How Perception of Mind Drives Continuity


The other day, I read this great article about the Sally-Anne Experiment written by Esther Inglis-Arkell over at In it, Inglis-Arkell describes the experiment and the effect it has had on modern psychology.

Two characters, Sally and Anne, stand onstage. Sally has a basket. Anne has a box. On stage is a marble. Sally takes the marble and hides it in her basket. Then she goes out for a walk. While she’s gone, Anne takes the marble and hides it in her box. Sally returns. The viewer is asked, in various ways, where will Sally look for the marble? Will she look for it in her own basket, or in Anne’s box?

The article goes on to discuss the right answer and what it means for someone to answer incorrectly.

Some argue that autistic children and adults have a difficult time developing a “theory of mind.” They can’t understand that other people have different knowledge and different emotions than they themselves do. So it doesn’t occur to them that, even though they know something, other people don’t.

If you haven’t already, click over to io9 and read the article.

Theory of minds. Plural.

When I first read the Sally-Anne setup, I immediately made the connection to dramatic irony, the situation in which something is understood by the reader but not by the characters. Much like an observer watching Sally and Anne on stage, a reader watches and listens to characters in a story and sometimes has information they don’t. It’s one of the best ways to generate suspense, but when done incorrectly (or when a continuity error occurs), it can be jarring for a reader who is paying close attention.

There are two instances where the Sally-Anne experiment is taking place in a novel. One is in the finished product, and the other is when the writer is actually putting the story to paper. From start to finish, the writer is tasked with not only developing a theory of mind, but a theory of minds. They are responsible for the separate “knowledge and emotions” of several different characters. Each one is experiencing the story through their own frame of reference; letting one character’s knowledge (or worse, the narrator’s knowledge) bleed into another character results in a continuity error. Such errors expose the artificial nature of the characters and take the reader out of the story.

You’re doing it right

One of the great examples of dramatic irony can be seen in Memento. Although you first experience everything through Guy Pearce’s POV, later you get a glimpse of Carrie-Anne Moss purposefully manipulating him. We’re shown something Guy is unaware of and when he falls for it, we want to yell at the screen, “No, no, don’t trust her.” Without a “theory of mind,” we would expect Guy to already know was Carrie-Anne is doing and act accordingly.

I can’t remember the last book I read that did dramatic irony so… dramatically. As in, using it as a huge part of the emotional content of the story. I tried to do it myself in Veneer, in the chapter where Rosalia visits the school nurse.

Stubbing her finger against the portal, Rosalia asked, “Can you make this clearer?”

“Huh,” said the nurse. “I never noticed that before. Yeah, I think I can do something.” Her eyebrows furrowed in concentration. “You know, most people think that nurses only have to know bio stuff, but there’s more to it. You also have to be an expert in reconciliation. Manipulating scans and x-rays and real-time imagers; that’s where the real work is. There, that’s the best I can do.”

They stared at the picture for a moment, each trying to sound out the barely legible word.

Finally, as if sensing competition, the nurse blurted out, “Vinestead!”

“Vinestead,” repeated Rosalia, picking the copyright symbol out of the jumble. “Never heard of them.”

I had the pleasure of discussing this very scene with a reader over the weekend. He had picked up both of my novels, but had chosen to read Veneer first. When he got to this scene, it didn’t have any significance for him, because he had no idea who Vinestead was or why it would matter. Had he read Xronixle first, however, his experience would have (hopefully) been different.

My intention was for readers of Xronixle to see Vinestead mentioned and immediately know things were about to get bad. The dramatic irony would continue and intensify until Rosalia figured it out herself. For everyone else, I imagine there was a sort of discomfort at Rosalia saying never heard of them. Really, who asked if you had? Why would you say that, Rosalia? DID I MISS SOMETHING?

It was a gamble, but in the end, I considered rewarding readers of Xronixle to be more important than alienating new readers. Time will tell on that one.

You’re doing it wrong

I like to summarize the implications of the Sally-Anne experiment with the question Who knew what and when? It’s this question that drives realistic characters, because it forces you to consider each person as their own separate consciousness. A few drafts ago, I hit a major snag in Perion Synthetics when I realized a character hadn’t attended a particular meeting, which meant he then couldn’t be giving the speech that referenced anything said in that meeting. When that happens, it feels like someone has taken a sledgehammer to your chest, because you realize you’ve been slacking in the “separate consciousness” department. Any reader who had found that error would have known I wasn’t paying attention to my own story.

Sadly, I just found another one of these errors this morning. It wasn’t so bad, but I had to do a quick rewrite to explain it away. I wish I could say you get to breathe a sigh of relief after it’s fixed, but really you just worry about the other ones you haven’t caught yet.

Turning the tables

One of the main themes of Perion Synthetics is the role of perspective in social engineering. The story is told through the eyes of six different characters and is limited, so when someone else in the story speaks or does something, you have no insight into their motivation. Characters will flat-out lie to each other, and sometimes you’ll be aware of it and sometimes you won’t. When you are, you will probably ask yourself why did the character choose to lie?

What I enjoy most about a deceitful character whose motivations aren’t known is that they don’t sit well with some readers. They hate not having that hidden knowledge. Until now, I didn’t really know how to characterize this perceived injustice.

I think it’s the “theory of mind” reversed. The character has knowledge the reader doesn’t. That suggests the character is a separate consciousness, acting on its own motivations, not simply a prop in a story. If you think that’s scary, it is. What you’re doing in that moment is what writers do all the time: creating and destroying consciousness. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic… we’ll talk about building whole people in your head some other time.

In Summary

If the Sally-Anne experiment teaches us one thing, it’s that we should consider the psychology of our readers when we’re putting a story together. After all, they’re only human. There’s only so much they’re willing to believe and forgive. There is only so much complexity they can follow before you have to include a family tree relating the Lannisters to the Starks. Most of what I wrote about today has to do with differences between the character’s knowledge and the reader’s knowledge, but really the task is much bigger.

The “theory of mind” means readers will accept a character’s separate consciousness, but it’s up to you, the writer, to give that character depth and motivation and emotion–to make them real.

How do you do that? Easy. Do what the reader does.

Consider your character a complete and autonomous consciousness. The rest will follow.

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