You Must Make The Reader Lay An Egg And Then… Eat The Egg? Or Suck The Egg? Something Egg?

I Am The Egg Man (Or,

Wait, no, that can’t be right.

Let’s revisit Rob Donoghue’s post from yesterday (“Dragon Age: Leaving Out The Egg“), and see if I can’t get on track, here.

Rob said something awesome, something of which I was utterly unaware:

Back in the day, Betty Crocker rolled onto the market with mixes for making cakes and such. More women were working and there was less time available. The idea was to make it easier to make real home baked food with less time and effort. It was a good idea, and Betty Crocker did a number of really clever things with chemistry – all you needed to do was combine the mix and water then bake.

It failed miserably.

So Betty Crocker sat down and did some serious market research, and they discovered something. Women weren’t using the mixes because it was too easy – it felt like cheating. So Betty Crocker went back to the lab and changed the formula to remove the egg component so the cook needed to add an egg of her own. That was enough to make it feel “home made” and it was a tremendous success.

I mention this because this speaks to a lesson that’s useful for a lot of products: if you “leave out the egg”, which is to say create an opportunity for the user to invest a little bit of effort to make a product their own, they’ll be more invested in it, and more enthusiastic.

Rob went on to say a bunch of stuff about the forthcoming Dragon Age RPG, but that’s not the chewy delicious treat, not for me. The treat is what he said up yonder, about leaving out the egg. See, you ask me, I’d say that this applies to your fiction, as well.

More and more, it feels to me that with prose fiction, what you choose not to say is as important as what you choose to say. This is applicable to film, of course, and as Rob notes, applicable to games. It speaks in a roundabout way to an overall less-is-more approach, but what Rob does further is perhaps answer the question of why less is more.

Less is more because it makes the reader do work.

The reader doesn’t think the reader wants to do work.

But really, let’s be clear: the reader’s a bit of an addleheaded shitbrain. He doesn’t mean to be. The reader always thinks the reader knows what’s best, but that’s a wicker basket heaped with lies and rhino dung. The reader would try to keep characters from danger, the reader would squash the romantic tension by making the couple kiss too early, the reader would probably rather just go and masturbate quietly in the closet instead of reading your silly book. You can’t trust the reader. Further, it’s best to make the reader step up to the plate and take a load off your shoulders.

Seriously. Make the reader work.

Look at it this way: you have a child, and you give the child everything the child ever asks for, and the child becomes a spoiled little monster that you have to one day quietly leave in a K-Mart restroom so you can run away and start a new life in the Florida Everglades.(Probably breeding alligators, because you’re just that kind of weirdo.)

Alternately, you help that child work for the things that the child wants, and what happens?

The child becomes invested in the things he owns.

He gains some sense of responsibility over them.

The reader is like a child. A child you do not want to have to strand in a dirty K-Mart bathroom stall.

Hence, you mustn’t give the reader everything the reader wants. You have to make the reader jump through some hoops, dig a few holes with a rickety shovel, paint a few walls.

Thankfully, this is all mental work — a purely internal exercise, I assure you. (Unless you can convince the reader to actually come to your house and paint your walls. In which case, high-five. You are my hero.)

So, what the hell does this mean?

Well, fuck, I don’t really know yet.

But I can hazard a few guesses.

Really, I’ve been orbiting this idea for a while now. Whether we’re talking description or dialogue or theme, a lighter touch leaves room for the reader’s own hand. “I want to put a lamp here,” or, “I like to imagine that this character had an awful childhood.” By letting the reader do some decorating in this House of Fiction you’re building, the reader takes ownership.

You’ve left out the egg, to go back to what Rob was talking about.

Let the reader bring the egg.

That means letting the reader do work (work the reader doesn’t even realize she wants to do). Now, over at Rob’s blog, in the comments, Rob wisely notes that the problem in prose fiction is that this approach could lead to boredom for the reader. That’s true, I think, and is a damn worthy concern. You still need to do enough with the story that the reader commits to the work you’ve asked of her. If your tale is too much a fixer-upper (I know, I’m bouncing metaphors from house to egg, shut up), the reader won’t bother with the mental investment needed.

So, I think a good guideline is —

For every detail you leave out, the detail you put in need to be awesome. Striking. Vivid. Potent, like Superman’s seed.

Your work in the story must be assertive, creative, and interesting.

You let the reader place the lamp… but only in a room whose walls you’ve already painted a deep and bloody red.

You let the reader invent that character’s abusive father, but only after giving plenty of reason through history and action that the character is the child of just such a fate.

You provide the awesome ingredients.

You just let the reader bring the egg.

Awesome.

We’ll talk more about this, but for now, I leave you to your Friday.

(Wait, it’s Thursday? Nuh-uh. Seriously? Man. When you work freelance, your brain is unmoored to any actual calendar. I float in an endless void of blank calendar pages. I guess if it’s Thursday, I should put pants back on. Dangit. Stupid Thursdays.)

[EDIT: Fred later suggests in Rob’s post that Zelazny’s Rule of Threes — which Doyce expounds upon — is one application of “leaving out the egg.” Double awesome.]