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.