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I got this crazy idea about how to include men in the fight for women’s reproductive rights, and so I wrote a paper about it, below.
On October 6, 2017, the Trump administration rolled back the mandatory provision of the cost-free birth control coverage included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) allowing all employers, not only the religious organizations initially exempted by the Obama administration, to negate birth control coverage to women based on their particular religious beliefs (Ehley, 2017). Supporters of women’s reproductive rights are understandably outraged. They have been outraged for a very long time at what the Democratic party labeled as the War on Women, the series of Republican policies aimed to curtail women’s reproductive rights (Zengerle, 2012). Their outrage was not sufficient to prevent the GOP from winning the presidency and a majority in both chambers of the Congress last year, however. Can it be sufficient now to win this new battle against women’s rights?
While the fight to grant women full reproductive rights and access to affordable birth control has many male supporters, the movement is far from being gender balanced. Since males represent not only half of the US voters, but about 70 percent of all elected officials (Catalyst. Quick Take, 2017), unless male support for the movement increases, the fight is doomed to be a long and difficult one. My recommendation is to create emotionally charged messages aimed directly at males to help them understand how the women’s reproductive rights movement benefits them. Specifically, I propose that the Democratic party should rebrand the War on Women as the War on Love to imply that the issue is also relevant to men and to make pregnancy-free consensual sex the primary benefit of birth control.
Currently, the #WarOnWomen Twitter feed is full of posts calling women to unite and resist, and videos like this one, from Sophia Bush (2017) lecture viewers on why women need prescribed contraceptives, especially for circumstances other than sex. Watching Bush’s video (2017) from a male perspective, one can easily understand why the rhetoric needs to change. While Bush’s arguments are valid, her tone is angry and condescending; she prioritizes reasons particular to women, and overall, rather than inviting men to appreciate the advantages that birth control bring to their lives—which she does, but gesturing her hands as if she was talking to simpleton—her video invites men to distance from the matter even further. It is as if Bush’s objective had been to antagonize and ridicule men rather than to educate them on the matter. Social Judgement Theory predicts that whenever the recipient of a message assesses the position advocated in a message as contrary to his own, he will reject the message, regardless of the value of the arguments it may contain (O’Keefe, 2015). Not surprisingly, one of the first comments to Bush’s video reads: “Fuck off with your condescending tone. If insurance providers want to cover birth control, fine. But the government should not have to support it, and neither should the tax payer [sic]. Fuck off” (Bush, 2017).
The abundance of messages like Bush’s on social media, and the way many men respond to them, leads one to believe that many men do not support the women’s reproductive rights movement not only because they fail to see how they benefit from birth control (per a recent survey by PerryUndem  only 37 percent of male US voters believe that they have benefitted directly from women’s affordable access to birth control) but also because they perceive their identity as men attacked by the movement’s rhetoric. As the Social Identity Model of de-Individualization predicts “when a social identity becomes salient… conformity to an internalized group norm will be strong” (Trepte, 2006, p. 266). Men who feel attacked prefer to take sides with their gender than to learn about the benefits that birth control brings to women.
By making birth control primarily about sex, instead of women, one could give men the opportunity to keep their identity as men “free of harm” while allowing them to also self-categorize among those who benefit from women’s regular use of contraceptives—because women who take contraceptives would be more likely to want to have sex with them. Changing the rhetoric will also help men identify the GOP, and not women, as the true adversary since it is the Republicans’ restrictive policies and not women’s position on the matter what threatens the quality and the quantity of men’s future sexual encounters. In terms of Social Judgment Theory, what I suggest then is to create messages that would allow men to assess the position advocated by the women’s reproductive rights movement as fully compatible with their own as men.
Renaming the War on Women as the War on Love would create new network associations that, as Westen (2008) recommends, would make the women’s reproductive rights movement more attractive for the unengaged. The term War on Love would also imply that Republican’s restrictive policies are an aberration and would link the GOP’s position to prudish, old-fashioned attitudes with which most American men, considering the levels of pornography consumed in this country will not sympathize: Per a report released earlier this year by Pornhub (2017), the site had about 9.2 billion visits in 2016 from the United States. Moreover, research suggests that consuming pornography leads to “an increase in positive attitudes toward premarital sex” (Wright, 2014, p. 93).
