I make adventure

Fiction needs to be opt-in.

In Experience Design, Narrative, Rants on 3 • 20 • 12 at 1:36 pm

I don’t like to feel like I’ve been lied to; I’m guessing you don’t really enjoy feeling that way either. But I often choose or invite people to lie to me because I enjoy it. Now they don’t call it lying, and normally I don’t either, because I’ve invited them to do it. We call it literature, or art, or film, or theater.¹

Under the right circumstances, we like to be fooled, but very few of us like to feel foolish.

Similarly — and I know this’ll come as a shock — I’ve never once wished to be in the subway during an earthquake. (In fact, living in earthquake country with the very real threat, there is nothing about it that sounds at all desirable or entertaining.) But many people have queued up for just that privilege at Universal Studios’ theme park rides. And, as a roller coaster lover myself, I’ve joined them.

These are safe ways to be out of control. I know it’s safe because I bought a ticket and these theme park people would stop making as much money if they killed me. I know because I can see people walking out the other side. They’re smiling. The difference between “Earthquake: the Big One” the ride (now re-opened as ‘Disaster’) and the actual Big One is that I get to opt-in. I get to choose to experience a simulation knowing that it is a simulation. If you drugged me and put me on the ride without my consent, I wouldn’t be smiling after it was over.

With fiction, the same thing happens. The covers of a book, the ticket stub you buy to enter the theater – those are moments when you give permission to the authors of a narrative to tell you a story. You enter into a little contract: I’ll suspend my disbelief and you make it worth my while. Entertain me. Make me feel something.

The purest form of this contract might be the magic show. The stories that magic shows tell are generally much simpler than the more complex narratives of film and literature. They tell the story of the quarter that was here and is now gone. Or, more dramatically, the bullet that can be caught in the performer’s teeth. They fill in these simple narratives with phenomenological tricks that play with our senses. There is a moment when I believe that Teller actually fired a gun at Penn’s head and Penn has actually caught the bullet in his mouth because that’s what my eyes tell me. And, much like Lewis Carrol’s Alice, sometimes I enjoy believing impossible things.

But some people, like Jerry Seinfeld, don’t share my enjoyment of being fooled by a skilled stage magician. He describes his experience of magic like this:

Here’s a quarter, now it’s gone. You’re a jerk. Now it’s back. You’re an idiot. Show’s over.

No one enjoys feeling like an idiot, especially when they’ve paid someone to make them feel that way. It’s humiliating. Penn and Teller feel the same way, which is why they like to let their audiences in on the mechanics of a particular illusion. They think the audience will like it more if they know how it’s done, but still see the illusion at the same time. This takes the ‘trick’ out of their magic and lets everyone in the audience feel like they’re on the inside. This still might not be enough for you personally to like magic, but that’s where the opt-in nature of the show comes into play. You don’t have to buy a ticket.

Under the right circumstances, we like to be fooled, but very few of us like to feel foolish. The line between those two feelings is often thin, and varies from person to person and subject to subject. To generalize, the line happens when you ask me to believe you first, without telling me that you’ll be delivering me a fiction.

How how can we signal to our audience that we’ll be telling them a fiction? How do we make fiction opt-in? It’s easy to recognize fiction when it’s bound into a book and has ‘Novel’ printed on the cover. But most of the time we rely on context. If it’s a platform or format that generally delivers fiction, we assume that what we’re about to experience is also fiction. And vice versa for non-fiction content. Publications, like the New Yorker, that routinely feature non-fiction long form journalism in the same issue that also carries short stories are generally careful to explicitly note the difference to avoid inadvertently misleading their readers.

But not every platform or format has such a clear orientation. The web is a jumble of fiction and non-fiction. Despite the well-meant efforts of many people, we probably won’t be seeing a <fiction> tag incorporated into the W3C standards. So, the burden of creating a clear ‘opt-in’ structure when making narratives on the web (and on other platforms that have fewer consistent expectations of context for fiction and non-fiction) is even more squarely placed on the shoulders of those that do the storytelling.

These borderlands are a risky area to work. It’s often hard work threading that particular needle (but as they say, if it were easy, everyone would do it). But it’s not without reward – as Welles’s ‘F is for Fake‘ or the more recent ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop‘² show us. Many of these projects are indeed aimed at investigating the very role of fiction and truth in storytelling and the contexts in which we encounter them. The Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) also investigates the institution and context of the museum itself. It gathers much of its power from exploring the (non-fiction) authority of contemporary museums through the very same language of those institutions. Because its founder, David Wilson, continually resists the label of ‘art’ for what he does, the MJT finds other ways to signal the interweaving of fiction and non-fiction (starting with the name). Despite resisting categorization, the press and word of mouth surrounding the MJT ensure that most visitors arrive with a sense that this isn’t a traditional ‘non-fiction’ museum. Added to that are ‘sign posts’ like the quirks of the storefront, the careful wording of the exhibition texts, and the fact that the experience of the museum is a social one (visitors get to observe how other visitors react). If the Museum of Jurassic Technology didn’t look for these opportunities, it would alienate visitors instead of engaging them.

Some very compelling art happens by playing with expectations and working in these border areas between fiction and non-fiction. However, when choosing to work in this border region, part of the responsibility of the creator is to find ways to allow their audience to opt-in to the fiction. There are ethical reasons³ for this that I haven’t covered, but also by not allowing your audience to opt-in, you’re shooting yourself and your creative project in the foot. You’re letting potential supporters of your work engage with it in a way that could leave them feeling foolish at best or betrayed at worst. You’re making them the butt of the joke, when you could be inviting them inside.


1. While I don’t mention his name in the body of this post and this post isn’t intended to comment directly on the controversy (on which many things have been said by many smart people), the writing grew out of thinking about Mike Daisey and the adaptation of his monologue, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” for broadcast on This American Life. It’s always hard to make mistakes in public on a big stage. I think Mr. Daisey is an enormously gifted storyteller who did just that. I’m glad for the opportunity for a larger discussion about narrative, fiction and the contracts creators make with their audiences, but have no desire for a witch hunt.
2.’Exit Through the Giftshop,’ a film about street art was nominated for a ‘Best Documentary’ Oscar despite having qualities suggestive of fiction.
3. Although I’m not addressing it here, I do think that creators are responsible from an ethical point of view as well. Andrea Phillips has a great overview of the ethics of storytelling in a transmedia space in her 2011 SXSW talk as well as her forthcoming book.