Nov 10, 2012

A skeptic’s approach to storytelling

A few years ago, I wrote a guest blog for Deus Ex Machinatio about how quacks are great storytellers.  They create a parallel world – a world of magic and boundless opportunity – and put you, the audience, at its center.  For a while, as you listen to a charlatan’s sales pitch, a world of wonders orbits around you.

All of the glory and hope of the quack’s storyworld is invested in the central totem –  the product.  Hope is stoppered up inside the product like a genie in a bottle (and the fact that we can neither see this genie, nor its effects, is just more proof that it exists!)  It doesn’t matter if the product is a literal bottle, a book, a bracelet, or a DVD.  The product soaks up the story; that’s what you’re really buying when you buy one of these things – a fantastic, if dubious, story where you are the hero.

The best artifacts of a charlatan’s storytelling also reflect the story back to you, and that was the jumping off point for my skeptical approach to storytelling.  On the surface of my stories, you can see my skepticism coming out as mimicry and mockery.  I’ve invented both fake magic and fake quackery, but a skeptical approach can run so much deeper in the way that you approach a story.  Laser Lace Letters isn’t a story about quackery per se (although, there’s some quackery in it), but it’s every bit as connected to the way I navigate the world as a skeptic.

I spend a lot of time thinking about evidence – examining things scientifically, interpreting evidence to come to an understanding of what it says about the world, or marveling at how sparse it is.  When you’ve listened to enough conspiracy theories and other dubious claims, you know how to write a story that leans heavily on a few key pieces of evidence, and how those key pieces should look if you want to tell a convincing story – by turns stark and beautiful, clinically official and viscerally immediate.

The challenge is in turning your reader into the investigator, letting them build their own pinboards full of facts and connections.

Ultimately, that’s what being an artifact creator is – giving someone the pieces with which to build a vision of your world.

And yet, being a writer, I know that the telling of a good story isn’t about hard facts – it’s about cadence and tone, synchronicity, happenstance, coincidental themes that seem to breathe life into the universe and give it a mind of its own.  The universes I build out of fake evidence are lucky enough to have an invisible, omniscient hand that crafts them into places full of meaning.

I’m also fudging the investigative process a little by bringing meaning and pathos to the surface for anyone to discover.  In the real world it takes other kinds of storytellers* – reporters, biographers, documentarians – to make the connections between disparate elements, process them, and turn them into a more straightforward type of story.  In this ginned up little microcosm I’m creating, the evidence speaks for itself – something difficult to achieve in the real world.

Explore some of my evidentiary fiction for yourself – back Laser Lace Letters on Kickstarter.

*Sometimes, we artifact creators go back and revise the evidence to fit the narratives we’ve built or found elsewhere.  For example, the snake oil bottle at the top of this page, which looks like a close crop of an old advertisement, seems to be a modern image made from an altered version of a historical ad.  There is a constant cycle between perception, imagination, and creation, the upshot of which is that this image is all over the web, in articles calling out everything from acupuncture to social security.

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