Know Your Medium, Part 2

Previously, I introduced the topic of linguistic relativity—how the choice of “language” affects what concepts are easy to think about.

Another wrinkle of linguistic relativity is that a language affects what you are obliged to think about. For example, when talking about an event in English, we need to consider when it happened (past/present/future tense). Other languages include what’s called evidentiality1: you need to consider how you know about the event; did you see it yourself, or did someone else tell you about it (first/second/etc. hand).

These considerations (what am I forced to convey? what is going to be difficult to convey?) are important when you are trying to tell a story, as the answers are different for a novel than they are for a screenplay.

For example, a common “bad writing” complaint is a book starting with the main character examining themselves in the mirror2 (thus providing a description). The reason this keeps cropping up is that—with only text—it’s not easy to show what a character looks like. Typically, one or two salient features will be mentioned about a character, and the rest will be left to the reader’s imagination3.

In contrast, a scriptwriter would have to tie themselves in some very uncomfortable knots in order to not present a character’s appearance to the audience. It happens the instant the actor emerges. What is difficult is revealing a character’s name. If they are being introduced, that’s easy enough, but there are bound to be characters the protagonist already knows (but the audience doesn’t). Naming is comparatively trivial in a novel.


There’s a deeper significance to this movie-appearance/book-name difference, though, which becomes apparent when it comes to a certain type of twist ending: a character (especially the protagonist) is not be who they have seemed to be. Sometimes, this is accomplished by having the character masked, in the shadows4, or otherwise hidden until a dramatic reveal at the end. This can be very effective if done well, like in the original Metroid game where the main character, bounty hunter Samus Aran, is unexpectedly revealed to be female, smashing players’ preconceptions.

This sort of twist crops up more often in sci-fi/fantasy settings, where hand-waves like “life-like androids”, “clones”, “plastic surgery”, or good old-fashioned “magic” allow for a character to not be who they appear to be. But it’s success is not dependant on the justification (if the rest is done well, the audience are more forgiving). There’s a couple of ways in which the writer can trip themselves up with this trope, which requires some detailed examples.

(Cue spoiler warnings for the films “The Tourist” and “Self/Less”.)

In The Tourist, Johnny Depp’s main character seems to be an everyman caught up in the hunt for a vanished criminal mastermind. Interpol want to catch the baddie. The other crooks want his loot stash. The femme fatale has made everyone think Johnny is the crook (post plastic surgery). After many hijinks, the cops shoot/arrest the other crooks, and Johnny is free to go. But wait! He knows how to get at the crook’s secret safe (he is the criminal mastermind after all), so he gets the money and the leading lady, and lives happily ever after.

Based on the presentation (i.e. the cinematic language), this is a happy ending. Emotionally, we go along with it, because the face we’ve been following/rooting for throughout has won. But when you pause a moment, you feel discomfited: the character you’re attached to is a cunning criminal, who changed his entire appearance to escape the police. This made for an awkward ending.

In Self/Less, old, rich, and ailing Ben Kingsley undergoes a black-market medical procedure to transfer his consciousness to a younger, healthier body (Ryan Reynolds). We follow Ryan as his initial carefree hedonism turns to concern over the weird dreams/flashbacks he starts having (especially when he forgets to take his meds). Eventually, he discovers his new body is not “vat grown”, but originally belonged to someone else, who sold it to pay his family’s debts. Ultimately, Ryan brings down the immoral scientist doing the mind transfers, stops taking the medication (so “Ben Kingsley” fades away), and reunites with his family in traditional hollywood-happy-ending fashion. But wait! Though we’re attached to his face, we know basically nothing about this Ryan Reynolds. Again, there’s something slightly awkward about the ending.

Both movies kind of got away with it (though neither were especially critically successful), but it wouldn’t have worked at all in a novel. There we’re attached to a name, not a face, and it would be more obvious that we’re actually dealing with a different person, but in a movie we’re not obliged to think about that.