Of course, making birth control primarily about sex will infuriate those who claim that increased access to contraceptives promotes promiscuity, but trying to take the sexual aspect out of birth control is frankly naïve and acquiesces to a retrograde mentality. Hormonal birth control’s primary function is to prevent pregnancies. Their use for treating menstruation-related disorders and preventing ovarian cancer is secondary (ACOG, 2009), not as relevant to men, and, therefore, less likely to engage them on an emotional level. The women’s reproductive rights movement does not need more arguments to validate their claims, in any case; the existing ones are sufficient to satisfy an invested audience. What the movement needs is to enlarge the size of that invested audience, and that can only occur when more men engage at an emotional level.
The Elaboration Likelihood Model predicts (Petty, Cacioppo, & Goldman, 1981) that attitude change can only occur when there is sufficient motivation to elaborate on the merit of the arguments presented.
For men that find women’s rights of little relevance, the motivation will have to come then from a peripheral route, from messages that remind them that women who do not take contraceptives are less likely to want to have sex; that condoms can be unpleasant, expensive, and should be unnecessary for a committed couple; and that remind them of the negative consequences of unwanted pregnancies. From there, the conversation can evolve to show how women’s emancipation has improved everyone’s quality of life by reducing violence and poverty (Pinker, Location 242).
How can the Democratic party and supporters of women’s rights deliver these messages? By incorporating them in their rhetoric, of course, but also through social media with messages designed to go “viral” by making them brief, highly relevant to straight male audiences, easy to understand, and easy to spread (Jenkins & Ford, 2013) as would be the case with humorous memes and videos. Humor is important because sex and humor often go hand by hand and humorous content is more likely to gain approval (Cialdini, 2001) and be spread because it allows those who share it to easily gain social capital through other’s interaction (Ellison, Lampe, Steinfeld, & Vitak, 2011). Messages directed to young men with overtly emotional content such as “The GOP’s War on Love is cock-blocking me!” could be quite attention callers to how Republican policies undermines men’s rights. Since narratives that successfully induce a state of transportation can change attitudes and behavior better than rhetoric (Green & Brock, 2002), narratives focused on the male experience could more successfully engage men through identification (Slater & Rouner, 2002), and could help them understand how males benefit from women’s affordable access to birth control through modeling (Bandura, 2004). Democrats and supporters of women’s reproductive rights could tell sentimental stories with males as the protagonists having to decide whether to pay for food or an emergency contraceptive for their wives or showing how a father helped his college-age daughter and his boyfriend with the difficult decision of having an abortion, etcetera.
In summary, what I recommend is to create emotionally charged messages explicitly directed at motivating men to elaborate on the benefits of guaranteeing women safe and affordable access to birth control and that identify the GOP’s restrictive policies as contrary to their particular well-being. The point is not to change the narrative to men, but to help women win the support they need to win this battle.
American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). (2009, December 21). Women’s Health Care Physicians. Retrieved October 09, 2017, from https://www.acog.org/About_ACOG/News_Room/News_Releases/2009/Hormonal_Contraceptives_Offer_Benefits_Beyond_Pregnancy_Prevention
Bandura, A. (2004). Social cognitive theory for personal and social change by enabling media. In A. Singhal, M. J. Cody, E. M. Rogers, & M. Sabido (Eds.), Entertainment-education and social change: History, research, and practice (pp. 75-96). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Bush, S. (2017, October 12). [HEALTH] Sophia Bush about birth control. Retrieved October 13, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7d-6MK7CTg
Catalyst. Quick Take. (2017, May 30). Women in Government. Retrieved October 09, 2017, from http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-government
Cialdini, R. (2001) Harnessing the Science of Persuasion. In Harvard business review.
Ehley, B. (2017, October 06). Trump rolls back Obamacare birth control mandate. Retrieved October 09, 2017, from http://www.politico.com/story/2017/10/06/trump-rolls-back-obamacares-contraception-rule-243537
Ellison, N., Lampe, C., Steinfeld, C., & Vitak, J. (2011). With a Little Help From My Friends: How Social Network Sites Affect Social Capital Processes. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A networked self: Identity, community and culture on social network sites. New York: Routledge.
Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2002). In the mind’s eye: transportation-imagery model of narrative persuasion, in M. C. Green, J. J. Strange & T. C. Brock (Eds.), Narrative impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations (pp. 315-342). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Jenkins, H., & Ford, S. (2013). Spreadable media creating value and meaning in a networked culture. New York: New York University Press.
PerryUndem. (2017, March 22). Gender and Birth Control Access Report. Retrieved October 13, 2017, from https://www.scribd.com/document/342699692/PerryUndem-Gender-and-Birth-Control-Access-Report
Petty, R. E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Goldman, R. (1981). Personal involvement as a determinant of argument-based persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(5), 847-855. doi:10.1037//0022-35184.108.40.2067
Pinker, S (2011). The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined. Viking, Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.
