Cognitive Disconnect

Humans and primates are the two species which can reconcile contradictory ideas into something that makes sense and is useful to them. We call this cognitive disconnect. Faith in transcendent beings (God, the Devil, etc.) seems a no-brainer to many but a head-scratcher to others. Disbelieving climate change is another. In spite of the evidence (How could God let this happen? The Artic ice caps shrinking at alarming rates, etc.), we muddle on believing whatever it is we believe. It’s likely that you depend on cognitive disconnect every day just to get by. We just know something’s going to happen. Or we’re convinced that it isn’t. Interestingly, when we’ve got two equally good options (the world is ending, the world marches on), we tend to choose the one that we’ve chosen before (even if it’s never happened to us). Egan, et al give a good overview. 

This is all good news for us writer folks. It’s the space in between the two beliefs that we can dig into. And more importantly than reconciling the competing beliefs or persuading a person one way or another, is to interrogate and activate. To interrogate is to ask questions: where did this person gain this belief? What the circumstances that were at work? How are those circumstances acting on the choices our story-people are making now? Who or what in their lives now are challenging a particular belief? What’s the cost to a story-person for giving up or taking on a belief? The possibilities are endless.

To activate cognitive dissonance, allow your story-people to use their contradictory beliefs to get what they want. Almost every story involves people overcoming. Think of the faith it takes to put down the bottle, to climb a mountain, to cut off an arm in order to live; to bomb for peace. To demonize for inclusion. To attack to feel safe. Again, the list is endless. Let people question and challenge these beliefs, convictions and the actions that result. Let your people make deliberate choices which defy the facts, the evidence and the data. To sum it up, allow your story people to use cognitive dissonance to engage with their present circumstances and to get what they want.

Watch out for upcoming posts on present circumstances, primary sources and other tools we might use to activate and deepen story elements. Go for it.



People use tactics to move their story forward. You do. I do. Story people do. We play for keeps. At the top of our game, no matter what. We deploy expertise, skills, history, myth, games, sex, manipulation, seduction, bribery, threats, warning; the past, present and future. You name it, we probably use it. Here’s the thing, though. When a writer crafts a tactic into a scene, bim-bam-boom, we got story. We got action. We got engagement. Any fiction. Any screenplay. Any theatrical play. Any poetry. Tactics activate story.

Story is provoked by desire/intention. But wanting something isn’t enough to produce story. A person taking on the world to get what they want isn’t story either. Story happens when desire forces a person to act on their present circumstances so that a recognition is produced. All the desire in the world doesn’t make a story. All the action in the world doesn’t either. But don’t cry in your soup, yet. Tactics are born of desire.

Desire plus action produces recognition. A recognition is an event. A move forward; a progression. An event is the reader’s/audience’s emotional experience of story people working their present circumstances to get what they want. A series of events stacked up one after the other equals story. Event’s the reason we all read literature, go to movies; it’s the money shot we all pay our $17 for. Tactics can provoke events.

Tactics are the reason we take this action or that action to get what we want. Intentions produce desire. And desires shove us into action. It’s when we actively seduce, manipulate, seduce, top, undermine that we have the chance of allowing surprise, discovery and a-ha‘s. A-ha moments (recognitions) produce new intentions, desires, actions, fresh recognitions/events and, of course, consequences. The way we writers can craft this organic algorithm for story is to allow story people to deploy tactics such as false/genuine expertise, historical evidence (personal, familial, geo-political); Game (Mums the word. Top this. Tag. Hide and Seek. Mother, May I? Simon Says and so on.) and so many more. Look around you. Right now. Watch the people near you. What are the tactics being deployed? Politeness? Choosing the right word? Biding their time? As story people deploy tactics intention, desire, actions, recognitions and their consequences must be activated. Boom-boom. We get event. We get story.

Try this: Two siblings have to make decision (e.g. which room, meal plan, doctor visits, etc.) about the care of their elderly parent. They are at an elder care facility.

Let each sibling use tactics to get the best for their parent. For instance, one sibling knows that it’s best for their parent to be on a largely vegetarian diet. The other knows that their parent needs red meat everyday. Write the scene. Remember, it’s not the outcome that we are here to read but the use of tactics. To what lengths will each deploy their expertise, seduction, threats, religious faith, hearsay, etc. to get the best for their parent? Go for it.


Just Ask

I don’t know if this happens to you, but sometimes when I’m writing I hit a wall. There’s clearly more to be done on the novel, the essay, screenplay — whatever — but I’m not sure how to proceed. The thing needs new hands. The thing demands new ways. The thing needs what hasn’t come before. What I’m writing hasn’t been done before so what makes me, or you, think that what we know is going to be enough to finish the job?

It isn’t. But once we know it isn’t — then what?