The point is to know the medium you’re working in. What is easy? What is hard? What do you need to think about? And most importantly, what do you not need to think about but might trip you up later?


1 Several languages are mentioned in the wikipedia page; the impression I got (which may be inaccurate, I’m no expert on languages) was that a lot of them were from eastern-europe, the middle east, or america.

2 As with all writing “rules”, there are exceptions: Divergent gets away with it, as the scene also reveals details about the world, i.e. that these people restrict the use of mirrors.

3 An interesting example of this cropped up with the casting of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione, sparking much debate. JK Rowling pointed out that the character’s race was never specified. (Did the author envision Hermione like that to begin with? Your guess is as good as mine.)

4 Easy in a novel, requires lots of tricky lighting to make it work in a movie.

Real, True, or Plausible?

People sometimes make the distinction about whether aspects of fiction are “realistic” or not. Generally, I feel fiction doesn’t have to be (it is fiction after all), and that it’s more important that it be “true”.

What I mean is that some aspect of the scene has to be presented truthfully. The reader/audience’s reaction should be “that’s how that character would behave”, “people are like that”, or “that’s what would happen”. It’s about resonance, often on an emotional level. If you (the writer) have achieved that, then the audience will be following you, even if events are not realistic.

It does help, though, if events are also plausible. They don’t need to match how things behave in the “real world”, but they should fit with the way things work in the fictional world that is presented. If a fantasy novel establishes how magic works, then it’s cheating to have it suddenly do something different, and smacks of a writer who has painted themselves into a corner.

Alternatively, you can focus too much on making a scene work on an emotional level, so the audience/reader goes along with it, but later on thinks that something seemed not quite right1.

For an (extended) example, I recently was watching a scene described as a “spies goodbye”. A couple of agents had been captured, their covers were blown2, and their only option was to “retire” from the game and never make contact with their former allies/co-workers. The two are morosely drowning their sorrows in a dimly-lit bar. The waitress brings over a drink, saying it’s a gift from another table. They glance around, and spot one of their (former) colleagues at another table in the corner. This happens several more times, as they realise their whole team are lurking in various parts of the room3. One by one, they make (tearful) eye contact, raise their glasses, then quietly leave.

Emotionally, it hits the mark. It’s fiction, so it doesn’t matter that in the real world this would be a blatant violation of the “cannot make any contact” restriction, but on reflection, it still feels a bit implausible. My main issue is that it breaks one of the cardinal rules of subterfuge: have a reason for being there4.

Is this fixable? A similar effect could be achieved by having the team members nabbing a nearby table and loudly sharing a toast to absent friends—they’re all wearing black (or at least dark colours), anyway, so they’ll give other patrons the impression that they’ve come from a funeral. Far less likely to draw unwanted attention than several people buying drinks for and saluting an otherwise inconspicuous couple. You can still use largely the same camera angles, but without the sense that people are staring at those they supposedly don’t know.

The advantage of being a writer is that any painted corner is escapable. And, if you do it right, you can reinforce other aspects of character/world, without the audience ever realising you were in a pickle to start with.


1 TvTropes refers to this sort of thing as “fridge” moments. As well as the “wait, how does that work?” they also note things that seem brilliant, or horrifying, when thought about later.

2 You know the drill—a mission goes wrong, agents have to improvise, “if you are captured, the Agency will disavow any knowledge of your actions (or even existence)”, etc.

3 And clearly want to get them really drunk.

4 It’s been frequently shown that people (only) remember things they focus on. Details that “fit” an expected pattern, that don’t stand out, will likely be forgotten.

Crime and Punishment

I was shown an interesting blog article talking about the Game of Thrones tv series, and the conflicting drives (in the audience) of empathy and vengeance. You can read it here, but in summary it was addressing the way characters do horrible things, so we want them to be punished, but then get penalised brutally, so we feel bad for them.

