My oft-mentioned friend, Dr. Nick – scholar, gentleman and zeppelin enthusiast – has spoken to me frequently on the subject of the 8 kinds of fun. He designs his RPG tabletops (which are, after all, stories in the purest sense) in accordance with these principles and I think it’s time to apply them to the written word. It’s a different medium, sure, but I feel it should still be largely applicable. After all, what are you reading genre fiction for if not fun? So, let’s see how well the theory bridges the media gap.
But first, the point. What is the point of analysing the types of fun your book generates or aims for? Well, it’s less cut and dried than for games, but the idea of identifying your audience and catering to their needs is still totally applicable. You might not get feedback from them in the same way you would from an RPG group but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them. Then there’s your characters – what kinds of fun do they like? What kind of people are they? This is another good tool for character development, taking a fairly nuanced facet of personality types into account. And finally, there’s you. You’re having fun, right? I assume you are, else you’d be doing something else with your time. What kind of fun do you like, and how does that affect your storytelling? Have you taken other types of fun into consideration? Maybe doing so would give you some different ideas for plot, or atmosphere, or whatever. It’s all good fodder for inspiration.
Anyway, now actually on to the type-by-type comparison.
1. Sensory Pleasure
Touch, smell, sight, etc. There’s a bunch of different ways you can play with this as a writer. The first, and most obvious, is to use all your characters’ senses in your writing. Make the world come alive through their noses, their ears, their fingertips. Try it yourself, too – concentrate on your senses in order to better understand and convey the world around you.
You might be forgiven for thinking that sensory pleasure for the reader is only available in this second-hand way but that isn’t entirely true. Take S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst. It’s a book with all kinds of bits and pieces included – post cards, scribbled notes, etc. A grown up version of The Jolly Postman by Janet Ahlberg. Man, I loved that book as a kid. I never lost a single letter, either. These books are unusual because they’re expensive and tricky to produce, but that shouldn’t stop you thinking about things like this. Even if you don’t go full 3D, it might give you some cool ideas, and it does mark your book out as something a bit different.
Sensory pleasure also ties in with formatting – something that’s way more flexible and interactive in this age of digital media. Andy Knighton’s talked about this in more detail over here, so I won’t cover the same ground again. It’s definitely worth considering though as it engages your reader’s brain in a very different way.
Escapism. Yeah, I think we’ve got that one covered in genre fiction. I’m not even going to cite any examples. Next?
Making sure your story has a beginning, middle and end, peaks and troughs of tension, etc, etc. Another one that needs thought for games but is (should be) a non-issue for writing. Moving on.
There’s the obvious here – conflict maketh the story – but what about your readers? How are you challenging them? Do you even want to? Is this an applicable type of fun for the written word? I’d say yes, absolutely. Challenge them to think, to get to grips with new ideas or arguments. Challenge them to understand the motives and morals of your weird alien race. Challenge them to see the implications of a theological schism, perhaps even before your characters do. Use this challenge to help build tension and setting. Don’t patronise them – let them rise to your challenge.
As an unusual example, I’m going to cite Vellum by Hal Duncan. The reader is challenged to follow the seriously knotted thread of the story through different timezones, narrators, alternate realities and so on. Duncan doesn’t offer you a guide to assembling the jigsaw puzzle, and he certainly doesn’t lay it all out for you. He challenges you to make sense of it for yourself.
In gaming terms this means social interaction and discovery. It’s a slightly tougher one to translate into written stories, as reading tends to be a solitary hobby. There are two answers that I can think of. The first is to achieve a sense of fellowship between your reader and your characters. Obviously characters are important but this type of fun goes above and beyond – the reader knows the characters, identifies with them, feels with them. It may not be social interaction but it is a kind of bonding. Everyone will have their own different example for this one. Mine is Sunshine by Robin McKinley.
The other side of this coin is bonding with people over books you love. It’s sort of a second-tier aspect but still relevant. How you make sure that your book is one others will want to recommend and talk over with their friends, though, is a bit trickier. Um, yeah. Good luck.
This is another easy one to deliver in word form, if you are so inclined. We’re talking here about new worlds, cultures, history, religions, etc etc. Revealing and learning new vistas. Definitely within the writer’s scope. Getting the balance right can be tough – you don’t want to provide too much detail at the expense of pacing or plot – but sucking readers into your setting and letting them explore through the eyes of your characters is a wonderful thing. It won’t appeal to all audiences but the ones who like this kind of thing will be hooked. Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora is an excellent example.
The original article includes self-discovery here, which is a lot harder for a reader unless you’re writing something that’s intended to encourage self-reflection. That takes it into a slightly different realm, however, as the article meant self-discovery of a player’s own character whereas books encouraging self-reflection are aiming it at real people. Nonetheless, making your readers think about the real world they inhabit via the fantasy world you’ve created is totally laudable. I’m going to cite The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards as my example here (it isn’t strictly fantasy but it is an amazing book).
This is the big one for RPGs, and the near-impossible one for written word. This is the fun that comes from creative expression and creation – something which, as a direct relationship between writer and reader, is tricky. You’ve done all the creating and the transfer of story is one way, so what’s left?
Well, there’s two answers to that. The first is that, whilst you may not see it as an author, if your book engages enough then the reader will indulge in creative expression after the fact. Pictures of favourite characters litter places like DeviantART; fanfic stories fill hundreds of virtual libraries. If a reader is inspired to create off the back of reading your book, then award yourself a gold star. The second answer is that writing a book doesn’t have to take place in a vacuum. This is something I’ve touched on before – the art of collaborative or community writing. Neil Gaiman’s A Calendar of Tales, for example, asked a question via Twitter, wrote stories around the answers and then asked for art. It’s difficult and requires some innovative approaches, but it has been done.
Turning off the brain, sitting back and enjoying the ride. This is where the junk/trash book comes into its own – when you just want to read something without being challenged or made to think. Avoid Hal Duncan, avoid Scott Lynch, avoid Kim Edwards – now is the hour of David Eddings and his ilk. I hasten to add that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this sort of book. It has a wide market – we all want to switch off from time to time – and there are plenty of well-thumbed examples on my own shelves. If you’re looking for a good fantasy romp with no helixing plotlines, deep philosophy or nuanced politics, I can’t recommend Storm Front by Jim Butcher highly enough.
So there you go – a literary slant on the 8 kinds of fun and how it applies to your readers. I hope that was interesting, helpful or at least gave you some good recommendations to add to your reading list. Have a fun weekend!