Pornhub. (2017, February 02). Pornhub’s 2016 Year in Review. Retrieved October 09, 2017, from https://www.pornhub.com/insights/2016-year-in-review
Slater, M. D., & Rouner, D. (2002). Entertainment-Education and Elaboration Likelihood: Understanding the Processing of Narrative Persuasion. Communication Theory, 12 (2), 173-191. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2002.tb00265.x
Trepte, S. (2006). Social Identity Theory. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (Eds.), Psychology of entertainment (pp. 255–271). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Westen, D. (2008). The political brain: the role of emotion in deciding the fate of the nation. New York: Public Affairs. Electronic ed.
Wright, P. J. (2014). Americans’ Attitudes Toward Premarital Sex and Pornography Consumption: A National Panel Analysis. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(1), 89-97. doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0353-8
Zengerle, P. (2012, September 04). Democrats charge Republicans with “war on women” at convention. Retrieved October 09, 2017, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-campaign-women/democrats-charge-republicans-with-war-on-women-at-convention-idUSBRE88401T20120905
I watched this video today, and I think there’s something important to learn from it.
LOOOOOOOL HE JUMPED OUT OF HIS SUPREMACIST UNIFORM TO AVOID A WHOPPING LIKE THIS WAS SCOOBY DOO pic.twitter.com/qd5XHrS4GC
— Plantainbae™ (@justcallmeBABA) August 16, 2017
The poor idiot claims he’s doing it for fun. I’m inclined to believe him—which is not a justification; I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for him but trying to understand the reason behind his behavior. Later he says that he’s been in jail and that he enjoys offending people. I’m speculating here, but if he told the truth and he was once in jail at such young age, probably he’s poor and uneducated. In other words: powerless. And if he gets his kicks from being offensive it is because that may be the only way he feels in control. He finds meaning on causing a reaction, even a negative reaction.
Where did he learn to behave like that? There’s a part of violence that is innate, of course, but we live in a society where violence has become increasingly costly. Violent individuals risk punishment, condemnation, and ostracism—not to mention the wrath from Twitter. This guy barely escaped a beating. Why then does he behave like a jackass? My guess is, as he swiftly confesses, because he’s bored. Yes, he may be an idiot too, but being an idiot doesn’t make him engage in reckless behavior, being an idiot simply prevents him from foreseeing the consequences of engaging in reckless behavior. Boredom is what forces him to find his kicks in violence. Boredom signals the brain to look for a different goal because the current one is not rewarding enough or even toxic. Any goal! Even destructive behavior like consuming drugs, skipping school or attending a Neo-Nazi rally.
Combine boredom with the way we acquire most of our knowledge: by consuming mass media. Is media doing a good job educating us? The problem will only get worse with automation when millions find themselves with nothing to do but consume more media.
When I was eight years old, I was called to see the school psychologist. He asked me to make a drawing. Guessing I shouldn’t draw a My Little Pony and expose myself as a sissy I draw the manliest thing I could think of: the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard. I put particular attention on the Confederate Flag on the roof. I didn’t mention that I found the Duke Boys sexy, I just let the man wearing glasses think I was as manly as any other boy my age, and fascinated by cars and adventure. That’s what the General Lee meant to me: manliness. I rated manliness positively, so you could say I had a positive attitude toward the Confederate Flag too. It didn’t mean oppression and slavery to me — I was eight, I had no idea!
My attitude had a function: liking the General Lee made me appear manly in front of others, which was necessary for my survival. Back then, I would have rejected anyone’s arguments trying to convince me that the General Lee was a bad influence, but maybe I would have been opened to hear that liking My Little Pony was okay for a boy.
We should ask ourselves: What function does a Neo-Nazi attitude serve? Telling them they’re dead wrong isn’t enough. They probably know they’re wrong, but they stick to their wrong ideas for a reason. Why?
And then, where are they getting those ideas from? Could it be from media that tends to underrepresented minorities and glorify aggression? I’m not talking only about Fox News. Take this year’s Atomic Blonde, a beautifully shot, superbly directed all praise for violence. The film has a twist at the end trying to convince us that Charlize Theron’s character is not only incredibly beautiful and resilient but incredibly smart and cunning too. Well, if she were that smart she wouldn’t have risked her own life just to kill all those people. Yet we are too engrossed in the narrative to question her motives. Narratives reduce counter-arguing, that’s why they’re so persuasive. We get too busy interpreting the events in a narrative that there’s little cognitive power left behind to judge its meaning.