At this point, I should clarify that I’m not a fan of GoT—it’s too … intense … for my tastes1. Given the popularity of revenge-based stories throughout history (as in, they usually inspire catharsis, not ambivalence), I suspect the makers of the show are trying to portray the acts of retribution in such a way as to emphasise their brutality and engender empathy in the audience. It would certainly fit with the theme of “everyone is equally nasty (and those that aren’t tend to get killed off quickly)”.

It does raise an interesting thought, though. When we see another human suffering, we feel sympathy. If we see someone wronged, we feel anger: we want justice. But what do we mean by “justice”? Sure, revenge is viscerally satisfying, but only if we dissociate from the other party (usually either through seeing them as somehow inhuman—monstrously evil and unredeemable—or by otherwise distancing them—they are from a rival clan/group).

Many stories of vengeance also convey the idea of “‘an eye for an eye’ leaves the world blind”. Our desire for punishment can be defused by seeing the humanity of the perpetrator. Some political parties like to focus on “tougher sentences for crime” as though it would help, but evidence suggests it does not: likelihood of punishment (“Will I get caught?”) matters more than severity of punishment in deterring lawbreaking.

This is all focusing on the penalties of wrongdoing, however (whether via an individual avenger, or state sanctions). And while the presence of these can mitigate our sense of injustice, I do wonder if they are ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff measures.

Perhaps the way to make the world a more just place would be to try and ensure there were no benefits to breaking the rules.

But we could go further. It’s also known that people are more likely to take risks to avoid a loss than to gain a bonus. So maybe the real problem (and the real injustice) is that following the rules doesn’t mean you’ll be successful.


1 I do know enough bits and pieces of history to recognise the reality of the political machinations; it’s been said2 that democracy doesn’t guarantee you the best ruler, but allows you to change them without bloodshed. It’s worth remembering. We don’t know how propitious are the circumstances, Frederick. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, a new sultan would have his extended family killed off to prevent the possibility of civil war over heirship.

2 I seem to recall a specific quote along these lines, but I cannot remember the wording, or who said it. If anyone does know, please enlighten me!

Better Game Stories In One Step

…it’s just not a very simple one.


A note to start with: This is focused on games where the story is an important component. Not all games are like this. Assume that we’re talking about action/adventure/rpg/etc. games with a significant narrative.


Few would argue that a compelling story involves the following four elements:

  1. An interesting* protagonist
  2. …who wants something
  3. …but has to overcome obstacles to get it
  4. …and either succeeds or fails**

“Traditional” storytelling media (e.g. books, films) are pretty good at ticking these boxes (literally—for example, there’s a how-to book for movie scripts).

Following the same advice and patterns has worked … okay … for video games, but runs into the usual problem with an interactive medium. The player is the protagonist. This means you have a conflict between giving the player freedom to do what they want to do, and ensuring that the protagonist does what is needed for the next part of the story.

Different games manage this better or worse, and various techniques have been used (e.g. “gating” parts of the game to make sure the player experiences things in the right order). But players of some games have reacted loudly against being “railroaded”; feeling disconnected from the game, that their actions don’t matter, that the controls may as well be “Press X to see the next scene”.

Yet it should be easy, shouldn’t it? Games are all about the player/protagonist trying to overcome obstacles to achieve a goal. And games are pretty good at making the protagonist interesting—either through being a blank slate that the player can project themselves onto, or making appropriate use of pre-existing literary/filmic character design techniques.

Whether you refer to it as “ludo-narrative dissonance”, “lack of engagement”, “railroading”, or whatever else, I suspect the same underlying issue with the story. The problem is that the player and the protagonist have different goals. As such, story progress (related to the protagonist’s goal), makes the player feel disinterested (at best). If it gets in the way of the player achieving their goal, they may come to see the narrative as another obstacle.

An example of this is in open-world games where the player wants to muck about and explore, and becomes frustrated at the game trying to get them back to the main quest. Another example is a cut scene that presents a character the protagonist needs to rescue. The player is essentially told “this is your best friend”, but they’re thinking “no, Sam is my best friend****, this is just some random NPC that I’m going to be forced to rescue. Aw man, I hope this isn’t going to be one of those escort missions…”.

