Building Trust with Bullshit Detection


Everybody already knows what Hemingway said: all writers need a good bullshit detector. But what if I told you that all your characters needed good bullshit detectors too?

Okay, maybe that’s overstating things. Some characters need to be dense, always catching on last. Terry Bisson even wrote that it may help to make your POV character slightly stupid (see rule # 20) since this flatters the audience. But at the very least, I think it’s safe to say that when writing more perceptive characters, BS-checking is tool you need to know.

If you’re wondering what I mean by bullshit detection, take a look at the previous paragraph, where I examined and progressively reduced the overblown claim I made in the first.


For me as a reader, when a character in a story BS-checks another person — or herself — I find it builds my trust in her POV.

The more I see her analyzing a shaky claim, the more I’ll believe in her powers of critical thinking.

The more honesty she demands from herself and others, the more I can believe that this POV character is reliable, rational, trustworthy…

And the more I may overlook it when the author tries to sell me a stretched metaphor, a suspicious solution, or a bogus “scientific” infodump!

Why is this effective at all?

Maybe  when we see characters using critical thinking, we get the signal that hey, the pressure’s off now, somebody else is doing the bullshit checking for us, so we can just keep reading and enjoying the story faster and faster and faster.

(And maybe this also is one reason mystery novels tend to read so fast: since we trust that the detective is paying close attention to all the clues, we’re not afraid to miss a detail or three when reading. By contrast, it’s almost impossible to breeze through, say, a short story by Cortázar — if you miss a single detail you sense that you might not “get” what’s happening at all! I have to believe the differences are not only due to style.)

Okay, enough, how does this shit work in practice?

“The gods rebuilt me out of old bones and DNA and some sort of memory fragments they extracted from the bits they found on earth.”

“Memory from DNA?” said Mahnmut. “I don’t think so.”

I wave my hands impatiently. “It doesn’t matter,” I snap. “I’m the walking dead…”

Although I think Dan Simmons’ Ilium is a book with flaws — not the least of which is a severe lack of teh gay, which is a real problem in a book that’s supposed to be all about the Iliad, Shakespeare, and fucking Proust  — this little moment had me cheering. Up to here there’d been all kinds of loose talk in the story about memory being encoded in genes. I was glad to see the adorable Moravec Mahnmut take that bullshit down.

Because Simmons acknowledged in his story that the memory-in-DNA idea was incorrect, I began to believe the setting more, even though no preferable explanation was offered in its place.

(It was probably some more nano-quantum-tunneling-parallel-multiverse-dead-white-author super science anyway lol…)

What Ilium needed more of

Here’s another example from (Clarion West alum!) David Herter’s “Black and Green and Gold,” a great story I found in Best New Horror 17.

 On my wandering walk, I found myself at the grand concert hall on the Vltava — the Narodni Divadlo, or National Theatre. Glittering in green and gold, it projects a grandly linear profile amid all the baroque architecture, its rounded roofline like an elaborate cake festooned (there is no other word) with pickets of gold trim, and fronted with statues. The most prominent is a charioteer ready to launch his steeds into the sky.

When you write a word like “festooned”, eyes will almost always start rolling; sometimes this move is necessary to halt them before they can make a full revolution.

Likewise, Stendhal, whose lucid style never overstates the case, uses this device to conclude a summary in pt.2, ch.19 of The Red and the Black:

Mathilde’s reveries weren’t all as somber as the notions just transcribed; that must be conceded.

I think the category of bullshit-checking characters also extends to narrators who are aware of their own quirks and aren’t too uptight to own them. I love to read about characters like that. Here’s a fun one from Chris Beckett’s story “Picadilly Circus,” which I read in The Year’s Best Science Fiction 23:

…all I ever wanted was to be at home behind my high hedges that I had cut into the shape of castle walls, behind my locked doors, behind my tightly drawn curtains, writing about reality.

Finally, you can see Roberto Bolaño putting this move to good use in “Mauricio (‘The Eye’) Silva”, a short story in Last Evenings on Earth. Emphasis mine:

I laughed. I was very glad to have met him again. The Eye was the same as ever: an odd person but good-natured and unassuming. You felt you could say good-bye to him at any hour of the night and he would simply say good-bye, without reproach or any bad feeling. He was the ideal Chilean, stoic and amiable, a type that has never been very numerous in Chile but cannot be found anywhere else.

Reading over the previous sentence I realize that it is not strictly true. The Eye would never have made such a sweeping generalization.

I like this move because it not only builds trust, but also re-establishes the story frame, as if the writer has “spontaneously” paused while recording his tale. (Although I’ll bet the composition of this awesome short story was anything but spontaneous for Bolaño.)

And I’m spent…

Be sure to check SpecTechnique tomorrow. The topic will be wuxia action timing. The text will be Gu Long’s Sentimental Swordsman, Ruthless Sword.

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