Take “irresponsible” Prissy, from Gone With the Wind, to go back to a classic example. In one scene, Prissy gets slapped for lying to Scarlett O’Hara about knowing how to deliver babies. Because we are transported by the story and are seeing it through the eyes of Scarlett, who’s alone and dead worried about Melanie, we agree with the slapping. However, as a commenter says on YouTube, Prissy has no reason to “give a damn about either of those two white bitches.” Why should she? Prissy is only a teenager and a domestic slave. She’s a fictional character of course, but slaves like her were probably beaten often, starved, separated from their family, and received no compensation for their work. Why should she feel sympathy for her oppressors? Nevertheless, because it is Scarlett’s and not Prissy’s story the one we follow, and because we’re too busy worrying what will happen next—will Melanie survive?—we don’t stop to ponder over Prissy’s motives.
The point is, we are bored, we are powerless, and we acquire most of our knowledge from narratives that may be distorting reality but at the same time are so engaging that they limit our capability for critical thinking. Punching nazis may temporarily improve our mood but won’t solve the problem. The obvious answer is education, but education tends to be incredibly boring too. What we need is our education system to learn from the entertainment industry on how to become more engaging so that destructive behavior doesn’t become a way to escape boredom. And we need entertainers to become more educated too, so they can create better content.
Storytellers want their stories to be addictive so that the readers keep turning pages and viewers keep asking for more. How does one achieve that? What does engagement entitle? My proposal here is to turn stories into a game for the readers—or listeners, or viewers, anyone that consumes a story—to play.
No, I’m not proposing to write interactive stories in which readers decide with a click what is going to happen next, but for storytellers to use gamification principles when crafting a story to increase engagement. Basically, to reconcile the transportation-imagery model (Green & Brock, 2002; Laer, De Ruyter, Visconti, Wetzels, 2014) with self-determination theory (Ryan,& Deci, 2000) and Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow (Green & Brock, 2002). Don’t worry; I’ll try to lay my arguments in plain English.
Let us begin by defining terms. What is engagement? That which keeps you interested and willing to continue performing an activity, such as reading a book or watching a movie until interrupted by boredom. In other words, something is engaging when it is not boring. Lame definition, I know, but this is our first aha! moment: the first step to increase engagement is to avoid boredom.
We could blame boredom on the readers’ ignorance or lack of discipline, but the truth is that even the most compelling stories can become boring if told the wrong way. Likewise, the simplest adventures can be a rollercoaster of fun if spiced up. Is that what you should do, then, add more salt and pepper to your story? Yes, but, as the cliché says, one must also learn when to kill his darlings—those that are boring, that is.
Boredom is an emotion, and as every emotion, its function is to direct behavior (Bench & Lench, 2013). Boredom is related to disgust (Toohey, 2011), and as disgust, it convinces you to stop, plain and simple. Boredom signals the brain that the current goal is no longer attractive, even toxic (Willis, 2014), and that a different goal must be pursued (Bench & Lench, 2013). Therefore the feelings of discomfort one suffers when bored and still forced to continue. Not only that, boredom cuts the communication between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of your brain, impeding the formation of long-term memories (Willis, 2014).
Yes, boredom can prevent you from acquiring valuable knowledge. It is an evolutionary advantage to increase the chances of survival: Just like disgust prevents us from getting sick by not eating what we find repulsive, boredom prevents us from devoting our undivided attention to a single, unrewarding activity for too long. The world is a scary place, and if we wonder for too long why the sky is blue or how many angels can dance on a pin head, we may get eaten, killed, or left behind. The risk may not be as high in this modern world, but your brain doesn’t care. No matter how much time you have on your hands, your subconscious still decides whether a current task deserves your whole attention or not. That is, perhaps, why you keep checking your social media accounts every ten minutes, because you’re not sufficiently engaged at work.
So far this may sound like redundant advice: to be interesting one must not be boring, but the temptation to write long, insipid, unrewarding back stories or fill up pages with exposition exists. If it is boring, cut it, regardless of how beautiful the prose. Your readers’ brains will reject it anyway.
So how not to be boring? If boredom is an indication to stop and pursue a different goal, you need the opposite, to motivate your readers to continue by leading them into a state of flow, one that demands intense focus but is also meaningful, challenging, and rewarding by itself (Green & Brock, 2002) as when you read an amazing story or play an interesting game, and you simply don’t get bored. Applied to narratives, we say that an engaged reader has been transported to the world of the story to the point that they ignore their physical surroundings and instead “see the action of the story unfolding before them” (Green & Brock, 202, p. 317).
