• Phil Parker

Writing 101: Curiosity

What makes cats so curious they run the risk of limiting their nine lives? I think it's down to their hunting instincts, the need to investigate, to find out what they can eat, or play with or generally intimidate. Cats are hunters.

So are writers. We hunt for ideas for our stories. We explore those ideas to see if they work. We experiment with them to see what else might be found.

Readers are the same. They allow the writer to lead them on a journey of exploration, accepting that not all questions will be answered, certainly not immediately. They understand part of the fun of the journey is NOT knowing the answers and that some of the answers may be only partial, or worse still, deliberately misleading.

Stories are journeys of exploration where understanding of what is happening comes from the perpetual need to ask questions and be curious.

As writers we hunt for the best ideas, the most useful information, the relevant experiences, the most provocative of emotions. Once found, just like a cat, we play with them to find out more about them. Until finally, happy we've got everything right, we make the final commitment and use what we've found. Admittedly we don't kill and eat the ideas, so that's where my cat analogy falls down, it was doing so well until that moment!

According to the author Mario Livio there are two forms of curiosity that we're discussing here.

'Perceptual curiosity is the feeling we get when something surprises us or when something doesn’t quite agree with what we know or think we know. That is felt as an unpleasant state, as an adversity state. It’s a bit like an itch that we need to scratch. That’s why we try to find out the information in order to relieve that type of curiosity.

On the other hand, there is something that has been dubbed epistemic curiosity, which is a pleasurable state associated with an anticipation of reward. That’s our level of knowledge. That’s what drives all scientific research. It drives many artworks. It drives education and things like that.'

To consider these two types of curiosity within our writing context leads me to some conclusions:

  1. Perceptual curiosity is useful when we deliberately set out to mislead our readers, to set up red herrings, send them down blind alleys. They think they know something, the answers we're proving them suggest certain outcomes - then BOOM! Hah! You thought this? Well, in fact, it's this! Hah!

  2. Perceptual curiosity is satisfying when it comes with a surprise. It's the plot twists the reader doesn't see coming. The genuine sense of satisfaction that you've been conned. That rogueish character we've been cheering for all along? Yeah, they're the baddie! What? You didn't know?

  3. Perceptual curiosity can be used in world building. We encourage readers to see our story's world through the questions they ask, through their own value systems and beliefs. The result is it leads them to believe a certain context, they think they understand the world. But we've misled them, the world isn't like that. Just think of the magic systems that employ this approach.

  4. Perceptual curiosity carries with it a warning though. Mislead your audience too much and you generate frustration. Challenge their beliefs and values too rigorously and you anger them. There is a balance to be had here, unless your intention is to truly trigger that kind of challenge.

  5. Epistemic curiosity is where readers find their satisfaction. In the world of the 'Whodunnit' it is the sense of victory at working out who carried out the murders and predicting the means and motive. It's the enjoyment of seeing the couple we've always suspected loved each other finally sharing their secrets.

  6. Epistemic curiosity can also be educational. Readers learn stuff. Writers do too. Our research opens up new information, new worlds, insights into our characters, heightens our existing experiences. We gain satisfaction from this. How many stories have you read where you've been helped to realise things you didn't know? Where you've been immersed in a world you don't want to leave? Encountered a character that has challenged your thinking?

  7. Epistemic curiosity is the ultimate prize when it comes to maximising reader engagement. Get that level of reward right and the reader gains enormous satisfaction from the journey with you. The hunt has paid off.

I'm going to conclude by making a point about the danger of the absence of curiosity. If you don't encourage readers to ask questions, to explore your stories and hunt for clues, you turn them into passive thinkers. For some people, that might be OK. The type of person that reads but the words float by their eyes, never penetrating behind them. Most readers aren't like that but we must be conscious of never encouraging that approach to a book.

We have a responsibility as a writer too. As authors of speculative fiction we constantly encourage our readers to ask, "What if..?" It is something we must always do. That is our responsibility. It ensures we generate the kind of challenge to the world in which we live that is relatively new to our species. In medieval times The Church did its best to squash curiosity. Some religions still do. It is why in the past, books have been burned because they represent an open-mindedness autocratic rulers don't want, The Nazi book burnings of the 1930s is one example. It's an image we see in dystopian novels like Bradbury's Farenheit 451.

We must continue to encourage, promote and empower curosity. It not only leads us to write high quality stories, it ensures our species remains open-minded, curious and mentally agile.

Just like cats!


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