Ask questions. Of the material, of yourself, of the things that take your attention. A couple of words about these. The material, trust me, already has the answers. Your early drafts, and mine, are a wealth of information. Before we start pruning with a hacksaw, consider interrogating the material. Is it doing what you thought? If not, what is it doing? What are the patterns, rhythms, repetitions, sounds, motifs, objects, etc. that jump out at you? These things are jumping out at you in part because of trace but also as neon signs saying “Look Here!”.

Ask yourself where the thing resonates with you and where it doesn’t. Both are well-worth interrogating. The gut don’t lie. If you can’t feel it, neither can we. That’s the vagal nerve system in action.

Interrogate the things (ideas, articles, people, smells, sounds/songs, etc.) that are taking your attention day to day. Develop an inventory of these. This is your intuition guiding you. It is also saying “Look Here!”.

For instance, I’ve been working on a novel for several years. There’s a lot of inner speak/thought/monologue. The challenge is to not get mired in that non-sensual world even tho’ the characters are. They are self-absorbed to the max. All for good reason — according to them. Fair enough. But my challenge is to keep the plot visible enough that the reader stays bitten and engaged. One plot is happening on an exterior level (the guys hide their teacher’s body, a mom and TO police officer hunt them down, etc.). But the other plot is happening in the minds and imaginations and fantasies of these people. It is one heckuva ride to write but it is also challenging.

My latest attempt, after an editor I trust encouraged me (e.g. practically rapped my knuckles!) to keep the plot more at the forefront I had to ask how. And I thought of the thing I always suggest to my students, ask questions about your work. Ask of the material, of myself, of where my attention goes. I took my own advice and almost immediately was gifted with a revision strategy that suits the goal, the material, artistic goals and — I hope — the material. I’ll pluck out the ‘plot’ lines from the MSS and see what’s left. Then, with that clarity, I can honour the characters’ (who always buck their own plot) and the reader (who’d like to follow what’s going on). I say all of this knowing that every reader is different and so is every writing project. Still, we do what we can.

The fiction I write doesn’t fit into the same-old, same-old box. Since that’s the case, I have to be willing to go out of my comfort zone, be patient, keep working the material and wait for intuition to lead me. This is much easier when I just ask.

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The Games People Play

Game-playing for writers isn’t a statement about personal development. It’s a secret ingredient for craft. Games activate story, story-people, POV, circumstances, setting and meaning. And so much more.

It’s how humans get what we want. We play to win. We play for keeps (at least at that moment). We play.

Games are the gifts that keep on giving. One of the most effective and efficient, not to mention resonant, ways of allowing readers to have their own experiences amongst our words, is to allow our characters to play the games they know so well. We all do it.

If a camera were watching us, we’d know it’s a game to hide, poke, avoid, distract, comfort, loosen up, etc. That intention in the context of a game allows writers to bypass intellect and go straight into the bodies of readers.

For instance, we can tell in a nano-second what people know about each other and how long they’ve known it by how well they play the game. Right? We learn what their values are, how familiar they are with others and their circumstances; we learn about their skills and expertise; about their blindspots and wishful thinking. It’s exciting just to imagine it.

Sure, a story-person can go to their closet to grab what they’re going to wear for the day and leave. But imagine if they go to that closet, have a particular effect they want to make with what they wear and choose just the write shirt, jacket, cuff-links, socks, etc. to get what they want. Now we’ve got the beginnings of a game. Then, they enter a setting, they’re fiddling with the cuff-link to see if it’s noticed. It’s not noticed. They play harder. The person they’re playing with catches on that they’re in a game and they resist. Our person leans over the desk. Takes off the cuff-link, etc. What matters is not what the game is, but rather that the reader learns so much about who the story-people are, what they want, their POV on the world and that moment; and, most importantly, the meanings that are emerging as they play to win.

All people play games. It’s in our nature. We do it at the grocery store, in our minds, with our spouses, with people we don’t like and those we love—it’s a fundamental part of how we make it through. Making their work harder, writers often leave the game-playing out.



The good news is that games are often already embedded in a text, if only the writer would peel off some of the words and let the characters have at it.

Try this:

What was your favourite game as a kid? Or now? Integrate the game into a scene. For instance, I’m a hide and seek guy. In a scene where a cop is at the door of a mother protecting her son, she might crack the door and mislead the officer. He might catch on that she’s hiding something. He might press farther. She might say too much or too little. Either way, for the purposes of craft and activation, we’ve got two people playing to win. And so, story. Go for it.

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The A-ha of Change

There are as many ways to tell a story as there are people telling stories. One thing common to each is change. To live is to change. As writers our challenge is to allow the change and to craft it.