When fully transported, the decision to continue is automatic. If you get bored, the decision to proceed or not becomes conscious and will depend on an external reward rather than intrinsic enjoyment derived from the activity, as in “I better finish reading this BORING article if I want to pass the finals,” or “I better stop here, this article is BORING, and I have much better things to do.” That is the tenet of self-determination theory, which explains motivation. Concerning consuming stories, we can say that readers are intrinsically motivated to read a story when the story is rewarding by itself, and extrinsically motivated when reading depends on an external reward, like obtaining a good grade.
What this means is that to craft an interesting story, you must reward your readers because rewards keep them engaged.
Does that mean stories should be a sugary road to happiness? All the contrary. Rewards bring you joy, of course, but joy, like all emotions, fades with time and has a diminishing marginal utility (Bench & Lench, 2013). One pony is fantastic, two ponies better, why not, but the sixth pony is just meh! By pony number fourteen you are probably so sick of those tiny horses, you can’t care less if all die. Transportation is off, and you return to the real world. For stories to be rewarding they need to be painful too; otherwise, the rewards become meaningless. Conflict brings some of that pain. Pain is what makes rewards delicious. Too much pain, however, and the activity becomes harrowing. How much is too much? Conflict arouses your readers’ interest but only when there is hope this conflict will get resolved, and in the measure of the emotions it arouses. As directives of behavior emotions serve also as indicators of progress toward a goal (Bench & Lench, 2013), so what truly keeps readers engaged are the little steps toward a distant yet attainable goal. Here we get closer to what makes a story engaging: goal setting.
A reader’s goal is to be entertained as she relives how characters suffer and rejoice toward achieving their goals. To be engaged then, or transported—we should prefer this term since we are talking about being engaged in a story—means to emotionally identify with the characters’ predicament, empathize with their plight, and wish for them to achieve their goals, regardless of what these are. Goal setting is not the only determinant of transportation but an essential one because without goals there cannot be an emotional investment in the characters and we get bored!
Therefore the success of the hero’s journey, a classic map to create engaging stories. You have a hero, one with a clear goal and a journey that is but a rollercoaster of emotions as he rejects the quest first, then accepts it, then succeeds, then fails, then gets help from a supernatural power, then fails again, then succeeds. The problem I see with the Hero’s Journey is that it becomes a recipe that storytellers follow to achieve success rather than an example. Works with children, who are easy to please, but as you mature and have watched or read your fair share of stories, you gain the ability to anticipate any new development. When the rewards start coming at a predictable pace, the story becomes less engaging (Eyal, 2012).
How does this relate to gamification? Gamification refers to the application of game elements to non-gaming activities to increase motivation (Conaway & Garay, 2014; Crowley, Breslin, Corcoran, & Young, 2012; Landers & Callan, 2011). Understanding what causes a state of flow, and Self-Determination Theory explains how games keep you motivated.
Let us use a game we all know to explain it: Candy Crush Saga. Solving puzzles is basically a waste of your time, and as we said before boredom protects us from wasting time. Why then is the game so addictive? Because we derive satisfaction from solving puzzles, it makes us feel smart. What Candy Crush Saga does is to allow the player to reach a state of flow, one that demands her full attention and is rewarding by itself (Morris, Croker, Zimmerman, Gill, & Romig, 2013). Then, the game keeps the player motivated by satisfying her needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which per Self-Determination Theory are key to motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Candy Crush Saga satisfies your need for autonomy by allowing you to play at your own pace and devote only as much time—or money, if one decides to buy the boosters—as you want. You can play the game anywhere, anytime, as long as you have a device with an internet connection.
Candy Crush Saga satisfies your need to feel competent, with puzzles that are easy to solve at the beginning but get increasingly challenging as you progress. Instead of boring us, the increasing challenge keeps us going, and we only quit when the game becomes too easy or too difficult—or reality calls. Additionally, the game continually rewards you for your good decisions with catchy sounds, power ups, explosions of color, and words like “divine” and “tasty.” By the time you complete level 252 with over two million points you feel nothing less than the Queen or the King of the world, especially because completing a level is yes, product of your own effort but also occurs relatively at random, which keep you even more hooked: uncertainty increases our willingness to continue, because our dopamine levels increase with anticipation (Rose, 2012; Eyal, 2012). In other words, we are happier when we are about to attain what we want than when we attain it. Lastly, if you fail, no big deal, you can try again, and then again, and again, until you complete the level. Candy Crush Saga won’t judge you. It celebrates you the same whether it took you ten minutes or a year to complete a level.
It doesn’t stop there: The game also makes you feel part of a community, satisfying your need for relatedness by allowing to brag about your success on social media, see your friends’ progress, help them or ask for their help, and gives meaning to your apparently purposeless efforts by interjecting the story of how Tiffi lends a hand to the residents of Candy Kingdom. These may be only fictional characters, but they sure are grateful.