To fix this, we just need to make sure the player’s goal matches (or at least is compatible with) the protagonist’s. “Oh, is that all?” you might be thinking. The difficulty is how. To support my attempt at a general answer, I submit the following example.

Think of the opening scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (What do you mean, you haven’t seen it?!?). Imagine playing through something like that in a game. You have to navigate various traps to obtain the magic +3 Sword of Wompage—a significant improvement over your -1 Blunt Twig of Equivocation. You then get a brief chance to use the Sword of Wompage before, just as you’ve escaped the collapsing dungeon by the skin of your teeth, the villainous Baron Smarmy Twirlmoustache shows up and takes your new toy away. I would suggest that at this point, the goals of you (the player) and the protagonist are in perfect alignment.

So what are some general principles we can draw from this?

  • Players won’t care about something just because they’re told to
  • They will care about something that affects gameplay
  • Cut scenes are better for introducing obstacles than goals
  • Baron Twirlmoustache is kind-of a jerk

Game developers already consider the various types of player motivation they want to tap into when designing gameplay (see the Bartle taxonomy, for a formal example); the next step is considering how to align the story with it as well.


* Note: “interesting”, not “likeable”. The main character doesn’t necessarily have to be someone the audience wants to be, or would like to meet, but the audience does have to be curious about what will happen to the character*** next.

** This doesn’t necessarily align with whether the story has a “happy ending”. Sometimes the best outcome for the protagonist is not getting the thing but realising they don’t actually want/need it.

*** One of the benefits of an ensemble cast is that different audience members may be intrigued by different characters, thus keeping a wider audience tuning in than if the focus was mainly on a single protagonist.

**** Few know that Frodo was an avid gamer. There had to be something to while away those quiet, lonely nights in Bag End.

Prequelitis (and Related Ailments)

And in a burst of cosmic irony (God must have a sense of humour), despite what I wrote yesterday, I get randomly inspired and a post leaps almost fully-formed into my head (*ouch*).

For a while I was following the tv-series Gotham (a prequel focusing on not-yet-Commissioner Gordon’s experiences dealing with the messed up and corrupt state of the system), but realised after a while that keeping up with it was seeming more chore than entertainment. It had its moments, but overall I was finding it boring*; events were presented as being significant and dramatic, but it felt like nothing was really going anywhere.

It suffers from prequelitis: the condition where you are unable to achieve significant depth of drama because everyone knows how things will work out eventually. Some non-prequels even subject themselves to some degree of this through their framing device (for example, the narrator is relating their past experiences, either to another character, or to the audience).

Another example would be the Star Wars prequels—whatever happens, the audience already knows that Anakin will become Darth Vader, the empire will take over the galaxy, and that things will generally end up how they are at the start of A New Hope**.

The show apparently sprang from the premise “What if Gordon was the one investigating the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents?”, which is an interesting thought, but again, doesn’t really change anything about the status quo. As the saying goes, “If you’re going to flash, flash hard”****. Upend the established order. Embrace the alternative-universe take on the material. Make the inciting question something like “What if only one of the Waynes was killed?”, or “What if Bruce was killed as well/instead?”, or even “What if Batman is an actual vampire? Even a sparkly one—can you imagine it?—his costume covered with sequins. That would be hilarious!”

Be brave. Sure, the audience may not like it, but they won’t know what’s coming next. Even if everything else largely turns out as normal, starting off on a wild tangent primes the audience to expect the unexpected.


* I freely acknowledge that other people’s opinions may differ. Rose Red found it too grim/gritty, which is sadly the modern audience’s expectation for anything related to el hombre murciélago. Sadly, I don’t think the Adam West goofy camp, or even the Burtonesque kooky gothic, would succeed in the current climes, where anything not sufficiently serious is labelled a “guilty pleasure” or is only enjoyed “ironically”.