Change is progress. Stories progress when people engage with their present circumstances to get what they want. Later, I’ll offer a post about crafting ‘present circumstances’. For the moment know that these circumstances include 1. what people must engage with, 2. what they must avoid, 3. what they hope and dream of and 4. what’s come before and will come after. These four parameters govern our lives and those of our story people. We craft present circumstances using sensual qualities that matter to us (trace), conditions, other people, skills/expertise, humour, ideas, and so much more. These circumstances are the playing field in which change occurs and people achieve their desires — or not. But there’s more to mine here.

To be human is to desire. Even if the desire is to have no desire, then desire/want is fuelling change — and story. Desire produces intention and willing. As people intend, they take action. Even if they sit on their hands out of unworthiness, etc., they are still taking action. They take these actions upon and within their present circumstances. As they take action on an intention, they learn. To learn is to experience recognition — an a-ha moment.

When one experiences recognition, their story progresses. And there are consequences. We literally cannot proceed in the same old way. This means that, when recognition occurs, actions taken after the ‘a-ha’ must take into account the learning that has occurred. The consequences for learning can be the use of a new skill, for instance, or even the denial of the learning. In this way, recognition becomes the motor for story progression — and the experience of change. We feel the change.

Logic blips and other traps open up when we experience people learning and experiencing a-has but their behaviour doesn’t reflect the learning. This gap can lead to confusion; lack of cohesion and of coherence. The reader, too, is denied their own a-ha.

It’s well-worth practicing.

Try this:

Let your story person walk onto the street. Ask what their desire is — right now. Let them take some action towards achieving that desire. Remember: just because an action is small or banal, doesn’t mean it won’t have big story consequences. As they act, they are discovering. Choose one of the discoveries (keep in mind the small/big note above). Let that discovery compel a new action. This new action is the consequence of the recognition. Note that it’s the literary/experiential space in between recognition and action that we call event (also worth another blog post). ‘Event’ is what all this cleverness is working itself up to, to cop Carol Shields. After you do the above, repeat. And then repeat again. After constructing a series of events cohered by consequence, you’ll have what we call story.

As your readers feel this change, they will — literally — never be the same. Neither will your work.

Have fun!

Active Imagination: a dab’ll do you

Active Imagination is a powerful tool to explore the subconscious forces within us and to unlock what is hidden there for use in our work. I first learned about Active Imagination in the ’80s when I read Robert Johnson’s Inner Work.

In the book, he teaches us how to mine the powers of dream life and to activate these forces into waking life. He also teaches a process of engaging with mythic and subconscious forces roiling within most human beings through our imagination. These forces act as provocateur to important guidance not often available by other means. We can call on these forces when we’re blocked in life or blocked in story. In the thirty years that I’ve been using Active Imagination, I’ve yet to leave an Active Imagination session with my challenge or question unaddressed or unanswered.

The book is widely available, but read on for an idea of how this strategy might serve you. First, understand that Dreams are not the same as Active Imagination. We dream when we are asleep/unconscious and passive. We actively use Active Imagination while awake/conscious. Active Imagination invites us to participate actively in an imaginative state that is neither conscious or unconscious. It is a plane where these terrains come together. 

This technique allows us to engage in a dialogue with feelings or forces and then to do something about what we learn there. Active Imagination provokes real experiences. These experience result from real feelings in the imaginative realm. The focus is on asking and then listening and replying respectfully. 

The technique has several parts:

The Dialogue:

  1. Get in touch with the feeling or force. Feel it or imagine feeling it. Personify the unseen content of the subconscious. This could be a feeling you have (e.g. worry) or the force that informs a story person/character. No need to dress it up. There is no audience. This is private between you and your unconscious.
  2. Ask: Where is the feeling? Who is obsessed? Who is the one inside me that feels this way? What is its image? What does s/he look like?
  3. Be curious. Focus on listening and replying in full participation. Note: You bring the ethical. Follow where the person/image takes you only if it feels right/ethical to do so.  If you don’t want to, you get to say so. You bring the human choice.
  4. Take notes. There is no set amount of time to engage. Follow your gut. 

The Ritual:

Ritual integrates what you’ve learned into waking life (i.e. writing). 

  1. Ask your image how you might integrate what you’ve learned into your work. Note: If you think you’re faking it — you’re not. 
  2. Pay attention to the objects, smells, feelings, sounds, heights/widths (dimensions), materials, sensations, etc. that emerge directly or are provoked in the session. If you’ve worked with me before, you likely have heard of and engaged with ‘traces’. These are great tools with which to integrate what we learn in Active Imagination sessions. 

After, you might look for places where a story person in your work engages with the content and sensual qualities of your session. For instance, if a character is worried but I haven’t quite solved how to craft that I might do an Active Imagination session. Out of that I take nails tapping on a counter, a whacking cable on a flag pole, the key my character can’t find, etc. From this will come the rhythm, words and state of ‘worry’. You’ll discover how to craft it on the page and your reader will feel it. 

       3. Write.

Report back.

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