To summarize, the elements of gamification are: 1. progress path, through the use of challenges; 2. constant feedback, on what you do right and what you do wrong, and instant gratification to keep the user motivated and make forward movement obvious; 3. social connection, with both real and fictional characters, providing competition and support, and 4. interface and user experience, which refers to the aesthetics of the game (Conaway and Garay,2014).
How can you apply this to increase transportation?
Let’s recapitulate. To increase transportation, a reader must willingly join the characters’ on an emotionally bumpy quest to achieve their goals. Bumpy, because if it isn’t challenging enough, the journey becomes boring. To remain engaged, the reader must constantly be rewarded, but these rewards must come after solving the challenges along the trip. If the trip is too easy, the reader may get bored; if it is too difficult, the reader will get frustrated, and bored and frustrated readers quit. Because seeing the characters’ attain their goals is the ultimate reward—in addition to those smaller rewards collected along the way—these goals must be set as early as possible. The reader must know what the purpose of immersing into a story is. Otherwise, boredom will signal the reader’s brains to occupy herself with something else.
In essence, transportation results from leading readers into a state of flow, but not any state of flow, but one that leads to the creation of mental imagery and developing empathy for others. Solving a simple puzzle involves no characters. Narrative transportation occurs only when the task at hand involves interpreting a story, a sequence of events with identifiable characters. Interpreting is the key word. One must differentiate then between a story, as one that is told, and a narrative, as one that is interpreted by the reader (Laer, De Ruyter, Visconti, & Wetzels, 2014). The difference is important because interpreting is what makes consuming a story an active and progressively challenging task that can lead to a state of flow. Therefore, all the writing advice clichés: Show; don’t tell. Less is more. Make the reader read between the lines, and kill your darlings. In other words, provide just enough information so that the reader is forced to solve a puzzle. Exposition should set the rules not drive the story. Too many rules and nobody will want to play. Too little rules and players will get confused. Start easy and acknowledge the reader’s abilities and familiarity with the subject, the characters or the genre. Do not waste time explaining how a submarine operates, unless the reader needs the information to solve a future puzzle. If she does, bring the information closer to that puzzle; if she doesn’t, delete it. That not only makes a story engaging but also satisfies the readers’ need for autonomy, for they become the ones building the story with you. Give them control over the little details; let them decide the make and color of the heroes’ automobiles; the clothes they wear, etc. It is not a matter of losing control but of staying in control by constantly teasing, by leading the path with crumbs, create anticipation, and not losing their attention. An increased sense of presence should result not only from the creation of mental imagery suggested by the story but also by speculative thoughts.
For instance, in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Besson, 2017), the origins of the city are suggested with a series of images of the International Space Station accompanied by a well known song, Space Oddity. The Bowie song puts you in a good mood and because we all know it (and love it) and because the International Space Station is also a concept we are all familiar with, as viewers we easily reach a state of transportation and do not question what comes next: the City of a Thousand Planets, Alpha, growing from all sorts of interplanetary species joining the station. The details of how the different technologies and politics were reconciled are irrelevant. We are too busy interpreting and enjoying the story. Had Besson chosen to explain the origin of Alpha with exposition, say by listing the circumstances under which each civilization joined the station, the result may not have been as transporting. What he did was to exploit the knowledge that most viewers already possessed: a catchy song that suggests the magic of space exploration and the existence of a real international enterprise, and then lead the viewers to connect the dots.
Is the experience rewarding? Absolutely. Not only is aesthetically beautiful, but it inspires a sense of hope in the future of humanity. Then it becomes valuable knowledge for what is coming next, the most exotic world you could ever imagine, compressed in a relatively small space, the size of a “city.” By the time we return to Alpha, we do not question its existence, or how it became such a chaotic place, but it remains an intriguing place, we want to know ans see more, and thus we continue engaged.
The Alpha sequence does not introduce us to the main characters or their goals; nonetheless, it sets a clear goal in the reader’s mind: to learn more about this world. It prepares us for wanting more.
Cinema as a medium has the advantage of being more immersive than print narratives because a film can provide in one frame much more detailed information than text could in one line and without disrupting the pace of the narrative (Biocca, 2002). Immersion, however, does not guarantee continuous engagement. All the contrary, ambiguity does, because ambiguity leads to the creation of mental imagery and speculative thoughts. Take the opening scene in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
‘My dear Mr. Bennet,’ said his lady to him one day, ‘have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?’
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
‘But it is,’ returned she; ‘for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.’
