Cracking Open the Black Box and Learning Something Unexpected

As creativity is often paired with curiosity, many authors have the tendency to accumulate a surprising range of knowledge. Even if we choose to present a technology as a magic black box, it is essential for us to have cracked the lid and understand the workings ourselves to avoid stupid errors. Often that sort of learning has unexpected results, however. For instance, I once sought to understand how a polygraph worked and ended up changing how I look at managing tension.

In my search, I found an article where a former CIA operative explained that polygraphs rely more heavily on interpretation than technology. Though popular fiction suggests that lie detectors give a binary judgment of truthfulness, they are in reality much more subjective. A polygraph machine measures biorhythms tied the stress and fear responses and then reports those indicators to the interviewer. By comparing the elevated results to the baseline established at the beginning of the interrogation, the interviewer interprets the results to determine truthfulness.

The author continued to discuss the importance of the interviewee’s belief in the authority and power of the interviewer. Because a polygraph measures stress indicators, the interviewee needs to believe that personal negative consequences are imminent if a lie is detected. Therefore, polygraphs do not detect lies, but rather the individual’s fear of the consequences of lying. As writers, we are trying to induce the same sort of stress responses in our readers. It follows then, that we should use the same concepts in establishing tension.

Creating a strong emotional bond between the reader and the protagonist is the clear first step, as it brings both a sense of imminence and a personal stake to the problems the character is facing. Second, the consequences and their effects on the protagonist should be clearly established (personal stake) and their inevitability foreshadowed (imminence). Additionally, the reader needs to see how the consequences would torment the protagonist (personal stake & negativity), and believe that the magnitude of that suffering is reasonable when compared to the consequences themselves (believability). Additionally, the established construct of the story must allow for the results to play out as foreshadowed (believability). Finally, the protagonist must either choose to or be forced to start down the path that could result in the dreaded consequences (personal stake, imminence & negativity). Once all of these aspects are established, the author can progress with the tale of the character struggling to avoid their dreaded fate.

Because I chose not to employ the Black Box trope and treat a polygraph as a magic machine that can detect lies, I was able to improve my skills as a storyteller while simultaneously learning about an interesting piece of technology. Even though it is sometimes necessary to gloss over the details, sacrificing the reader’s suspension of disbelief and the integrity of the fourth wall because of silly mistakes is an unbalanced trade. Like any other trope, a Black Box must be used sparingly, and for the right reasons.


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