** There are various other problems [with the Star Wars prequels] that other people have already gone into in great depth. The only one I will mention (predominantly related to films) is the phenomenon of success → more money. Often what makes a film great is the effort that goes into working with/around limitations; lack of budget/technology forces you to really think about what is needed to make the story work, and how to do it. After the first film is a success, the studio throws money at any ___quels, with the result that the crew can become indulgent, and the resulting films feel flashy but insubstantial. There may be amazing spectacles***, but like cheap takeaway food, half an hour later you’re hungry again.

*** No, I’m not specifically talking about the ones you get for watching in 3D (though that is another example of the issue).

**** A cliché from the world of cricket commentary. Essentially, if you’re going to play a risky shot, don’t make it even riskier by being half-hearted about it.

Are Lies Ever White?

For a long time I’ve been puzzled by the idea of lying. Various moral philosophies have fairly clear edicts on the matter (i.e. deceit = bad) and this seems to be the prevailing opinion. Sure, there are those who see absolutely no problem with lying, but they’re generally either fictional, psychopaths, or both.

But at the same time, this suggests that most people are hypocrites, in that they decry lying with one hand, and indulge in it with the other, justifying things as “social niceties” or “little white lies” (textbook denial-by-diminishing). But I tend to agree: there are plenty of times that to tell the truth would be impolite, unwise, in some way less good than not doing so.

So what’s the deal? Are we all filthy liars, or is lying not as bad as it’s portrayed?

Actually, I think there’s something else involved (from my perspective at least). Part of my confusion has been due to my perception of what a “lie” is, which has been influenced more than the average by “Knights and Knaves” logic puzzles (e.g. the two doors, two guards scene in the film Labyrinth).

The effect being that I had a very black-and-white view of lying: any false statement is a lie. More recently, harkening back to my thoughts on morality, I’ve realised that this neglects the “liar”‘s intentions. Do they realise what they’re saying is false? Or are they mistaken? Misinformed? Deluded? Why are they making a false statement?

Another distinction that should be made is between lying by commission (stating something false) and lying by omission (leaving out something true). It took me a while to come to grips with the idea that someone saying “How are you?” is just making conversation, and you don’t need to feel uncomfortable about saying that you’re fine even though you’re actually traumatised over yesterday’s episode of Days Of Our Lives. There’s nothing wrong with keeping private things private.

Another situation that seems, at face value, to be lying is the whole area of fiction: literature, theatre, comedy, etc. Knowingly asserting things that are not true, but without malice. Indeed, there is an implicit assumption that both parties know the story is false. Similarly in various types of games, deliberate deceit is a component (e.g. bluffing at poker, dummy passes in football), but it’s under specific conditions.

I don’t want to suggest by this that lying is a good thing; merely clarify the definition. Much of the function of society depends on there being a level of trust between people. What got me (back) onto this topic was an episode of the tv show Perception (another in the “abrasive, mentally-ill, but brilliant layman* helps solve crimes” genre – this time with a schizophrenic neuroscience professor) which mentioned that we react to lies with the same part of our brains that process pain: discovering you are being deceived literally feels uncomfortable. I also vaguely recollect reading (somewhere) that when we hear a statement, our brain processes it as though it were true (which I suspect is why rumours can hurt so much), and we have to actively refute it (literally have second thoughts about it).

To conclude with a metaphor (because I like metaphors**): tigers are dangerous, but we shouldn’t treat zebras the same way just because they’re stripey.


* Because they’re almost always men (which is a whole other kettle of worms).

** I’m rather fond of footnotes, too.

A House Divided

Recently, Rose Red and I watched the film version of Divergent (the first episode in yet another of the currently-popular young-adult dystopia trilogies). I found it interesting, and enjoyable, though a bit on-the-nose in places; I was unsurprised to discover the author was inspired by their Psyc-101 classes at university.

