Thursday, September 16, 2010

Reader Rewards in Fiction

So many times in fiction, especially in workshop settings, we don't seem to talk about what our decisions mean for the reader--even though that's at least half of the workshop conceit (how to make a story better for readers + how to make a story better by writers). Reader-centered language is rare, and is generally sublimated into writer-centered talk. A writer saying that "This section would be better in scene" masks the reader response that got her there: "I want to feel more involved in this part; I want to watch it unfold." There's nothing especially wrong with that sublimation, but it does mean that honest conversations about reader rewards in fiction get buried. Mike has talked about this some, of course, and has structured his Intro to Creative Writing class around it.

The real problem that results is the conception that good fiction is its own reward. Never mind that no other form of entertainment works that way.

Our game developer friend Charlie linked me some time ago to a book on "fun" theory--how to, err, engineer fun, basically. I would like writers, especially writers of fiction, to talk about this notion more. The prevailing idea, I think, is that fiction isn't entertainment--it's art, and art is not meant to be constrained by the same commitments to providing (shameless) entertainment that TV and movies and video games do. But creating fun, imagining an experience for the end user (reader), shouldn't be considered a constraint. Making meaning in absence of fun is, in my opinion, the greater constraint--because making fun is just another way of creating interaction, of giving the reader somewhere to go other than where we lead, which in turn makes meaning. Meaning doesn't exist in a vacuum; it requires readers to build using our materials. In other words, if the reader is having fun, it's because they're interacting with what they read, learning, making decisions. They're playing. When this happens, fun creates art.

If we really need to, we can replace "fun" with "rewards."

This list of reward types in game design is perhaps a little glancing; I'm not sure. But it offers some good examples, some good points for comparison. Here's my list, recast for fiction:
  • Knowledge Rewards: The acquisition of facts, systems, clues that can be used to game out characters or intuit future events. Writing to encourage guessing, forecasting, puzzle-solving. Setting up expectations to be thwarted or met.
  • Physical Rewards: Rewards that cause readers' bodies to react: laughter, tears, goosebumps, chills, illness, arousal, dizziness, a sense of stopped time or altered place.
  • Narrative Rewards: Anything that occasions the perception that something has moved or is about to move in the overall narrative, from basic exposition to moments of crisis and climax. Learning more about a character, uncovering a new piece of the plot. Seeing the character take the next step in a known or intuited course of action, make a change, make a mistake. Seeing the author pick up where we last left off, return to the scene of the crime. Revelations. Epiphanies. Cliffhanger endings.
  • Emotional Rewards: Rewards that bring satisfaction or disappointment: joy, sadness, anger, fear, hope, doubt. Feeling sorry, feeling upset. Feeling personally tied to the characters--a wish to help, a wish to hurt. Wanting things on behalf of the characters--peace, vengeance. Wanting things on one's own behalf.
  • Novelty: Anything that is unfamiliar to the status quo of the fiction, something that can be experimented with rationally (based on old knowledge) or freely (in absence of new knowledge). New characters, new places, new points of view, new information, new ideas, new forms.

There are others, but I'm having trouble finding analogues for them. If you play games, you know that the rewards below can be some of the most satisfying. Any ideas for how fiction does anything like this currently? Or, how it could?
  • Rank Rewards (think leveling up--how to level up in fiction?)
  • Completeness (think collecting, discovering, defeating--everything, 100%)
  • Victory (winning! conquering!)
For those still reluctant to give up the special status of writing as art, as a form fundamentally different in makeup from that of entertainment (and I am inviting discussion), what is it that distinguishes the function of art from the rewards above? And given the work, creativity, and imagination it must take to design a functional entertainment piece with so many of these rewards in mind, can we really say there's a separation between creating art and creating entertainment at all?

I guess what I'm arguing is--if there's no real structural difference in creating art versus creating entertainment, isn't it all just a game of reoutfitting the language? Can we talk about fun without cringing?


  1. I like this post quite a lot, and agree that fun for the reader is something sometimes endangered in workshops that get too intense re: the art-y aspects.

    I think leveling up may have its analogue in those moments where, particularly in longer form work, the scope of the narrative expands around you and you feel, oh, this isn't just a story about X, but about the way X fits into the larger story of Y, and then later you feel oh, it's about how Y fits into the larger story of--.

  2. Yes, I also feel as if I've leveled up when I finish a book, or a large part of a book. A book becoming thicker on the left side than the right is like an EXP bar filling up, right?

  3. Hm, yeah. So maybe leveling up is like a feeling that something has grown in scope in the relationship between you and the book--your progress, your expanding understanding of things...

  4. I made this point to Mike and I want to suggest it here as well; many of the things you describe are actually pains or suffering. I think it is valuable to put suffering in it's own category as something that makes us empathise with the characters and wish them well or wish the situation would improve. It leads us to mourn over losses and deaths and bad fortune. Perhaps great writing also includes self-consciously inflicted suffering to balance out the pleasure. Otherwise things might be sicky sweet, or unlike reality, or too much like tv where everything comes out ok in the end (blech).

  5. not to discount your ideas about rewards for reading--I think you're on to something here. I just think people have a better sense of the universe balancing itself out--like in their own lives, if true suffering is included in the mix.

  6. I see your point, but I don't think I quite see a need for a separate category for feelings of suffering. The way I see it, by making one category for "fun" or "pleasure," all possible reader reactions can be accounted for where typically certain "artistic" reactions are privileged. It's fun to feel sorry for someone in a book; it's a reward, even if the feeling itself is negative. It's fun to cry at the end of a movie, or to leave an episode of a TV show with a feeling of dread for the main character.

    I think with a broad term like "rewards," rather than categories like "suffering" and "happiness," for example, we can start broadening the conversation about art to include other types and genres. Which is a rather specific aim of mine--certainly not something everyone needs to adopt.

  7. you make a good point. Still, all I know about "Madeleine is Sleeping" is that after reading the ending I wanted to punch the author in the gut. I really, really did not like what she did to Madeleine--to me it wasn't fun to mourn her loss, even though I had to respect the author for having the courage to let her "die". I don't know, maybe that is a reward in terms of mirroring my own life experiences. Maybe you're right. But I don't like you're being right, just now, thinking of poor Madeleine. Hope that makes sense...

  8. I really like that you want to make the art of writing a work of entertainment. I just hope the results don't look and sound like a videogame, because I won't be reading that as I have no personal enjoyment from videogames. No offense intended.

  9. I'd hope the result would just be to make writers think more about what their writing is doing for readers and whether or not it's producing any of the effects above to keep the reader invested. Not to make it more like a video game--I don't know what that would look like--but to put the thought into designing their product for readers that video game designers/television writers/filmmakers/etc. put into designing their products for their audiences.