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Using Double Binds to Raise Tension

Following my post on the double bind theory originally developed to explain why people develop schizophrenia, a couple of people asked me to write more about double binds.

I said:

Double-bind theory is Gregory Bateman's 1950's-era proposition that what causes schizophrenia is repeated no-win dilemmas in the child's family life. In other words, the child was repeatedly confronted with statements that contained two contradictory statements (i.e. a double bind). Because of the child's attachment to the caregiver, he was eager to do as the caregiver asked -- the problem was that by meeting one demand, he would be defying the other.
So what are some examples of double binds, people asked? Not necessarily with regards to schizophrenia, but in general?

First, it's important to understand that most human communication doesn't involve words. In fact, only 7% of communication is attributable to the words' explicit meaning.  Fifty-five percent of communication is body language, and the remaining 38% is vocal inflection and tone.  So a double bind may or may not involve two explicit contradictory statements.  The contradiction may be between body language and words, or between tone and words.

Sometimes double binds are called "no-win situations," though double binds are often psychologically more complex than the average no-win situation.

The double bind happens like this:

  1. The individual is given one command, with an explicit or implied "or else."  The individual needs the relationship with the person giving the command, and therefore feels obligated to obey.
  2. The individual is given a contradictory command verbally or nonverbally.
  3. Sometimes other rules are imposed to keep the person from escaping the double bind.  Usually there is something keeping the person from remarking on the paradox, either because she doesn't truly understand the paradox, or because the situation prohibits her from commenting on the paradox to help her resolve it.

For example, imagine a character who has a temper and withdraws love when something upsets him.  Now imagine that this character insists that he will leave his partner (or otherwise stop loving her) if she doesn't provide him with negative feedback he knows she holds.  Suddenly she's trapped in a double bind.  If she doesn't give him the negative feedback, he will withdraw love.  If she does give him the negative feedback, he will withdraw love.  If she tells him that he's providing her with an unfair situation, he will withdraw love.  Several of these messages are nonverbal, but they're there.

Here are a couple websites that address double binds that you may find helpful.  Both give examples.

As I'm writing, I keep thinking about the movie Saw.  The villain, Jigsaw, confronts people with double binds; I think that's part of what makes the first movie so intriguing psychologically.  He provides each victim with  something horrific that he can stop only by doing something just as horrific.

For example, in the first movie two men wake up, chained across a filthy washroom from each other.  One victim, Dr. Gordon (remember, doctors are taught to "do no harm," and this value is important to Gordon) must kill the other man; otherwise, his family will be killed.  But that's not the real double bind.  The double bind is that there's another alternative -- Dr. Gordon can also saw off his own leg to get away and go try to save his family himself.  There is nothing unethical about sawing off your own leg, and you can even hope that Dr. Gordon will know enough about the human body to tie an effective tourniquet.  But both alternatives are so abhorrent psychologically that Gordon (and the watcher) are paralyzed.

Creating truly paralyzing psychological double binds for your characters will raise tension and make the story intriguing.  Here's how to do it:

  1. You must establish your hero's values so we see there is really no out to his situation.
  2. You must raise the stakes high enough that each alternative is truly perilous for your hero.
  3. You must demonstrate in some way that the villain will truly follow through with her threats if the hero does not choose one of the (psychologically unacceptable) alternatives.
  4. You must not be afraid to go there psychologically yourself.  (This is what holds a lot of people back from a truly great double bind in their fiction, so really think about this one.)
  5. You can't remain paralyzed by the situation.  Once you paint your character into a truly awful corner, you have to force him to make a decision.  Part of what makes Saw so shocking is that Gordon does make a decision, and it really is awful.
  6. You need to acknowledge the fallout of that decision.  If the alternatives are truly awful, there's going to be fallout of some kind, and that should be awful too.

It scares a lot of people to really Go There; that is, to really go through all six of the above steps. It scares them because they have to own up to the fact that they imagined something really awful and inflicted it on their characters.  It scares them because they don't want to sully their shining hero with a truly awful decision.  It scares them because they don't want to have to make a truly awful choice, and they must if the story is to continue.

It's okay to be scared.  Write with the fear, share it with your characters, and see where that takes you.


  1. Joshua McCune said...
    Great post! - A Catch 22 in between a rock and a hard place... no deus ex machinas allowed :)d
    Unknown said...
    Great reminders! The example from Saw is particularly vivid. We all try to do this with our characters, to one or extent or another, but having a "method" to follow is helpful. Thanks!

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