reader couldn’t reasonably detect. I actually had to ask you whether you were spinning a fiction or portraying your reality. I believe there’s actually a clause in the writer-reader contract that says the writer must cause the reader to suspend disbelief willingly but may in no fashion dupe the reader as to the particulars of reality. Check the contract. It’s in there.

      • So “getting it wrong” is only a useful device if the reader knows you’re wrong? That rule certainly works for Rudolf the Green-Nosed Reindeer. Just plain odd if you haven’t heard the standard variant.

        The trick in The Five Books of Jesus is that the reader has access to the source texts and is therefore free to compare but 90% of the time doesn’t know what’s just “off” from the gospels and what’s drawn directly from the gospels.

        So did I “get it wrong” in a useful literary way? Or did I just break the author-reader contract in the instances where I varied from the gospel text quietly and without footnotes?

        • Mark Penny says:

          You need me to answer that? Like you say, the sources are readily available and readily compared, certainly for your likely audience. As for whether the errata are useful, some would say worse than not. I have no opinion yet. The book’s on my computer, but it’s in a queue. I’m really focused on fiction how-to right now.

    • Theric,

      I enjoyed your recent interview with Sam Brannen. But I really want all the details there to be real. Why is that? Hmmm….

      In alternative history, I think I’d expect something like a 70-30 split between real history and possibility. And I’d expect to do my own work sort out which things were which.

  3. Mark Penny says:

    I think twists work like jokes, which work like aha moments: things suddenly come together in novel realization. The pleasure in M. Knight Shyamalan’s earlier work came that way for me. It was amplified by the sense of careful alignment that came at the same time, especially in Signs, where all the cryptic messages from the dying wife finally came together and made sense. Mystery works the same way. (I admit I never try very hard to solve the mystery. I just enjoy the various scenes and get a kick out of how the detective pulls all the threads together at the end. Maybe I get enough self-generated aha moments in real life to not need them in other people’s fiction.)

    Reading the Potter books again and again (hey, they’re successful), I’ve found myself wrestling with the idea of keeping the hero in the dark way past the reader’s moment of clarity. I get a bit frustrated with Harry’s thick-headedness. That sort of irony is hard for me to write. I’ve been feeling that very strongly lately. As intelligent, sensible people, we want to solve the problems and get to the point the most efficient way possible, but fiction, while working efficiently as a form, demands inefficiency in the action it presents.

    • Mark Penny says:

      Which brings me to a point Larry Brooks talks about in Story Engineering: We don’t have to like the protagonist, but we do have to root for him. Sounds like a paradox, but I see how it works. We don’t have to want the guy for a friend or admire his many qualities, but we do have to wish him well for some reason. The mistake that’s often made is forcing the protagonist to be likable or admirable. In part this is authorial fantacization, especially in less experienced authors (and particularly very young authors), but there is something in the creator (or illusionist) that rebels against imperfection, that wants it down. Yet it’s the imperfection that makes characters human and pitiable.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    I like James Goldberg’s tentative postulate that getting it wrong is useful/justified only if the reader knows you’re getting it wrong, though that (a) puts some narrow constraints on writers, and (b) raises the issue of audience education to a point of critical importance.

    As a reader, I know that it bothers me when I can’t tell if details an author has included are historically accurate or not. I know there are writers who say: it’s fiction, so anything is fair game. There’s a big part of me, though, that feels (as both a reader and a critic) that if you as a writer choose to ride on the coattails of history, you incur some obligations to your source material. One of those obligations is not to further confuse readers’ (already in many cases woefully weak) understanding of history.

    Which, again, brings us back to audience. If as a writer you’re going to play games with history, I think you need to (and should) resign yourself to writing only to those who know history as well as you do — or find ways to clue in the reader.

    The comparison to science fiction is an apt one. Science fiction is full of all kinds of counterfactual speculation. However, it’s my sense that science fiction writers are usually pretty careful to signal speculations that go against basic science as currently understood — unless those extrapolations are clear enough as to fall in the category of common knowledge for their body of readers.

    Bottom line: while I often enjoy historical, scientific, or even doctrinal speculation, I don’t like stories that leave me confused, whether that confusion is about the facts of history, the status of the character, or the actual events of the story. In that sense, I suspect I’m like most Mormon readers. Which admittedly places substantial limits on experimentation.

    • Yes.

      Question: what are the clues that you’re playing around?

      For Samuelsen, the key was to make massive, obvious mistakes with a well-known story.

      For Rushdie it’s more complicated. Most of his readers won’t know when he’s on historical detail in Midnight’s Children, though he typically does so on minor things which aren’t important to the plot. For the expert portion of the audience, though, he is constantly sort of winking.

      Example: there’s a former aristocrat in the book named “the Rani of Kooch Nahin.” If you’re a Western reader with above-average knowledge of India, you might recognize “Rani” as meaning “Queen” and assume that Kooch Nahin was a small kingdom in the subcontinent. But if you speak a little Hindi, you’ll know that “Kuch Nahin” means “Nothing”–which is completely appropriate to the character. And so the name itself will become funny.

    • Wm says:

      This is why I distrust memoir, especially that of the modern variety. I’d rather just read most such works as fiction (or even better, for the author to take those experiences and transmute them into a novel).

  5. Jonathan Langford says:

    This is kind of a response to Wm’s comment about distrusting how history narrativizes, though I’m not really responding to what he said so much as to some ways I’ve seen it applied, and particularly to the question of historical inaccuracy in fiction.

    Postmodern critiques of the reliability of so-called “objective” historical studies, such as Hayden White’s analysis of history as “creative texts structured by narrative and rhetorical devices that shape historical interpretation” (, certainly have their place. From time to time, though, I’ve seen these critiques cited as support for the notion that there’s no need for writers of historical fiction to be careful on matters of accuracy, essentially on the grounds that there’s no such thing as objective historical truth and so why do they have to care? For me, that’s not a sign of intellectual sophistication, but rather laziness.

    Scholars such as White who critique historians’ traditional interpretations of history do so from a perspective of careful attention to detail and to the many different ways that details can be put together and interpreted. Such an approach is completely different from a lazy writer’s lack of concern with details such as whether a particular kind of fabric was in use at the time he/she is writing about. Far from arguing that historical accuracy doesn’t matter, these critiques (as I see them) underscore the importance of respecting the evidence we have access to, while at the same time acknowledging that history does not in fact give us access to the past but only to our imaginative recreations of it.

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