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
‘Do you not want to know who has taken it?’ cried his wife impatiently.
‘YOU want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.” (Austen, 2009, Kindle Location 21659)
Austen takes advantage of our familiarity with similar characters and circumstances to let us deduce that Mrs. Bennet talks a lot, but her husband doesn’t. From the text we also infer that the new resident of Netherfield Park is rich and single, that the Bennets have daughters of an appropriate age to be married, and that Mrs. Bennet wants to marry one of them with him. Nothing of this is stated, though, merely suggested. The reader becomes acquainted with the characters, and that without being told what they look like, how they’re dressed, where exactly the action takes place, or any other information irrelevant to the story. I imagine the Bennets in a small drawing room, one similar to the many drawing rooms I’ve seen in British movies, Mr. Bennet busy with a book, Mrs. Bennet pretending to be examining the curtains. Austen presents us with a challenge, that of interpreting the story, but she gives us the absolute liberty to recreate the scene in whichever manner we want. In a game, we have the autonomy to move and explore with liberty as long as we follow certain rules. In Austen’s novels, we have the autonomy to imagine what the Bennets look like, where they are, as we discover what they want. Our reward? Elegant yet easy to follow prose, which plays the role of hyper realistic graphics, and the comedic situation. Impossible not to smile at Mrs. Bennet’s attempt to call her husband’s attention! By the time we meet the Bennet daughters, we have already sided with their mother’s intentions whether we approve of them or not. Alas, when Lizzy and Mr. Darcy first meet, they dislike each other intensely… And how fortunate that is! It would have been a waste of our time if the story ended without any obstacles. Finally, not every reader will be enthused about the limited options for the Bennet daughters, but as the story progresses, it becomes impossible not to relate and dream about living too in that world, England’s countryside at the turn of the nineteen century, despite the lack of comfort, the threat of war, the poor hygiene, and other circumstances from which the narrative distracts us.
Laer et al. (2014) list identifiable characters, imaginable plot, and verisimilitude as antecedents dependent on the storyteller, and familiarity, attention, transportability, and demographics such as gender and age, as antecedents dependent on the story receiver that influence transportation. My proposal is not to change these ingredients, but the way they are cooked: as a series of puzzles following a progress path, providing feedback, social connection, and a pleasurable user experience. A storyteller must not limit to introduce characters and their goals but invite readers to recreate these characters and infer their goals based on the rules that the storyteller sets upon consideration of the readers’ abilities, that is by taking advantage of the readers’ experience and their willingness to confront a challenge, because this will satisfy the readers’ need for autonomy and competence. The storyteller must also reward readers with beautiful images, witty lines, and by allowing progress to be evident to keep the readers’ attention, and be careful to provide these rewards only when they are deserved, after some good tormenting, and not as often or in a pattern that makes them predictable, to satisfy the readers’ need for competence. And a storyteller must invite his readers to bond with his characters and feel part of their world, and their circumstances. Who wouldn’t change places with Harry Potter, orphaned as a baby, raised without love, surrounded by enemies, and in constant peril, for a chance of attending courses at Hogwarts and Christmas at the Weasley’s? A story needs to satisfy our need for relatedness to be complete.
Austen, Jane (2009). The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Annotated with Biography and Critical Essays) (Kindle Locations 21662-21666). Douglas Editions. Kindle Edition.
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Crowley, D., Breslin, J., Corcoran, P., & Young, K. (2012). Gamification of Citizen Sensing through Mobile Social Reporting. Paper presented at the Games Innovation Conference (IGIC), 2012 IEEE International.
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Post a picture of your husband and pancakes, forty seven likes. Post a reminder that you wrote a book and need reviews, zero likes. What’s the point of having hundreds of friends on social media if none will rush to attend your every desire? It is almost as if people thought their own lives are more important than mine. How can they be so callous and heartless? An author needs praise! Constant praise! Anyways, since the photo proved to be popular, here it is again, and, why not, an excerpt of my newest novel Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love, where I mentioned the recipe.
Read it in the voice of thirty-seven-year-old white homosexual from Leitchfield, Kentucky.
It’s Sunday morning, and I’m in a terrible state, hardly in the mood for my traditional kale, oats, and cornmeal pancakes. Jignesh looks rather skittish too. His face is as pale as Meryl Streep’s in The French Lieutenant’s Woman when she first sees Jeremy Irons at The Cobb in Lyme Regis’s harbor.
“Do you still feel like going to the Opera this evening?” He asks without lifting his eyes from his plate.
