Persuasion

etaylor

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Reflecting on a number of things I've seen or read recently, I feel it's rather remarkable how void of meaningful persuasive intent many turning points in plotlines actually are.

The tropish "bad guy has a change of heart and does something good" plot mechanic is often handled with such clumsiness that you lose the audience, the entire exchange feels forced, and its predictable in a bad way.

I would like to discuss believable persuasion.

Worth noting is that as a writer you should probably be grounded in a fair understanding of typical human behavior/argumentative psychology.

The short of it, based on numerous recent psychological studies, is...

1 - We all have cognitive bias. People don't care about evidence. They cherry pick, disregard, and ultimately only utilize information that already reinforces their beliefs while disregarding contrary data as quackery even if that data is more true and accurate than their beliefs. (The sky is brown and I don't care what you say! Blue sky claimants are shills, and they're paid to lie to you!") Remember, for every one genius wrongfully disregarded as a quack, there are a hundred rightfully disregarded quacks who believe they're a genius.
2 - Very, very few people actually listen to reason. The overwhelming majority of people make decisions based on their emotional feelings towards any given thing. Logic and reason must be pursued as a course of action by both parties to work. For most people, it's poorly wielded as a bludgeon to reach their desired result, which doesn't work, because it's simultaneously disregarded as a tool for self reflection by the other party (because how dare you ask me to question my own beliefs?!?!?).
3 - Challenging someone's deeply held beliefs pushes them further from your viewpoint, entrenching their belief.
4 - People need to be encouraged to make self directed change, you cannot force change on someone else.
5 - If change happens in the breadthe of one scene, it's lazy writing and unbelievable.

All of that said, let's discuss "talking someone down off a bridge".

In what way, as a writer, can you establish a believable scene where you talk someone down off a metaphorical bridge? How do you change the mind of a character with agency, intent, and a goal?

I don't have an answer, by the way. I'm just encouraging discussion.
 

The Judge

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Good topic for discussion!

This is something I've been thinking about as I was making characters do 180 degree turns in ideas/beliefs in short stories all last year and I've got another one I'm writing now. In each case I've used emotion rather than logic, and in one instance thanks to help from beta readers (*waves to HB and BM*) who pointed out one change wasn't believable, I re-wrote the story so the character(s) already had doubts so it was easier to persuade them.

In a real life talking someone off a bridge, though, I believe the important thing is to get the person to talk, and then to hold a conversation, with the persuasion coming only when there's some kind of relationship established, rather than talk at the person to try and persuade him down from the get-go (eg "Hello, my name's Jane. What's your name?" kind of thing). Fortunately, I've never been in the situation where I've had to put theory into practice.

Anyhow, while we're waiting for others to chime in, I'll move this over to Writing Discussion as it's more suitable for there. (Workshop is more for exercises/fun writing games.)
 

etaylor

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Thanks for the move.

While I have no formal police training or the like, conversations with some of them I've had seem to reinforce the ideas that...
- You have to build a rapport (as you already noted).
- They have to think that coming down is ultimately their idea, without feeling like they got tricked.

That hostage negotiators and the like are able to accomplish that in such a short time as hours or even days is really just some black magic wizardry if you ask me.

I'd love to hear from someone with deeper insight on the practice. It could be really informative for those of us trying to negotiate a sea change with our own characters' opinions.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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But the person standing on the rail of a bridge talking to the police is already in some doubt about whether they want to jump. Because if they were positive they wanted to jump they would have done it long before the police could arrive.

That's a very different situation than someone with an entrenched opinion.

The best way to convince someone to change their mind is to find someone (easier when you are writing a story and creating the people than in real life when the people come ready-made) who already, on some level, wants to make that change. Then you provide them with the excuse they need to salve their pride—changing your mind or direction involves admitting that you are currently wrong--while doing what they really, deep down, want to do.
 

Elckerlyc

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Persuasion as in 'getting someone to take a different point of view' is totally different from 'persuading someone not to jump of the bridge.' The latter has little to do with choice or rationality, but is an act of despair or depression. The approach to both situations would be different.

Generally speaking, most of the people who 'stand on the rail of a bridge' do not wish to jump. They just don't see any alternative, any other way out of their hopeless situation. Many suicide attempts are in fact a call for help and many attempts do fail. Getting them to talk would be step 1. Offering them some way out of their misery, some hope, would be step 2. But you will have a very hard time convincing them not to jump. I'd say you do need a professional to accomplish that.
On the other hand, there's a guy in China who has taken it upon himself to patrol every weekend a certain bridge known to be regularly used for suicide jumps. He himself claims to have saved over 90 people. Perhaps he's a natural talent, someone who sincerely cares about people and has a way of conveying that.
However, getting someone not to jump is one thing. Without actual help or change in their situation you will find them again on that rail. And again, until it's no longer an attempt.
If you want to write a realistic story about persuasion, you should take that in account. It's not over with one conversation on the edge of the cliff.
 

etaylor

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You'll have to excuse my poorly placed metaphor. It seems to have derailed the original intention of the thread. The bridge jumper analogy was probably a poor choice.

