The Anatomy of an April Fool’s Prank

I tend to think of April Fool’s Day as Alternate Reality Day. A well-constructed April Fool’s joke is one, which creates, for a moment, a really cool world to live in. But, there are rules. So, I thought I would post my rules for what makes a good prank and then walk you through my most recent one.

  1. It doesn’t scare anyone.
  2. It doesn’t raise false hopes.
  3. It doesn’t hurt.
  4. You have to fess up.

#1 It doesn’t scare anyone. An example that someone I know actually pulled. He faked his own death so that his girlfriend would come in to find him. That is seriously, seriously twisted. Not funny. Not even a little funny.

#2. It doesn’t raise false hopes. Calling someone to tell them their novel was going to be published would be evil.

#3. It doesn’t hurt. Hand buzzers, Kick Me signs, making people feel like an idiot. Physical and emotional pain are right out.

#4. You have to fess up. Oh come on… if I let you believe that I a prank and you told other people, that would just be mean.

My favorite ones are the ones that come with slow, dawning understanding. Do I get serious enjoyment from pulling the wool over your eyes until you get it? Yes, yes I do. I am twelve years old. However, I also enjoy it when you get me, too. A beautifully crafted prank can be as lovely as a beautifully crafted story, or at least for me it is. I told you a story and just for a moment, my fantasy existed in the real world.

So… Let’s look at this year’s prank in action in which I will now confess that I did not get cast in Farscape (see! Fessing up), in part because it gives you an understanding of how to build trust with an audience for fiction. With speculative fiction, in specific, you have to convince them that something obviously false is real. Glamour? Sorry. Not real.

Step one — Pick something grounded in reality. Like, the fact that I really am a professional puppeteer and really did audition for a speaking role on Sesame Street.

That’s plausible and sets people up to trust you. In fiction, this often takes the form of specific concrete details about environment or a character’s internal life. Now, you can start with the unreal thing and then build backwards, but it’s harder and has a different effect.

Step two — Raise a question. For this year’s prank, I raised the question of “Why was Mary Kermit-flailing?” What this does is create a sense of curiosity in your reader. More importantly, it sets them up for step 3.

Step three — Answer the question. Before you can get someone to swallow something unbelievable, you have to get them to trust you. And the easiest way to do that is to answer the question. It’s a question you created, sure, but still they now know that when they have a question, you’ll answer it. So with this one, I linked to an article about a reboot of Farscape.

Step four — Repeat two to three times. Building trust doesn’t come instantly. If you give your readers truth, followed by questions, then answers, then more truth they will come to believe that you are reliable. I referenced going to Australia. The fact that I have puppeteer friends. The fact that you have to keep secrets. All of which are true.

Step five — Lie to them. Because you’ve built a pattern of answering things, when you give them false information, they’ve got a pattern of believing the things you’ve said. In this case, it was that I had been asked to audition for Farscape. Nope. As far as I know, they haven’t gotten past the script phase. With fiction, it will be something like, “Jane pulled glamour out of the ether.”

So… With all that in mind, can you detail the steps that I took to make you believe that I did not write The Escapement of Blackledge?

 

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15 Responses

  1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

    I should note that I had people lined up to play with me, because I needed to control the narrative. I didn’t want anyone to get angry on my behalf about the fan fiction, because that would have violated Rule #3.

  2. Peggy :)

    *lol* I knew you didn’t get into Farscape (assuming they are really doing more), because April Fool’s Day. It’s definitely my fav of your pranks this year because Farscape is just frelling awesome!

    However, i will admit that the “fanfic” is awfully fun because you can actually buy it. 😀

  3. David VonAllmen

    Not only did I fall for this prank, I went and started watching Farscape on Netflix because I’ve never seen it before and trust your judgement when it comes to awesomeness.

    Well, I’m enjoying it, so the joke’s on you, Kowal!

  4. Anne C

    Heh, the “way cool idea” helps a lot because you want to believe and it gives your brain one more reason to suspend disbelief. 😀
    Well done Mary!
    And for the practiced prankster, having a decoy prank is a must, because informed audience members will be looking more critically at April 1st “news.” 😉

  5. Elizabeth Janes...

    I never fully abandoned suspicion of either one, but I was hoping hard for Prank Farscape to be real (with the final link as misdirection) and Prank Fanfic to be on you and not by you. Hey, co-conspirators, couldn’t you have built a conspiracy within the conspiracy and turned this around on her? Get busy for next year!

  6. Sally

    Frankly, you should have kept Seanan out of it if you wanted that one to fly. That was what tipped me off. Do not involve her for any “confirmation” of stuff on April 1. We know she is evul.

    (Oh great, now I have helped MRK with next year’s pranks.)

  7. Timothy G Cramer

    Your rules are an excellent standard against which to test prank ideas.

    The rule I struggly with, in a way, is Don’t raise any false hopes!

    The 2015 rsp. 2016 April Fools’ posts on my blog were reviews of a webcomic that depicts a virus infection from both the points of view of the infectees and the parasites, and the TV show BGSD about Woman In Comics and a fictious comic convention called MellowCon.

    And of course I wrote about them with my usual enthusiasm and praise, to make people who read the posts really want to read or watch them. And even if I ended both posts far beyond absurdity, some folks didn’t notice until they tried in vain to check out the media in question.

    As you wrote, believability is not a very high threshold.

    So, some false hope was raised, but I think in the end no harm was done.

  8. Tim Boerger

    Well played, Mary. Bravo.

    It’s always a pleasure to see a master at the top of her game and the slight of hand of the “Farscape Feint” (which is what it should be known as from now on) was a stroke of genius. Had I not seen that first, I may have looked at “The Escapement of Blackledge” with squinty, suspicious eyes and a bit more scrutiny.

    You have now convinced me that you are a master thief and your book signings are just fronts for elaborate schemes which embarrass the victims so thoroughly that they are shamed into silence.

    Regardless, I anxiously await your shenanigans for next year. Mary’s pranks are the best type of pranks.

  9. Peggy :)

    Hmmm. It looks like you didn’t get very many responses to your original question. (With all that in mind, can you detail the steps that I took to make you believe that I did not write The Escapement of Blackledge?)

    1. A Mary Robinette post on April Fool’s Day 🙂

    2. “Melody Ellsworth” is the name of Jane’s sister in the Glamourist Histories books.

    3. I believe you’d be unhappy to find out that someone was getting paid for stories written in your world, even if they were giving you money after the fact. I’d expect your post to include something about writing etiquette, being professional, and getting permission/making arrangements in advance.

  10. Peggy :)

    Oh, and I almost forgot …

    4. The publication date for The Escapement of Blackledge was March 28, 2016 for Amazon and March 29, 2016 for Barnes & Noble – just a couple of days before April Fool’s Day. These speaks of good advance planning for April Fool’s Day, whereas, a publication date a little farther out would have been been more believable for the “surprise” in your paypal account. 🙂

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