I have written many stores in my school days, one of which won me the third prize in Primary School. Thinking back, perhaps I do not really deserve the prize – I did not understand the concept of a story at all.
Story writing was an analytical and technical problem for me: “How do I construct a series of events together so that they fit the teacher’s criteria for a story?” I approached writing a story as if I was taking a pile of random Lego bricks and constructing a building from them, where each brick represented an event I knew about (whether it is from the news, a storybook or my personal experiences).
I understood causality and what constitutes an individual scene. I have also read other “story blueprints” – excellent stories written by different authors. These blueprints helped me organized the story into a series of events, which can shift from scene to scene. However, I could not create characters with a self/individuality. As a result, the characters experienced no decisions, pain or sacrifices. Far from being pivotal forces in the story, they are annoying props that I must add to allow my work to qualify as a story.
The resulting stories I made were a mash of events, mostly “copied and pasted” from the other stories I have read.
To many people, the key ingredients of making a good story are:
- Interesting characters
- Interesting plot
- Interesting way of presentation
There are many books available that can teach us these ingredients. What I really needed was a more fundamental understanding:
- How to build characters who behave like human beings, so that we can relate to them
- How to build a plot that follows logic and causality, so that we can understand it
- How to present the story based on the consciousness of human beings, so it feels familiar to us
In this article, I will introduce a few “common sense” concepts that can help with story writing as well as creativity in general.
Human Existence as a set of limitations
After many years of experience with NeuroTypical perspectives, I have devised 7 restrictions to guide my work and thinking. The key concept is to always remember that we are always constrained by limitations in our human existence, which a realistic story must take into account.
1) We are limited by a human body. We have only 4 limbs, are able to operate in a limited range of temperatures, have limited sensory range, can only move at a certain maximum speed, will get tired etc.
2) We are limited by a human mind. We have limitations in our gestalt processing (thus falling prey to visual illusions), limited processing abilities, fixed built-in instincts, a tendency to follow social norms and a predisposition for fatigue.
3) We are limited by human time. A solution that takes 50 years to mature may be too long for most of us, while we cannot react in time to events that last for less than half a second.
4) We are limited by our physical environment. For instance, we may not have enough space to store the steeply discounted goods, are unable to build our home on the ocean floor etc.
5) We are constrained by our social environment. We may not be able to implement solutions due to our lack of political influence, social norms or other people’s fears or desires.
6) We are limited by history. The possibilities that are open to us exist because of the events in the past. We cannot travel back into the past to change our present.
7) We are constrained by the laws of physics. We cannot throw something faster than the speed of light, defy gravity, pass through walls or teleport from New York to Hong Kong.
The Purpose of Human Existence
Many philosophers have debated about the purpose of existence, which lies at the core of story writing. Below is my answer for this topic.
1) Growth: We enter the world of existence to follow the Path which we have chosen to walk. As we live, we change ourselves from one state to another in order to experience our Path. When we have done our development work, we leave. There is nothing else for us to do.
2) Experience Limitations: In order to grow, we must experience limitations. Limitations force us to choose something over another. There is no purpose in existing if limitations do not exist.
3) Make Choices: Each choice is an act of self-definition. The sum total of all our choices creates our character. Our beliefs about ourselves are irrelevant to our identity, since until our belief is demonstrated through action, it merely exists as our potential character.
Reactive Predictive Communications
One of the key skills of a NeuroTypical is the ability to recognize and complete a pattern of human behavior before it actually takes place. The other key skill is the ability to know that other people know that you know something (i.e. meta-cognition or Theory of Mind) and vice-versa. I call the integration of these meta-skills as “Reactive Predictive Communication”. Take the following scene from a movie as an example:
In the movie “Aliens”, the protagonist Ellen Ripley finds herself in a chamber full of alien eggs. The hideous alien queen glances at her menacingly, while her underlings approach Ripley from the corridor. Ripley stares at the Alien Queen and fires her flamethrower into the air. The queen roars briefly in agony. Ripley then looks down at one of the alien eggs and points the flamethrower at it. She did not fire. The queen then makes a quick waving gesture and her underlings leave the room.