It is an interesting discussion point, but what I was really getting at was a discussion on the techniques for changing the mind of a determined actor.

There are times where this isn't even a viable plot point or actually makes for bad storytelling because it can be more interesting if people carry out their intentions. But redemption and a change of heart are powerful, relatable concepts to many, and trying to get that written interaction to be believable to the reader is what I'd really like to probe.
 

Elckerlyc

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I suspected as much. But that's OK. Finding the right example isn't always easy. We'll just have to de-derail this thread.

Some thoughts...
Getting someone to actually change his/her attitude or intentions isn't at all easy. I doubt you can accomplish that purely by way of reasoning, unless you have some very strong and compelling arguments. Most discussions get stuck in an exchange of opinions and could end with alienation. (Act 1)
I think it's much like writing; show, don't tell. If the person-to-be-pursuaded learns that his actions or stand won't lead to the desired outcome, he is more likely to reconsider than purely based on arguments. This might be accomplished by some incident or maybe by meeting with someone who has gone through the same process and can show the consequences.
The tricky part by telling your story is perhaps finding the right balance between making the change of heart believable (by some prior events) and yet not predictable.
 

.matthew.

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As you say, getting someone to go against deeply held beliefs is virtually impossible. Unless, you give them something to replace it with.

It can be about priorities. If someone really wants to do something, you have to find something they really really want instead.

You can also see it as a form of addiction. They need to be weaned off their drug of choice slowly.
 

sknox

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Seems like this is highly contextual. It would depend on the person holding the belief, the belief in question, the circumstance, and the persuader. In story terms, it would be more a matter of persuading the *reader* that the change of heart makes sense. Most times that means leading the reader through the change, letting them see how events and choices affect the person holding the belief, see them doubt, cling, and eventually change.

Arguing in a single sitting might work in a detective or mystery tale, where the person firmly believes A to be guilty (or innocent). We see this regularly with the sort of detective-inspector interplay. The police inspector is sure they're right; the brilliant detective demonstrates otherwise. But even there, notice that it's really the author demonstrating to us.
 

etaylor

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I'm wondering how you would approach a conflict resolution where a character shares two opposing deeply held beliefs that cannot be reconciled. A contradictory, self righteous narcissist works as a character you love to hate...but redeeming that actor in a way that makes sense and doesn't feel forced just feels like too good of an opportunity to pass up.
 

Elckerlyc

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A contradictory, self righteous narcissist works as a character you love to hate...but redeeming that actor in a way that makes sense and doesn't feel forced just feels like too good of an opportunity to pass up.
No-one is black or white. I have worked 18 years for a boss who was (still is, I guess) a self-righteous narcissist (in capitals) who at occasion treated his employees in a really ugly manner, in public. But that was only one (if prominent) side of his personality. A person can be redeemed by doing the right thing at the right time. And then destroy it all by his next move...
 

Finch

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Recently I watch the TV program The Yorkshire riper and now I'm watching The White House Farm . At the hart of both police investigations was a chief constable in charge , who had predetermined the situation, and was not happy until the investigation proved it. In both cases they were wrong . I wounder how many people have been imprison,or worse ? because of a closed mind?
I was a train driver for some years and I have meet pople trying to commit suicide and some that were successful.
I believe you need a good reason to be on this bridge . Most of the people I met felt guilty about what they where doing. Apologetic and willing to step back, but often became abusive when they realise you had stopped them .
 

etaylor

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I work in an industry where I need to make people change the way they do something every day. And I've found, from my personal experience, that predisposition is everything.

Cooperative people are cooperative and make changes just to try things out and be cooperative. Combative people don't want to do anything different unless they're threatened by the consequences of not making the change being worse than making the change, and even then they argue, gripe, and make the entire process miserable. The worst is when they make the change and realize it was actually beneficial, so you offer another change to encourage further growth, and the cycle of combativeness begins all over again.... It feels like, did you learn nothing the last time?
 

Margaret Note Spelling

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I'm just wondering now what it would take to persuade me from taking an action I was determined to do. Supposing I had hostages and was facing the police, or was mad with grief and about to go and take revenge for my father's death, or something equally unlikely/plausible (take your pick!).

Personally, in the first scenario, I'd be really really scared already. Keeping the hostages would be my only security. Someone would have to provide me with another plausible and safe way out, one that I liked better than this one. So it would all depend on what I actully want and how I can best achieve it. On the other hand, I probably wouldn't be thinking entirely straight at the time anyway, so there's that.

Talking me down from a vengeance mission...that would be a little different, since at that point I haven't actually committed to the course of action and done anything like kidnap people yet, which means that I'm less personally scared and the only thing I want is to avenge my father's death. That means I strongly believe justice will be served by doing that, or at least the world will be better, or my father's ghost will be able to rest or something. So aside from tricking me (like offering to help and then designing a plan that instead restrains me) the only way for a friend to make me stop is to make me doubt the truth of that belief.

For me, at least, the best way to do that is to first successfully convince me of something else that is true, from which whatever logically follows directly contradicts the belief I held first. Consciously holding two (apparently) contradictory beliefs (and yes, I've wrestled with and resolved several) always set up a kind of cognitive dissonance, a confusion, and an overall wrong feeling in my head, things that I usually have to brood over for many hours to resolve--and that I have to resolve before I do anything.

