Using Assumptions to Strengthen Your Storytelling

Assumptions in storytelling, editing, writing

Using Assumptions to Strengthen Your Storytelling

This past weekend I flew to Georgia, where I was raised, to visit my family of origin for the first time in a year and a half. (Thank you, Moderna!)

We grew up quite tight-knit, but as often happens within families, time, age, personalities, ideologies, and hundreds of other vagaries of life and its many changes have tested those ties. And as many people have experienced in recent years, some of the increasing polarization of our world has seeped into our family dynamics, fraying them in places. We stay connected, but sometimes it feels as if there’s enough tension on those lines to snap them.

Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s the enforced time apart courtesy of the pandemic, maybe it’s simply emotional and spiritual growth, but along with all the other baggage I was bringing to the visit (and I’m not talking about my carry-on, friends), this time I tried to bring a fresh sense of objectivity.

The human brain is a marvelously plastic thing, designed for learning. We see our fellow caveperson get killed by an angry bison enraged by the spear thrust into its side and our brains immediately begin making connections, extrapolating this event to a broader conclusion: Don’t get close to the bison, guys.

These assumptions serve a valuable purpose—they’re meant to protect us and perpetuate our species. (Oh, had Grik only known about the bison!)

But they can also limit us, leading to inaccurate generalizations and mistaken conclusions. It wasn’t proximity alone to the bison that doomed Grik, but a collection of events: Maybe he wasn’t fast enough, maybe he lacked hunting skill, maybe he was at the wrong place at the wrong time when the bison happened to kick in his direction. Grik may have had a pretty bad day, but the rest of the tribe enjoyed steak dinner for weeks. If his tribe maintained that initial overly broad assumption–avoid the bison!–they might soon starve.

Assumptions serve a very useful purpose in storytelling and character development, too. Often they are the worn grooves your protagonist may have fallen into that form their core wound, the misconception they must overcome in the course of the story to attain their goals: “The world is a dangerous place” or “Love hurts” or “I can’t” or “I’m not worthy.”

They’re also immeasurably valuable in creating and maintaining tension throughout the story: The spouse who comes home eager to share something with her partner who is greeted with a frown and thinks, Ugh, you’re always so negative, kicking off an argument. The employee who ignores his family and works into the night day after day, sure his head is always on the chopping block with the boss who never praises him. The child whose parent barks, “Not now!” who wonders what she did wrong.

We make assumptions constantly, our brains always looking to form data points into a pattern to draw conclusions that are meant to protect us from harm, whether physical or emotional. It’s when those assumptions are overly broad or based on faulty information or our conclusions are off that we may create problems that aren’t actually there.

When assumptions are overly broad or based on faulty information or our conclusions are off we may create problems that aren’t actually there .

Maybe the woman’s partner frowned because a migraine is splitting his head open. Maybe he just heard some bad news or had a rough day. Maybe his face just looks like that (RBF is real, people). If the woman hadn’t leaped to the conclusion she did, perhaps her news would have cheered his bad mood, or she might have found out about his headache and been able to offer him sympathy and comfort, and they might have had a moment of connection, adding a thread to the bonds between them instead of snapping another one and weakening those ties.

Maybe the employee’s boss is terse and preoccupied because she always feels her own head is on the chopping block, or she was never praised in her family and feels it’s phony, or maybe she thinks that the employee’s late nights mean he’s behind or isn’t working efficiently during work hours. Each reality comes with its own ramifications–but the point is that he can’t know the reason for her reserved demeanor, and making assumptions about it might be unnecessarily costing him chunks of his life and time with loved ones.

One night during family happy hour (one of our more delightful traditions), my mom made a comment that hit one of those old exposed nerves of our vast ideological differences. That night I lay in her guest room feeling sad that I was so different from my family, that we have such wildly opposing views of the world.

And then I thought about what had actually happened. My mother made a single comment, to which no one else in the room responded. And then we moved on. What I assumed, which was causing me pain, was so broad; what I actually knew from that incident was the way one person felt about one thing at that one moment.