Here is how “Reactive Predictive Communication” occurred in this short scene:
1) Ripley sees the alien underlings’ approaching shadows in the corridors leading to the egg chamber. She anticipates that they intend to enter the room and harm her.
2) Ripley sees the alien eggs and believes that the Alien Queen will want to protect them because these are her offspring. Ripley decides to demonstrate her destructive power by firing her flamethrower into the air. She then points it to the egg, indicating that she could also fire at them. She knew that the Alien Queen will complete the pattern in her behavior.
3) The Alien Queen anticipates that Ripley will burn her eggs and roars in agony. She does not want harm to befall her offspring.
4) The Alien Queen sees Ripley’s hesitation and deduces that it is intentional. She deduces that Ripley wants to escape and avoid being harmed. She realizes that Ripley is attempting to make a bargain with her: either allow Ripley to leave the room safely, or Ripley will burn her eggs.
5) Ripley has already anticipated what the Alien Queen is anticipating before she fires the flamethrower. She awaits the queens’ answer with her finger on the flamethrower’s trigger in case the queen decides to harm her.
6) The Alien Queen decides to accept Ripley’s bargain. To demonstrate her acceptance of the bargain, she signals her underlings with a waving gesture, knowing that her underlings will understand what she meant.
7) The underlings recognize Ripley’s imminent threat to the Alien Queen’s eggs. They have anticipated both Ripley’s and the Alien Queen’s thoughts. The queen’s gesture, in the context of this anticipation, is a signal for them to retreat.
8) The underlings retreat and Ripley now has a chance to leave the room alive. She points her flamethrower away from the egg to signal her acceptance of the bargain, knowing that the Alien Queen will understand this acknowledgment of acceptance.
Reactive Predictive Communication is also useful for practical problem-solving. Let us imagine a hypothetical invention of the cup handle thousands of years ago:
1) A man grabs hold of a cup of boiling water without realizing that it is hot.
2) As he scalds his hand. his reflexes kick in. He lets go of the cup, causing it to break on the floor and scald his legs too.
3) A woman sees this and notices that the existing design of the cup is not adequate.
4) She realizes that she can improve a person’s grip on the cup as well as avoid the danger of scalding if she can add a protrusion to the cup (much like a saucepan). This advantage is made obvious as she imagines herself handling a cup of boiling water with this design.
5) An improved version of that protrusion became the modern day cup handle.
Practical Creativity comes with a few levels of awareness:
1) We see our physical and social environment from the limited perspective of a human being. With this, we can define our physical constraints such as resources, freedom of movement, amount of time etc. We will also know our social constraints including social power, norms and rules.
2) We understand how situations in our world impact oneself. Mopping the floor causes physical fatigue and uses up time that we can spend on other more meaningful tasks. As a result, most people will consider this task negative. However, if one has little awareness of physical fatigue or no idea of the value of time, he may see it differently.
3) We recognize that the present situation is undesirable and a more desirable situation is potentially possible.
4) We feel motivated to change the present situation to a more desirable situation.
Self-Other Reference Point
Autistics often skip the first and second levels of awareness of Practical Creativity, going directly to the third and fourth levels. The resulting plans or ideas assume a perfect world with unlimited resources and no social obstacles. The autistic may also give far greater priority to art and self-expression over problem-solving, since he has little awareness of how his solution will impact him when implemented.
For instance, when a teacher asks a NeuroTypical student to organize the classroom tables and chairs, he will think in terms of the “rules of the social game“. The teacher creates the rules: If he is satisfied with the results, the student passes. Likewise, if he is unsatisfied with the results, the student fails. Thus, the student understands that his own views and standards are irrelevant. The NeuroTypical student will also consider his own priorities. Few students are passionate about organizing tables and chairs – they usually prefer to hang out with their friends outside of school. Thus, the challenge is to spend the least amount of time and effort on this task but doing it well enough to pass the teacher’s inspection.
