Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Ikea Effect and Mysteries

Ikea is all at once awesome and awful. They have a great selection of cheap, modern, furniture that somehow works well for its inexpensiveness. One of the best parts of Ikea, though, is their psychological advantage by utilizing a trick known as the "Ikea Effect".

Look at that beautiful wall/bookcase. You made that all by yourself.
The Ikea Effect is, essentially, a way to get customers to enjoy your product by turning them into one of its creators. Basically, when you buy something from Ikea--lets say a bookcase--there is assembly required. You're not just purchasing some bookcase a bunch of Swedes made, you're buying an experience. You have a hand in how well this bookcase functions. You actually help create it. And, by doing so, you subconsciously start to like Ikea because there products make you feel good, they make you feel purposeful.

You built a bookcase. You should be proud.

But, at the same time, it can't be too hard. I remember being a kid and trying to put together those remote controlled cars that came with assembly required and getting so frustrated at the complexity that I gave up all interest in playing with it. Until my father put it together and I realized that I'm awful with mechanical things. The point is that with Ikea, a twelve year old could put together your book case, but a smart one. You don't want to cheapen the customer by making it too easy to put together. This will cause them to grow suspicious of the products validity.

It's about moderation. How much do I make the customer work? This idea is similar in writing with the relationship between the author and the reader. When you're writing, or reading, there is a relationship between how much of the material is spelled out for you--no pun intended--and how much you have to work for. Some authors, just lay it all out there for you whereas others, like Dostoevsky, will make you work your way around excessive adjectives and descriptions. Others--like Hemingway, Weisel, and Carver--will make it seem like they're being very simple when they are actually very complex. This is like the Ikea effect. How much does the reader have to work?

But, if you want to take that further, the writing of mysteries is incredibly close to the Ikea Effect.

Lets take a look at The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The first in a trilogy, the book is extremely popular, definitely one of the most important books of the decade and the Swedish movies (I think there's a trend here...) are very well crafted. One of the reasons why the series' popularity has soared is because of the mystery itself. It's complex and full of taboos but it's also something that isn't too complex and convoluted that we can't understand it. In fact, once we find out in the end Who did what to Whom, and where So and So is, we get that "Ooohh!" feeling. Like, "How did I not see that earlier?"

Don't get too "hung up" on the wrong details.
It's kind of like after trying to put together that book case for an hour you empty out the box and find that missing washer.

The same effect occurs in Hitchcock films. There's always a big reveal at the end where our Insecure Male Hero explains everything to us causing us to feel smarter than how we were two hours ago.

The best way to accomplish this effect is by taking something--an object, a character trait, something visual--and turn it into something very important for semi-complicated reasons. For example, the suits the heroine(s) wore in Vertigo. Or the biblical references in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. That way we can have something to hang on to, a rock to stand on (the idea of the "totem" in Inception), and trace it's way through the narrative.

The development of the biblical references. The way the suits and the hair matched. It gives the viewer/reader a visual aid to concentrate on. Let's call it the Visual Source. Because it's visual, obviously, and is the source of the mystery itself. Like Anaconda Malt Liquor in Black Dynamite.

Follow the suit. Follow the hair. Follow the mystery.
This is NOT to be confused with the Maguffin. The Maguffin is something completely different; much more fundamental. The Visual Source can never be the Maguffin, but the Maguffin can be the Visual Source.

If you follow all the fundamental's first--giving your characters something visual to work for, faults to work on that are tied with the visual goal, something to lose, and opposing forces with the same qualities--and then throw in a Visual Source that weaves its way through the narrative--then you got yourself a great story.


JPK said...

Great post! Personally, I wish audiences today were a bit more willing to assemble what we sell them. Audience passivity in this country is aggravating--and the industry's reaction depressing.

Matt Rickett said...

Thanks, Jan! Yeah, TV has sucked the smart-ness out of audiences these days. But, I think movies like Inception and how popular it was for how convoluted give some hope.

Cate Hahneman said...

I'm with you Matt! I think Inception and movies like it are a return to treating audiences like they're grown ups. Give us the chance to assemble the pieces of the story together and we might just enjoy ourselves even more.

Rose Cummings said...

I agree with all of you. Why do we feel the need to "dumb things down"? It's annoying. Interesting insight on the visual source. I hadn't thought much about the suits in "Vertigo," but that small touch adds so much to the story's depth. In the "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" the scripture passages are integral to the story's plot. In using them they have the audience constantly guessing to what's going on as they watch Salander and Blomkvist (sorry -can't remember the Swedish spelling) try to figure it out. The book was riveting for those types of touches throughout.

On Ikea. You didn't mention it, but I thought in keeping with your Ikea theme I would mention the scene from "Fight Club". As Edward Norton's character describes his apartment in terms of Ikea and the prices show up on the screen. Its effect was to show consumerism and it hits to theme of the movie,or rather the heart of it.

Great post.

Prof. C

hmescon said...

Just the mention of Fight Club gets me so excited, and that bit is great: "I had it all. Even the glass dishes with tiny bubbles and imperfections, proof they were crafted by the honest, simple, hard-working indigenous peoples of... wherever." A little off track, I know. But I just had to throw that in there.

Great post, Matt!