The Fixer Blog Tour: The Science of Fiction, a guest post by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
We are happy to welcome Jennifer Lynn Barnes to TLT today. She’s stopping by on the blog tour for her new novel, THE FIXER (published 7/7/2015 from Bloomsbury USA).
The Science of Fiction
One of the questions I get a lot as a writer who has a double life as a psychology professor studying the science of books, movies, and television shows is whether or not my work looking at the psychology of stories affects the way I write them. And the answer is that everything I learn about the power of stories from a scientific standpoint changes the way I write. So I thought I’d take the FIXER blog tour as an opportunity to give readers a look into the way my scientist and writer selves work together when I sit down to write a new book.
Part Four: The Peak-End Effect
There’s a famous experiment that looks at people’s perceptions of pain. The gist of the experiment goes something like this. In one condition, people are asked to put their hands in painfully cold water for sixty seconds. In the other condition, they’re asked to put their hands in painfully cold water for sixty seconds and then to put their hands in slightly less cold, but still painful water for another thirty seconds. Afterward, they’re asked which of the two experiences they would rather repeat. Logically, the answer should be the first one—it’s identical to the second, except that it has thirty second less pain at the end.
But that’s not what people choose.
People prefer the second option. The one with more pain. Why? Because it ends on a better note. You get similar results with positive experiences: everything else being equal, people prefer the thing that ended on a higher note. In fact, there’s reason to believe that when we evaluate experiences, we’re really only evaluating two things: the most intense moment and the last moment. This is called the Peak-End effect.
What does that mean for writers and readers? Well, one thing that it suggests—to me—is that if you’re writing comedy, it’s more important to have one super hilarious laugh-until-you-cry moment than it is have to have a ton of different moments that make people chuckle. If you’re writing tragedy, making someone sob hard once is going to leave more of an impression than making them tear up a dozen different times. If you’re going for plot twists, one HUGE surprise will have more of an impact than a dozen tiny ones. And if you can stack two HUGE surprises close enough together that they encode as a single moment, all the better. When readers look back on the reading experience, by and large, they’re going to evaluate that experience based on the most intense moment and the last moment.
Knowing this, I spend a lot of time as a writer asking myself “What are the most intense moments in this book?” and “how should this book end?” When I sat down to write The Fixer, there was one moment that stuck out in my head, one that I knew from the very beginning would be one of the most emotionally intense scenes in the entire book. That was the moment that made me want to write the book. That was the moment that made me want to understand these characters. But ultimately, even though each reader is going to evaluate the book largely based on the most intense point and the last point, as a writer, I also know that one big moment and a good ending isn’t enough. Different readers can and do have different reactions to the same scenes, so that intense, defining moment may well be different for each person, and part of creating an intense reading experience is the way that intense moments build on each other. So the challenge, as I sat down to write The Fixer, knowing that I was building to a very specific scene, was to figure out what my other big moments were. They had to be surprising. They had to pack an emotional punch. They had to involve characters we cared about. And they all had to build to an ending that did everything I wanted that ending to do—including setting the stage for book two.
For me, a lot of this happens in revision. Three or four of the biggest, most intense moments in The Fixer weren’t there in the first draft. In fact, other than The Moment That I Always Knew I Was Going to Write, I’m not sure any of the biggest emotional, plot twisty moments were in my first draft. For me, the purpose of revision is to make sure that every scene is doing multiple things, that instead of having SURPRISING MOMENTS and EMOTIONAL MOMENTS, my big plot twist moments are my big emotional moments.
And those moments are brought to you by the Peak-End effect.
Do, A. M., Rupert, A. V., & Wolford, G. (2008). Evaluations of pleasurable experiences: The peak-end rule. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15(1), 96-98.
Kahneman, D., Fredrickson, B. L., Schreiber, C. A., & Redelmeier, D. A. (1993). When more pain is preferred to less: Adding a better end. Psychological science, 4(6), 401-405.
When sixteen-year-old Tess Kendrick is sent to live with her older sister, Ivy, she has no idea that the infamous Ivy Kendrick is Washington D.C.’s #1 “fixer,” known for making politicians’ scandals go away for a price. No sooner does Tess enroll at Hardwicke Academy than she unwittingly follows in her sister’s footsteps and becomes D.C.’s premier high school fixer, solving problems for elite teens.
Secrets pile up as each sister lives a double life. . . . until their worlds come crashing together and Tess finds herself in the middle of a conspiracy with one of her classmates and a client of Ivy’s. Suddenly, there is much more on the line than good grades, money, or politics, and the price for this fix might be more than Tess is willing to pay.
Perfect for fans of Pretty Little Liars and Heist Society, readers will be clamoring for more in this exciting new series.
Jennifer Lynn Barnes has written several acclaimed young adult novels, including the Raised by Wolves and the Naturals series. She has advanced degrees in psychology, psychiatry, and cognitive science. She received her PhD from Yale University and is now a professor in psychology.
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Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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