The autistic, however, narrowly defines the problem as “how to arrange classroom tables and chairs“. He computes an ideal model of how the furniture are best arranged and do his best to fit the furniture under his care into this model, regardless of practical concerns or the teacher’s standards. Living in a narrow window of time: he will probably have no idea of priorities. Time happens when he is doing something, and it stops when he stops doing something. Therefore, he will take as long as he requires to carefully move each table and chair to the exact millimeter required.
|NeuroTypical Reference Point||Autistic Reference Point|
|What other people think is the goal: The teacher wants the classroom to look presentable to everyone else. This means that there is nothing that looks obviously wrong to casual passersby.||What I think is the goal: The teacher wants the classroom to be perfectly clean and neat. This means that I must do everything possible to ensure that all known deviations are corrected.|
|What other people are aware of: The teacher never checks the top of the cabinet, so he will not notice that I did not clean it. Hence, it is OK if I don’t clean it.||What I am aware of: I must clean the top of the cabinet because I know that it is dirty.|
|Other people’s standards: If the teacher never notices anything messy or unusual upon entering the classroom, I pass.||My standards: I will look in every crevice and corner for dirt. I will use a ruler to ensure that the desks and chairs are perfectly straight. I pass only if I cannot spot any deviations.|
Common Mistakes of Inventors
Lastly, I would like to mention a few mistakes commonly made by creative people, of which many people with autism seem especially vulnerable
1) Possessing an idea: Ideas do not belong to anyone in this world since it is impossible to own an idea. [Intellectual property protects only specific implementations of ideas, not ideas in general.] Eventually, the person whom others credit with the idea is often not the original inventor, but the person who first finds success using that idea. In fact, the first inventor of an idea may actually hinder progress by insisting that people implement his idea in his rigid way. Therefore, it is detrimental to protect one’s idea like a prized treasure. Rather, it is more important to start demonstrating the practicality of an idea or exploiting its usefulness as soon as possible.
2) Holding back on your best: Many people often worry that they will have nothing left to share if they do not “hold back” some of their effort or ideas. A real genius will not hesitate to do his best and share his insights with other people. In fact, the more the genius shares, the more it challenges him to develop even better ideas and the more that other people can see his talents. If we fear that we will have nothing left if we share, then we probably have very little substance anyway. However, for strategic purposes, it may be wise to temporarily withhold our ideas from the public while implementing a project in order that better funded or more talented people do not beat us to it.
3) Seeing inventing as the most important contribution: Many books talk about leveraging off other people’s time and skills to earn a lot of money. However, if we have nothing for other people to leverage on, we are merely parasites. Who would want to work with a parasite? They will just grab our ideas and work with other partners who they can leverage on. It is very important that one contributes to all parts of the solution cycle (i.e. from the invention of the idea to the distribution of the final product to the marketplace).
4) Premature Inventing: Flying cars are often shown in futuristic movies, but until everyone is ready to get a pilot’s license or until we trust machines to fly by themselves, it will probably never take off. Even Thomas Edison experienced many failures. He tried creating a Kinetophone that combined moving pictures and sound. Unfortunately, the technology of the late 19th century was not ready to facilitate his primitive video invention. There are many ingenious inventions that never made it to market. Thus, we should aim to make things that our world can accept to maximize our chances of success.
In my view, the best way to understand the workings of NeuroTypicals is to have the experience of living as one of them. The way that Planet Earth works is obvious when we have the necessary experience plus the instincts. This is what I did when I started to accept my identity as an “Earthling”, and the resulting experiences blew my mind.
I awakened to the meaning of “being human” in 2005 during the process of writing a story, in which my characters come to life and wrote their story themselves. I was relegated to the role of an omniscient reporter, writing down their experiences as these happen in the story. I then realized that writing stories is not just a hobby or a possible way to make my living – it is my own way to bring my Humanity out of myself. And it may well be your way too.