Monday, 28 April 2008

The Zeigarnik Effect

In 1927 the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found that waiters only remembered orders while they were in the process of being served. Once the transaction was completed, they immediately forgot the details. This led Zeigarnik to formulate the general principle that "we remember better that which is incomplete or unfinished".

Arguably this is the basis on which the cliff-hanger ending works, and it's a staple of much educational practice. It's also been recommended as a tool for writers: rather than finish your day's writing with a completed scene, leave it hanging. The next day you can take up where you left off, which gives you momentum for the subsequent scene.

Do any of you work like this? I've tried it, and found is thoroughly unsatisfactory. A scene which will be flowing one day (particularly if it's dialogue-intensive) will be drained of life when I take it up the next day. If I'm working on a scene, I have to finish it in one sitting (or at least stop at a natural break within the scene). I can then think about the next day's writing overnight so that I'm ready to go when I sit down at the screen.

Does the Zeigarnik Effect work for you?


Aliya Whiteley said...

I usually stop in the middle of a scene, or chapter: but then, with the Lena and Pru books I always try to put most of the chapter breaks at a point of action anyway to increase the 'unputdownability' factor, so it wouldn't form a natural resting point for me to stop there anyway.

So really, for me, its whenever my time is up. Sometimes I stop mid-sentence and have no probs picking it up again. Weird, I know.

Frances said...

Isn't the Zeigarnik effect the same as the phenomenon whereby you remember a phone number just long enough to dial it, and a minute later, it's forgotten? As for the writing, I think the cliffhanger is a good idea, though I haven't tried it. My method -if I have one - is very much left over from my short story days. I tend to go over and over each chapter before I start the next. This is not, however, conducive to inspiration the next day...

Alis said...

This technique has been recommended to me, too, but - like you Tim - I find that my flow has been completely destroyed by a night's sleep and, instead of picking up where I left off with a glad cry, I sit there wondering what the hell I was thinking!

Doug Worgul said...
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Doug Worgul said...
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Brian McGilloway said...

Hi Tim

Sounds a bit dodgy to me. I aim to finish a chapter in each sitting, if I can. I'd never stop in the middle of a scene - my mood the next day will be slightly different which would change the tone slightly and make the reading, to my mind, less satisfactory - particularly when using a first person narrator who probably shouldn't change his tone too much across a particular scene or day in terms of the text. Coming back to the book the day after allows me time to reflect on what happened the day before, and therefore write Devlin's reflections on what happened the day before. I remember hearing Colin Dexter advise that in every chapter - in crime fiction, admittedly - your detective should be going to look for something, to create a sense of movement. Stopping writing mid scene would detract from that, I think.

Doug Worgul said...

Because I usually find myself having to write in increments of 15-30 minutes, I'm nearly always leaving off in the middle of a scene. Sometimes in the middle of a sentence.


David Isaak said...

Yeah, Hemingway claimed to use that stop-in-the-middle strategy.

Doesn't really work for me. I like to finish so I can think about what happens next--and I don't think well about what happens next if I'm in the middle of something.

Actually, to be honest, sometimes I don't think too well no matter how I stop.

Tim Stretton said...

Brian quotes Colin Dexter's advice:

"in every chapter - in crime fiction, admittedly - your detective should be going to look for something, to create a sense of movement."

I think that's a pretty good guideline for all fiction. When I'm redrafting, invariably the scenes that haven't worked have ignored that principle. "Something" can have a pretty wide definition. Even an interior monologue should be going somewhere.

I normally write in hour increments (sometimes 90 minutes if I'm going well and there are no distractions). The first 15 minutes usually achieve very little on the page, so I don't think Doug's method would work for me!