Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Change Blindness and the Perfect Mystery

by Julia Buckley

Watch the full episode. See more NOVA scienceNOW.

In this interesting little video produced by NOVA, it is demonstrated that people with "change blindness" don't notice a major difference in something right in front of their eyes.

This reminded me of many mysteries I've read in which characters (and, consequently, the readers) miss the fact that one character is eventually represented by someone else, and no one is meant to notice the difference, because therein lies the secret to the mystery. Agatha Christie did it more than once; I also recall a wonderful Mary Stewart novel which used the same sleight of hand.

Further, I thought of some more modern writers who have used this technique, but I won't name them for fear that I will be spoiling their plotting.

But is "change blindness" a real phenomenon? Or did this little set-up create a too-unrealistic situation?

Would you, for example, fall for the same thing?

Try taking this test:

My favorite part of the sleight of hand technique (or "change blindness, if you like) is that it makes the eventual solution so inevitable that the reader says "How didn't I see that before?"


Have you used this in your writing?

What's the last thing you didn't recognize that was right in front of your nose?


Diana said...

Julia - That was a great test!!

I tend to be oblivious to speed limit signs when driving. I never know what the limit is no matter where I am. It requires making a conscious effort to remember to look for a sign.

Julia Buckley said...

I believe that--don't they say more than 80 percent of driving is done unconsciously?

But I fear I do many things unconsciously. Like when I lose something that I just had in my hand. :)

darqside said...

I've got to say that was one of the greatest YouTube videos I've ever seen. There's a lot to be learned from this.

Darrell James said...

Didn't see it coming at all. I usually only see what I expect to see. I can stare at the contents in the refrigerator for an hour looking for the milk, only to find it's in a different container than I was expecting.

Interesting post, Julia!

Alan Orloff said...

I've got to find a way to include that bit of dialogue in my next book: "But did you notice the moon-walking bear?"

Very cool, Julia!

Kathleen Ernst said...

What an interesting post! I admire authors who can pull off that trick in their novels. That's my ideal in a mystery: readers don't see the end coming, and yet when all is revealed, they wonder how they could have missed it.

Beth Groundwater said...

Okay, mental note to self. Never ride in the car with Diana! ;-)

I'm a big believer in "playing fair" with the reader in a mystery, providing all the clues they need to solve it during the telling of the story, but hiding those clues well enough so most readers don't put it all together until the end. I'm always happy when a reader solves one of my mysteries early, because that means it's possible to solve early. That's the whole point of a mystery, I think--to give the reader an interesting puzzle.

I know I get frustrated when the author holds an essential piece of information back, making the puzzle solution impossible. I'd much rather say, "Oh, it was there all along (like the moon-walking bear), and I just missed it."

Keith Raffel said...

Great post, Julia. You got us thinking.

G.M. Malliet said...

I did see the bear! I did! But I lost track of the passes because I stopped to wonder what the bear was doing there. Typical.

Agatha pulled this misdirectional thing so often you'd think we'd all have wised up. She fooled me every single time. If she'd dressed a character as a bear, looks like I'd have spotted that, tho.

"What's the last thing you didn't recognize that was right in front of your nose?" Home repairs.

Barb said...

I used this technique (how well is debatable) in my short story "Volunteer of the Year." (Just nominated for an Agatha Award - yay!) Throughout the story the protagonist is thinking about/doing X (and by the story's end, that should be obvious), but while reading it, I hope the reader will actually think the protgaonist has been thinking about Y and thus be surprised at the turn of events.

And no, I didn't notice the bear, but then, he didn't really look like a bear. Was dressed similarly to the players wearing black. (That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.)

And Gin: LOL!
"What's the last thing you didn't recognize that was right in front of your nose?" Home repairs.

Barb Goffman

Julia Buckley said...

Darrell, I'm guilty of that, too. I'm always so POSITIVE that something isn't there--but my husband is guilty of it way more often. :)

I agree with you all that it's an enviable task to be able to hide things in plain sight.

GM, I believe you saw the bear. :)

And Barb, congrats on your nomination! The story sounds great.