Bringing the Audience into the In-Group

More than a year ago, I talked a bit about in-groups and out-groups, and the role of PCs between those groups. In-groups make for excellent distinctions between sets of characters, but there’s one other thing they can do in both stories and games to further involve the audience in the story. See, the thing about an in-group is that there are details the recognition of which is one of the things that distinguishes technically in-group from technically out-group (for an example, see my old riff about the Colors/visiting families incident). And one of the advantages of having these in your story is that, by immersion in the details, the audience finds themselves joining the in-group by beginning to recognize some of the things that the in-group takes for granted.

Now, before we go any farther, I need to note that there is, if not a right and wrong way, then at least a clean way and a messy way to do this. And infodumping is most definitely the messy way. Yes, it’s an interesting group with all sorts of rituals and specialized terminology and things. That’s cool. But if you’re dumping this in great honking paragraphs in the main body of your story, or as leaflets of pre-game reading material, it’s not going to make for as clean a transition in. For one thing, it’s clear that you’re doing it; for another, it starts coming across like slog. Not much fun.

On the other hand, you can do it with that charming writer trick known as immersion, repeating an element in the background until the audience member starts taking it for granted as much as the viewpoint character/surrounding NPCs/similarly appropriate sample characters do. A piece of vocabulary shows up a lot, and while it’s not strictly defined, per se, it’s attached to things consistent enough that they designated what it means. There are little rituals among a specific set of people that are always observed—but only under certain circumstances. The key here is not to be obtrusive; they’re just there, slowly leaking into your audience’s mindset. They aren’t explained, per se (or at least not more than once IC, to a character with reason not to already know), just so common that they establish themselves as world-rules, to the point of being taken for granted. (If you’re running a game, and one of the PCs is supposed to be in-group, you might find yourself having to explain things in terms of “your character is by now used to the fact that X”; it’s pushier than I personally like, but it’s necessary, and giving it a complimentary spin can help.)

You know they’re hooked—and more importantly if you’re dealing with non-interactive media, they know they’re hooked—when they start being able to use the terms as if they’ve used them all their lives, knowing exactly how an in-group character is going to go about doing something before she starts in on it, or noticing the things that only come across as irregular because they know from the subculture. And yes, this means that those details aren’t specially emphasized either; they’re just there, and being found odd only in character, if that.

I once had a scene—I’ve referenced it before—that worked about like this. Throughout the storyline, I’d had one character who, when the PCs and/or their allies knocked on the door, would always answer it right before the knock hit. Always. It wasn’t given any special emphasis, someone would just knock, and I’d always say, “Just before [character's] knuckles make contact with the door, it swings open/a voice from inside says ‘come in’/similar acknowledgement of knocking character’s presence.” Then one session, one of the PCs and one of the NPCs was looking for that character in order to deliver a message, but when they knocked on his door, the knock connected without a word from inside, and they knew from that alone that he wasn’t in. The player’s response? Excitement, that he’d been able to just tell like that, that the world worked consistently enough that he could—that there was something to get, something that People in the Know got in-world, and that he’d gotten it.

In short, that at least in that respect, he was in-group. And that, in itself, was awesome.


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