Instinct: The Devil is in the Details

by Nathan Barra

Psychology has demonstrated that the human brain the greatest piece of pattern recognition hardware under the sun.  For years, computer scientists and programmers, roboticists and specialists in human-computer interaction have tried and failed, to build and program computers with a fraction of the capabilities of an infant.  After all, all it takes is a simple password encoded in a GIF to baffle even sophisticated bots.

Instinct is the culmination of subconscious observation compared against experience.  Certainties we often attribute to “a strange feeling” are really our hind brain processing details we would otherwise miss.  It is a brilliant and elegant survival mechanism, allowing us to quickly evaluate and react.  Even better?  As I see it, instinct can’t be invented by each individual, but rather, we draw our base set of instincts from biology and society and then fine tune them with our experiences.  If this is true, then our audiences share this common base set of instincts, handing conscientious author another lever to manipulate.

The first and easiest of three major sets of instincts discussed is the instincts of characters.  Everything a protagonist says and does, every interaction they have with the people and things around them is telling of character.  A character’s instinctual reactions to stressful situations indicate the individual’s past.  After the freeze reaction kicks in, will the character fight or flight?  How they go about either reaction when not given the time to think will show what has either worked for them in the past or they have trained into muscle memory.

The second set of instincts are the reader’s instincts.  Readers consume fiction because they enjoy doing so.  Given this as true, it is likely that the readers are observant and intelligent.  It is also likely that they have read extensively and have a sizable background of works from which they draw experience.  As many authors were readers first, we share many of the same traits.  Look at your own experiences and use elements common to works to manage tension and pacing.  As an author, if you slowly start stripping a beloved protagonist of protection and resources in a seemingly innocent way, the tension of your readers will ratchet.  Certain other actions or phrases will induce a rise of romantic tension.  Also, think of commonly accepted cues that signal the transition from rising action to dénouement.  Like many other levers, manipulating reader instinct will allow for a great deal of between-the-lines communication.

The third set of instincts to manage is also the most difficult to be aware of and to trust.  They are your own authorial instincts.  Like many writers, you were a reader first.  You know what sort of works you have enjoyed and know what has been effective for them and for you.  You have practiced your writing, developed on your craft and wrestled with inspiration and motivation.  All this experience has added additional fine tuning to your instincts.  If you read a paragraph or scene and it seems off, dig deeper and discover why.  Your instincts are identifying a problem with your prose that you know needs to be addressed.  The concern then becomes identifying with your conscious mind what your subconscious has already highlighted.  These days, when I suffer writer’s block or a feeling of vague blasé towards my prose, this is why.  My subconscious has identified a problem that needs to be fixed, a choice that needs to be readdressed and will not let me invest in new material until I identify and correct the situation.

Experience drives action and reaction.  What has worked for you in the past or you have observed working for others will shape your present.  It is therefore essential for an author not only to be aware of the fine tuning to the base collective instinct in themselves, but also be conscious of the instincts of both your intended audience and characters.  Instinct, like other levers of craft, can be manipulated to your advantage only if you are aware of how it affects you, your readers and your works.

About Bonnie Gwyn Johnson

Bonnie Gwyn handles all guest bloggers on this website. Contact her if you would like to volunteer your time to share writing advice for The Authors' Think Tank.