Lest I sound condescending, let me be clear that I mean no disrespect. I certainly haven’t managed to write a best-selling novel that’s been turned into a multi-million dollar Hollywood production, let alone to have done so in my early twenties. My perspective involves somewhat more experience (in life, education, and stories) than the target market for the book, so it’s not surprising it comes across a bit simplisticly.

Anyhow, what I found interesting in Divergent was the concept of “Factions”, which—like the Hogwarts Houses in the Harry Potter series—are defined based on particular personality traits/virtues*.

This [personality-based groups] can be an interesting way of revealing the characters, in terms of showing how they do/don’t fit within a particular group. Indeed, part of the point of Divergent is that people shouldn’t be defined so simply (different situations call for different approaches), which is not addressed in Harry Potter**. In the real world, there are a great many attempts to categorise people’s personalities, though they often involve more than a handful of different types (a well-known example being the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator).

One aspect of any sort of group segregation, another concept from psychology, is “Us vs. Them”. It’s been shown that the mere act of dividing people into groups (regardless of whether the division is systematic or arbitrary) causes them to value in-group individuals (“us”) more than out-group individuals (“them”). Essentially, there’s an instinct to compete (whether the competition is overt or indirect). This is one of the reasons behind the idea of “divide and conquer” (“A house divided will not stand”). For example, in The Hunger Games, the Capitol separated the populace into districts to prevent them working together.

Where this can come across as simplistic is when it becomes clear which groups the author identifies with (would be in, or wishes they would). Regardless of the value of other traits, Gryffindor is the best, and Slytherin’s are all dodgy (if not outright evil). Rose Red was very amused when I commented on the main character of Divergent choosing to leave “Lame Boringville” in favour of “Exciting McAwesomeSauce” (though, having not read the book, I don’t know if that bias comes from the author or the film-makers).

It’s very difficult to achieve, but there is great value and nuance in showing pros and cons to both/all perspectives without significant bias (other than the fact that the protagonist is on one side and the antagonist another).


* In some ways, the factions are better defined by the absence of vices: Abnegation reject Ego, Dauntless reject Fear, Erudite reject Ignorance, Candor reject Falsehood, and Amity reject Aggression.

** For example, Harry is told by the Sorting Hat that he would do well in Slytherin, but this is used to emphasise that he chose one over the other, rather than making a point of showing him using different approaches (“Choice” being a more pertinent motif of the series, as opposed to Divergent’s “Adaptability”).

My Harry Potter is not your Harry Potter

Relating to my previous musings about fanfiction, and the recent short story detailing some post-Hogwarts events, it seems a good time to discuss this idea.

One of things I’ve found interesting about reading fanfiction is seeing different people’s takes on a character. This can even become apparent in seeing fan reactions to new stories/episodes/sequels/etc—some like it, some complain that a character has changed (the more adamant even claiming the writer(s)—in many cases the one(s) who invented the character in the first place—has gotten the character wrong).

You see, for any (significant) character, the writer has probably delved into vast screeds of back-story and analysis that colours how they expect the character to behave. The audience usually doesn’t have access to this information (which is fortunate, as it probably doesn’t make for exciting reading), so will fill in gaps with their own preconceptions, expectations, and assumptions.

We do the same thing with real people. Note that I’m not saying this is wrong; we’d find it much harder to empathise if we didn’t (as we’d have no frame of reference). It’s essentially the “putting yourself in their shoes” idea; the more you know about them, the more accurate the metaphorical shoes will be. It’s another of the sensible cognitive shortcuts that help us deal with the world around us. The only problems arise when the other person’s experience is so different to ours that we make completely wrong assumptions about them, and the only way to correct this is to be aware of the error, and be open to learning something new.

Which can be hard to do, especially if you’re a white male in western society (which keeps telling you you’re the norm), but it’s definitely worth it for the chance to see the world from a new perspective.