I put my fork down. He must be kidding me. I’m wearing my new silk robe from Ralph Lauren—since it is a special occasion, I saw no point in buying only clothes for the evening—I didn’t eat anything but steamed broccoli for the last two weeks so that I would be the skinniest man at the Dorothy Chandler—I’m having only half a pancake today and totally planning to barf it—and I have lived for the last three months with the oppressive fear on my chest of not knowing whether the man I share a roof and sometimes a bed with is going to murder me. And after what I saw on Friday morning…
“I’m really looking forward to it,” I say, giving a sad tone to my words, like that of a heartbroken Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility after she lost Willoughby, while trying not to scratch the table from underneath and ruin my $50 manicure from Kinara.
I cannot show myself mad, lest Jignesh gets mad too and kills me, the butter knife inches away from his hand and all. The disappointment on my face must be evident, though, for he doesn’t insist. He briefly looks at me then continues drinking his coffee in silence.
It’s been a rather uneasy two days. A rather uneasy three months, since I discovered the first body… Friday, I closed yet another week without having a single sale, and Tunisha had to let me go.
I did like Julianne Moore in Safe and started sobbing quietly. Poor Tunisha, she’s an excellent boss and awfully inspiring, but she doesn’t know what to do when white people start crying. She got all mortified like that one time when that irresponsible meth addict—what’s her face? some white-trash name like Kimberly—started crying too because she wouldn’t approve an advance on her commissions. Kimberly had terrible skin, but her hair color was just gorgeous. And it was her natural color, I imagine, you wouldn’t think that a drug addict driving a 1987 Crown Victoria full of ten years of fast food wrappers would spend her hard-earned commissions in hair coloring, would you? Not when her teeth and skin were what needed attention. Anyway, Tunisha is such a great a supervisor; she’s always super considerate. She has a brilliant future ahead within the company. The last thing I wanted was to make her feel uncomfortable. After a minute, I brushed away my tears, took a deep breath, said “thank you for everything” and that I would just go empty my desk and leave.
When I reached the door, though, all the repressed emotions came out at once. “I thought he was the man I would spend the rest of my life with,” I think I said at one point. “But he kills people!” Thank God I was bawling by then and so Tunisha couldn’t quite understand me. She called Sherise to bring me a glass of water. When I calmed down, I promised Tunisha I would do better if she gave me another chance. I even knelt down and attempted to kiss her feet. And that rug is so dusty…
Apparently Jignesh had problems at work too. What precisely, he wouldn’t tell me, but the meal we had on Friday evening was the saddest meal we’ve had since he moved in. I couldn’t talk and he just wouldn’t.
He spent the whole day yesterday at his office. Some emergency he had to deal with, he said. One can only hope he wasn’t killing more people.
I decided to visit my friend Lucille in hopes that she could—well, adopt me?
I hadn’t stepped out of the car when she came running as happy as a dog on its first day at the beach: “We’re pregnant!”
I could not ruin her day of happiness, could I? Lucille and Marco have been trying to have a baby for months—what for? It’s beyond my grasp. She has such a nice figure… Gosh, today’s pancakes are so good, I’m glad I added coconut oil to the batter instead of butter. Should I have another half? Anyways, I didn’t tell Lucille that I had lost my job. I simply let her talk and talk baby while I internally basked in my private tragedy. At last, she asked: “So how are things going between you a Jignesh?”
“Oh, marvelous!” I replied.
What else could I have said? For the first time since I met Lucille, her tone didn’t sound like a reprimand. I didn’t want her to feel disappointed.
“And tomorrow is the big day, yay!” She clapped.
“Oh, yes,” I laughed, as if I had forgotten all about it. “Der Fliegende Holländer.”
I’m positively looking forward to tonight’s performance, I can’t deny it. I know the lyrics by heart already: Johohoe! Johohohoe! Johohohoe! Hoe! Hoe! Hoe! Hoe! That and the satisfaction I know I’ll get when, once more, I check in on Facebook at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, donning my super expensive razor jacket from Rag & Bone, and then I see all those likes flowing in, especially from all those people I left behind in Kentucky who never thought I would make it as far as Cincinnati—that’s what keeps me alive.
“I never truly loved your father,” I imagine a septuagenarian self on a rocking chair telling our grown-up children. “But that was the best night of my life.”
Yay, people are reading my paper, A Cross Theoretical Model of Persuasion!
Its code title was BRAINWASHING WITH LIES!!! Because it is a guide on how to increase the persuasiveness of a message when dealing with stubborn people that JUST DON’T GET IT. Sometimes a fictional story is the only plausible solution.
You can download it here:
Here’s the link to the video https://youtu.be/iXln8IXIPdA