But that's just me. I spend a ridiculous amount of time worrying about philosophical accuracy in everyday life. It's the first bit that's the tricky one: convincing me of a truth that will make me doubt my first, actionable belief. Although it definitely seems like it would be easier to positively convince someone of a truth, than to negatively de-convince them of a lie.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure getting them to really trust you is always going to be an important point. There will always be high emotion involved!

None of this directly indicates how you can convincingly have a character convinced of something. But I think the best way to approach it is to decide what would convince yourself. It might not be the same things as for other people, but at least it would make sense to you--and since you're the one writing the book, you're the most important person this persuasion scene just has to make sense to. If it doesn't make sense to you, it certainly won't to anybody else.

(Time, too, is certainly an important factor; when it comes to deeply held-beliefs, I know from extrapolation that it would take me well over a day or two to even start considering abandoning the original belief. The person changing their mind may just need some safe, non-threatened downtime to sort through what they do and don't believe.)
 

etaylor

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@Margaret Note Spelling This is a whole other fascet to the situation as well that I hadn't even considered when I broached the subject.

What if it's me who's trying to be convinced? That's a whole bag of monkey wrenches being thrown into the works. I have a proclivity to blowing some situations up deliberately just to prove the other person wrong. Many a board game has been turned into a bout of total anarchy specifically because someone who couldn't keep their opinion to themselves told me how to take my turn. :LOL::LOL::ROFLMAO:
 

Jesse Harris

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I read a book last year which really bjorked the the "bad guy has a change of heart and does something good" trope. The bad guy was given repressed childhood abuse as a reason for their evil, in addition to the constant threat of the higher-ups in the evil organization using violence to enforce the bad guy's evil actions. However, the bad guy never partook of torture for pleasure or other sadistic stuff. It was like the author was trying to excuse the past behavior.
What I wanted was someone who enjoyed evil and doing bad things finding a common goal with the protagonist so that they could both grow together. The good guy could stop seeing things as black and white, and the bad guy could find some kind of outlet for all the evil stuff they like to do. Even if the bad guy goes back to doing bad things, they have at least grown the capacity for more than just evil.
 

The Big Peat

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Approaching this from a slightly different angle -

I was reading something the other day on plot holes (and failing to make a character's persuasion actually persuasive is just that), and the writer's main thrust is pretty much everything contains something that can be considered a plot hole, but it only matters if the audience is actively looking for one.

And that is true. Want a bad guy's change of heart to make sense? The audience needs to want it to happen (or at least not be opposed). Want a character to be talked down off a bridge? Again, it has to be what they want, and maybe also what they believe about the pre-established characters. Which means it is about the foreshadowing, and the showing of elements of characters that make us root for them and what not. And there should be plenty of foreshadowing and shizzle, because these sort of big volte faces should be the culmination of big arcs.

I appreciate that's not the question the OP asked but I believe it's the dramatically right answer. I also believe that given the diversity of human opinion and sometimes lack of knowledge, basing your characters' powers of persuasion on what the psychologists say will get your book dinged sooner or later - unless you get the reader along with you dramatically.

That all said... I believe the key to persuading most people lies in the fact that most people have a thousand different conflicting emotions and beliefs. Persuasion is about finding the set of emotions and beliefs that agree with you, and getting the person opposite you to feel those are the most important thing.
 

sknox

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>talked down off a bridge? Again, it has to be what they want
This line struck me because last year I read Night Has a Thousand Eyes, which opens with someone we don't know talking down off a bridge another character we don't know. It's literally the first chapter.

There's exceptions to everything, except the exceptions rule. :)
 

The Big Peat

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>talked down off a bridge? Again, it has to be what they want
This line struck me because last year I read Night Has a Thousand Eyes, which opens with someone we don't know talking down off a bridge another character we don't know. It's literally the first chapter.

There's exceptions to everything, except the exceptions rule. :)
The thing about this particular example is most people want to believe in people getting talked down off bridges anyway. Absent other information, they want to believe in that one anyway. Maybe deep in the bowels of a very dark story they'd be nonplussed, but at the beginning of something? Fine, because you don't have to do much work.

Now, if the opening scene was someone talking someone into letting their dog be used for an illegal fight... you'd lose a chunk of the audience right away even if the scene was written exactly as well, because a lot of people hate animal cruelty and don't want to believe in it making sense.

I'd meant to cover this bit but got sidetracked. Audiences' natural reactions need to be considered here; some things we're already set up to want to see.

edit: Also, most audiences want first scenes to work, because elsewise they've just wasted time/money. It's as you get into the book and that good will is used up things get potentially dicey...
 
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Star-child

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I've always thought one of the most thoughtful persuasions in fiction was the closing argument in A Time To Kill. "Now imagine she's white," points the listener to their bias and demands that they use it to reevaluate on a personal level.

Something similar would be using someone's selfishness as a prompt to see the value in a selfless act, or turning a suicide off with an appeal to anger and revenge rather than love of life.
 
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