Later on in the weekend I had a chance to have wide-ranging, unusually deep one-on-one conversations with both my brother and my nephew, and I think we were each surprised to realize how much we actually have in common: what we value, what we want, what we believe. We may take different tacks on attaining and maintaining those things in some areas, but at the core we’re much more alike than we are different.

And for the first time in a long time we were able to directly address a lot of the misconceptions we’d each been holding about the other, based on broad labels and generalizations: “You support this, so you must believe this.” “You’re a liberal/conservative, so you must believe this…” I came home with a strengthened sense of connection with these people I love profoundly, a wonderful release of much of the tension that’s underlain a lot of our interactions in recent years.

As always, writing involves a little bit of sadism as we torture our characters. What assumptions might your characters be making or could they make that cause misunderstanding or friction or pain? Where have they predicted an outcome incorrectly, extrapolated someone’s thoughts, painted others with an overly broad brush? How can you use these assumptions to amp up juicy conflict and tension and complicate your protagonist’s path? How can you address and resolve them to show her evolution and growth, and free her of those misconceptions so she can attain her goals?

Human beings are far too complicated to sum up in easy labels or from a few isolated behaviors or actions. Even where these data points form patterns that do in fact lead to certain conclusions, we’re always changing, always evolving. Those evolutions are often a key part of your character’s internal struggle and her arc—the expanded worldview that finally allows her to achieve her ultimate goals.

(If this kind of “unlearning” of generalizations and assumptions about those with different viewpoints or ideologies is of interest to you, I learned a lot about these skills from a nonprofit, bipartisan organization called Braver Angels that’s doing wonderful work to help bridge the divides in our country by encouraging civil discourse and real understanding between those with opposing views. I highly recommend their workshops and dialogues.)

14 Comments. Leave new

  • Susan Specht Oram
    May 6, 2021 1:14 pm

    Very helpful, thanks Tiffany!

  • Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

  • Kristi Leonard
    May 6, 2021 2:39 pm

    What a great way to think about creating tension in my characters. Thank you for your wisdom. It must feel invigorating to breathe new life into your personal relationships. We could all use some of that these days.

    I’m actually looking forward to meeting you in October at the WFWA Baltimore retreat. You’ve been an amazing resource for me and I look forward to learning more of your strategies and teaching!!

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      May 6, 2021 3:43 pm

      Thanks, Kristi–that’s so nice to hear. And yes, it did me a world of good to reexamine some of my assumptions and feel closer to the people I love. And of course I have to tie everything back to story. 😀 Looking forward to meeting in person at the retreat!

  • Karen Phillips
    May 6, 2021 2:46 pm

    Great article. I had not considered assumptions as a way to increase tension and/or create an obstacle.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      May 6, 2021 3:44 pm

      What’s so interesting about them–and powerful for your fiction (and life)–is how below-the-radar they often are. It’s why they’re so effective in storytelling–your character is causing herself suffering and isn’t even aware it’s her own beliefs that are creating it.

  • Thank you for sharing your experiences. I love how you tie in story telling. Definitely will check out Braver Angels.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      May 6, 2021 3:45 pm

      Thanks, Christine. And I hope you like Braver Angels. I love what they’re doing and the way they’re bridging divides with respect and by heightening communication and understanding. We’re all so much more alike than we are different, at the core.

  • Thank you, Tiffany.
    I haven’t had the courage to torture my characters, and you’ve given me not only permission, but a recommendation I’m eager to follow up with. Torturing my protagonist with a false assumption will add a lot of heat and maybe even some fire to my currently tepid WIP.
    When the student is ready, the teacher appears. Thank you so much for this appearance.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      May 6, 2021 4:54 pm

      Thanks for such a nice comment, Bob! I’m pleased this is helpful (and timely).

      It’s weird how much sadism is a key part of writing, isn’t it? 🙂

  • Jocosa Wade
    May 6, 2021 6:04 pm

    Super post. I learned this lesson big time during the revision process. It’s a keeper. Congrats on the new emotional inroads you’ve made with your family. xoxo


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