Do you remember this children’s song? I’m pretty sure it’s from Sesame Street, and it went “one of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not quite the same.” This was usually followed by three identical objects and then something that was very different. The song is so firmly embedded in my brain that even today, when I see three red balloons and one blue one, or three vanilla cupcakes and one chocolate one, the song plays in my head.
But the song can continue to teach us a good lesson about human cognition, and also about writing.
The way we notice things
First let’s talk about the human cognition side of things. We’re pretty much programmed to notice outliers, or to see differences standing out much more dramatically than similarities. This starts very young; when testing whether babies can count or what other mental skills they possess, researchers test by noticing what different thing the babies attend to. If the babies know that four is more than three, for example, and if a fourth item appears before them, they will look at it longer.
There are all sorts of ways adults notice differences, too. We always over-weight odd or outlying experiences; for example, many people are frightened of shark attacks and we always hear about the dangers of shark-infested waters, but we’re far more likely to be in a car accident. It’s the outlying experience that we pay attention to.
So how can we use this to our advantage in writing?
Using outliers in writing
Writers must occasionally act as amateur psychologists; we must be aware of how readers’ minds work and use that to our advantage. That means that if we describe things as uniform in our stories, they will be far less interesting to readers than if we allow something to stick out, to be unusual or unsettling. It also means we should use the rule of threes; readers are primed for lists of three things in stories to have the third thing as unusual or different from the previous two. Fairy tales adhere rigidly to the rule of threes, but modern writing does as well; jokes, for example, often use it, and plot points do too. After two trips to the haunted house with no trouble, for example, the reader will pay close attention to the third trip, expecting something.
There are other ways we attend to the odd one out. We expect the main character to stick out in some way; you should not be assuring us how utterly normal the character is. Let us see something slightly off about your character, some failing or neurosis or deep-seated trauma.
And in simple description, this noticing the odd one out can help as well. To describe a uniform field of wheat or street of houses is uninteresting and unremarkable; to describe a field of wheat with a tree jutting out of the middle, or a street of white houses with one orange house, will stick in your readers’ minds.