Dichotomy 101

A dichotomy is any splitting of a whole into exactly two non-overlapping parts. We humans have a lot of them:

Male/female. Good/evil. Wrong/right. Gay/straight. Republican/Democrat. Young/old. Day/Night. Logical/emotional. Mac/PC. Playstation/Xbox. North/South. You get the idea.

JOKE : There are two types of people in the world, the ones that use dichotomies and the ones that don’t.

Dichotomies are always wrong, but occasionally useful enough for this not to matter. Some are funny. Some are useful. But none are right. Still, they’re a vivid illustration of how most people, most of the audience works.

Human nature:

The vast majority of people (read the audience) hate uncertainty. The audience demands faith in an a universe that makes sense. People tend to think in dichotomies. It kind of makes sense, we’re a bilaterally symmetrical race, two hands, two eyes, two brain hemispheres, etc. I have no idea if that’s the reason why, but it’s got a ring of Colbertian truthiness to it, which further underscores my point.

You’d think people would understand that dichotomies are oversimplifications and have a sense of nuance on them, but a surprising amount of people don’t. You see it all over the world, in Youtube comments, in talk radio, in sports fandoms, in fanfic ship communities.

Dichotomies are a form of personal narrative, a complicated subject. Reductively, the world is too complicated for our human brain to take in all the information. If we didn’t have some kind of filter, we’d all be schizophrenics. These assumptions are complex and layered. How we feel about things deeply influences how we feel about them. Call it axiomatic thinking, call it an anchoring heuristic, call it human nature.

TANGENT: The worst are people who believe they have an empirically clear and unalloyed rational perspective on the world. These people are not fun to disagree with. FURTHER TANGENT: Yes, I’m fully aware of the irony that if I was the kind of person I’m describing, I would have no idea if I was that kind of person or not.

The more nuanced that personal narrative is, the more likely it is to be correct. On the other hand, the more nuanced a position is, the less well it communicates (see soundbites, twitter, bumper stickers). There’s a sweet spot.

Fortunately, the natural human tendency to split things into dichotomies allows a number of opportunities for writers.

Dichotomies aren’t all bad.

Some people lean in the complete opposite direction. They understand that dichotomies are reductive and therefore avoid them completely. But too clever is stupid, if we avoid the world of dichotomies too much we run the risk of creating stories that don’t connect to the audience’s common reference pool. Even if an author doesn’t think polygamy is bad, the story will benefit from having a character who does (fairly representing the point of the mainstream) so he can ask the hard questions and have mainstream logic shown to be wrong in a dramatic way.

Dichotomies are useful. Everything we do on a computer can be accomplished with the simple binary of ones and zeroes. Every animal that’s ever existed can be classified in the branching dichotomies of Linnaean classification. The MBTI uses four dichotomies to explain 16 personality type that create a rough framework for understanding the rainbow of personality types. Dichotomies are neither good nor bad, there’s nuances to everything.

The absolute easiest way to handle a dichotomy is to synthesize a third option.

In the war between good and evil, only a formerly evil man can save the day.

In the battle of the sexes, we learn that it takes both energies to make a dynamic partnership.

Bob is a rule follower. Alice is a rebel. They clash, mesh and change and each learn from the other.

The point of this is that if you understand the binary, you can find a way out of them. Every strength is also a weakness. Every sword is double edged. There’s always a happy medium between two conflicting ideologies. One of my favorite axioms is that mainstream stories should explore cynicism to the hilt, but find a wise and clever way to reaffirm optimism.


South Park excels at this.

Relevant XKCD:

TvTropes likes to group things on sliding scales between x and y:

Dichotomies in writing

Plot vs character. Outlining or not outlining. Is Save the Cat bad or good? Artistic movies vs entertaining. 3 act vs not three act. Abstract vs Concrete. Rules vs no rules (and rules themselves are always argued because rules suggests a dichotomy between true and false, where most rules are really presented as guidelines).

You see it all the time in writing questions, on forums, in books, in podcasts. People ask dichotomous questions, and the answer is almost always some form of “both are important, but the intersection is more complicated than you might think.” At some point, beginners grasp this pattern and become journeymen, but owing to human nature, the demand for “It’s not option X, it’s not option Y, it’s option Z” style advice is inelastic and evergreen. As it is in writing advice, so it is in stories.


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