Inconceivable ineptitude

To a certain section of the population, the first word of the title should give you a fair idea of the topic of this post. 🙂

There’s a memorable scene in The Princess Bride where the mysterious Man in Black engages Vizzini in a battle of wits in the form of which-cup-is-poisoned? Naturally, Vizzini (having been established as not as clever as he thinks he is) falls into the trap and drinks the poison, and the audience learns how he was duped.

I was reminded of this scene by the similar scenario presented at the end of the first episode of Sherlock (“A Study In Pink”). It differs in that it is the hero facing the choice of two options (and doesn’t use glasses of wine, though I will for the purpose of simplifying the discussion), but otherwise the same general scenario is presented, to wit:

  • there are two glasses of wine
  • one is in front of each person
  • one is poisoned
  • the challenger knows which is which

In the scenario as presented, the challenge becomes like a game of poker between the two. Did they poison my glass, or are they bluffing? Vizzini goes to ridiculous lengths of imagining bluff and double-bluff. Sherlock largely focuses on his opponent to try to gauge his tactics.

Despite the fact that Sherlock Holmes is, unlike Vizzini, about as clever as he thinks himself to be, he still makes the same … elementary … mistake. Fortunately, he gets away with it, as a third party interrupts the “game”, but he (and the audience) never finds out for certain if he chose rightly or not.

So what is this simple mistake? In a battle of wits, don’t freely accept statements made by your opponents. Granted, in Sherlock’s case his deductions confirm the truth of some of his adversaries claims, but that doesn’t justify accepting everything as presented. This is a life-and-death scenario—your opponent is aiming to kill you, so why wouldn’t they lie?

Often, such things can be explained away by the demands of narrative, but in this case it doesn’t make the scenario less interesting. In The Princess Bride we see one of the possible alternatives to the scenario as presented*. If the challenger is less than honest about the scenario, then the possibilities are:

  1. The subject’s glass is poisoned
  2. The challenger’s glass is poisoned
  3. Both glasses are poisoned, and the challenger has an antidote/immunity
  4. Neither glass is poisoned; the whole game is a distraction

Now, it’s reasonable to assume given the outcome that Sherlock was facing either possibility 1 or 2, but during the game it would be foolish not to consider the possibility of 3 and 4. Vizzini didn’t, and fell foul of 3.

Interestingly, I haven’t encountered possibility 4 anywhere; I’d be interested if anyone else has.


* I’m impressed by the fact that the Man in Black implies the potential of 3 and 4 in his presentation of the scenario (“Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right and who is dead.”—emphasis mine). He never claims that one glass is poisoned and the other is safe. Conversely, Sherlock’s adversary states explicitly that (“There’s a good bottle and a bad bottle. You take the pill from the good bottle, you live; take the pill from the bad bottle, you die.”).

The Problem With Fanfiction

The Collins English Dictionary defines “fanfic” (short for “fan fiction”) as:

(noun) fiction written around previously established characters invented by other authors

While it’s not a new phenomenon (see for example The Testament of Cresseid), it has grown hugely in the internet age owing to the relative ease of dissemination.

What it generally is, however, is derided. Which I find somewhat puzzling. fanfiction.net (hardly the only site out there) has hundreds of thousands of stories in a wide variety of fictional universes, and a wide variety of genres. Okay, it’s not as populous as something like facebook, but the point is that there are a lot of people reading and writing fanfiction; it’s not just an obscure, niche interest.

In fact, I would suggest it’s something that people do instinctively. How many kids make up stories about what their toys are doing? How often do you wonder “what if…”? Humans love stories, and—while I can understand the copyright and intellectual property concerns of some authors—nothing will stop people from being imaginative. Having a starting point makes the process much easier. Most aren’t doing it to make money, or to deprive the original creator. Even if it’s used for publicity for an aspiring author, it’s also publicity for the original work.

In the end, though, it probably comes down to legitimacy. Some creators don’t like the thought of other people playing with their toys, whether for profit or just for amusement. And some people are uncomfortable with the thought that the only reason Sherlock doesn’t count as fanfiction is because they’re getting paid for it. 🙂