Henry Jenkins has published a series of blogs recently on the issues of ending a cult TV series, and this chimed with the points that Mary Hamilton made about ‘Frothing’ in the podcast of her talk at The Story. Jenkins talks about the issues of fans’ reactions to the ends of much-loved stories, and whether its ever possible to wrap up the many lives and story elements in a way that pleases all the audience. For Hamilton, ‘Frothing’ is the essential part of the LARP experience – the chat over drinks that boils down the players’ experience into anecdotes that bond them as players, and make the messy, confusing playing experience into a memorable story.
So what makes a good ending when the act of storytelling is social and collaborative? It feels sometimes that designers of interactive story projects spend all their energy on Beginnings and very little on Endings. Most ARGs have very few users who make it through to the end, either by accident or design, and so the cathartic experience of coming to the end is not all that common in participatory stories. Would you be happy with this experience if you were watching a film or reading a book?
I have a good friend who studies magic, and he has described a good trick as something with a clear ‘In’ and ‘Out’. For magicians, an ‘In’ is the sleight of hand that loads the audience with a piece of information that they appear to have chosen themselves – a forced card, or an image in their head. The ‘In’ only works if it looks casual and unforced – if the audiences spends too much time noticing the sleight (this intense attention is called ‘burning’ by magicians) then the trick is ruined. The real thing magicians want you to spend your attention on is the ‘Out’ – the reveal of the information that was previously forced on you. The bigger, grander and more complicated the ‘Out’, the more impressive the trick, and therefore 90% of the real work in the trick can be on the ‘Out’ rather than the ‘In’.
There’s another important factor in designing an ‘Out’ – there has to be doubt about how it could have been done, holes in any theory the audience might come up with to describe the trick. This is called ‘closing the doors’, and the narrative of a good trick will close all the possible doors (solutions) the audience could think of, but will leave at least a couple open. If a trick leaves only one possible solution (he must have forced the card!) then its a poor trick. There have to be at least some doubt (but he couldn’t – he let me shuffle the cards!) for the trick to be really effective, and for the ‘Out’ to have the greatest impact.
So in designing stories for participatory media, we need to start spending a lot more time designing endings, and a lot less time designing rabbit holes. We must design endings that leave people in the right place to start a conversation – this is what the finale of a good cult series does, what a good magician does at the end of a trick. Most importantly, we must never leave the audience alone. Always leave the audience in a place where Frothing can happen, and leave them with something startling to Froth about.
Perhaps part of the reason participatory media is bad at endings is a nervousness of this Frothing – the fear that the audience’s discussion will tear apart the fabric of the story and ruin its impact. This leads to bad design – we either make the story harder and harder to follow until all but a hardcore group remain, or we dump the audience back to the ground with a bump, with no structure to help them discuss the experience they’ve just had, and nobody to talk to.
How many times have you played with some participatory project online and ended up with nothing but the option to send a tweet or facebook post about your experience? Now think about the last time you went to the cinema, and ended up in a bar afterwards with friends discussing the story. Even if the movie was awful, the discussion afterwards was a much a part of the experience as the movie itself.
In short, we need to spend less time on the Ins, and more on the Outs. Less time trying to lead the audience down a rabbit hole, and more time leading them to the pub. The Story is The Froth.