Thursday, April 30, 2015

Lost in the Story – How to create immersive experiences in fiction 1

Lost in the Story – How to create immersive experiences in fiction 1
I attended a writer's conference a couple weeks ago, and I was struck by the number of times editors and agents mentioned immersion. When the world around you disappears and you are right there in the story along with the character (or even in the shoes of the character), you have an experience that makes reading fiction special. Even when the prose isn't top rate or story is clunky, when a writer can perform this magic, he or she stands above the rest.
I certainly have had this experience many times with my favorite writers, and it's true that the work can be less than perfect and still carry me away -- as long as the shortcomings aren't too distracting. But, how do writers achieve this?
Foundations—Did you notice the caveat above about distractions? Too many egregious mistakes will stop readers cold. These can be errors of fact (how many people stop reading historicals when a howler of an anachronism crops up?). Or the text can have too many poorly chosen words or convoluted phrases, or a lot of vocabulary words that send you to the dictionary. The dialogue might include vast “as you knows” or lack any subtext.
On a different scale the story could have breaks and logic, inexpertly done time shifts (such as flashbacks), and lies. On this last, readers know when you've pulled your punches, and they are usually sensitive to cases where you spin or paper over the truth. We can go along with the impossible premises of fantasies, but we can’t abide what disconnected entirely from the real world, including wishful thinking that’s hollow and false.
Violations of point of view, such as head hopping, can also destroy the illusion. And, of course, if the work becomes boring (often, a pacing problem), the readers will look for opportunities to escape.
That’s all pretty standard, mostly a matter of mechanics and not messing up what Mrs. Walsh taught you in high school English. But what about active ways to create immersion? Or the larger problems of the story as a whole?
I didn't find much online about this subject, although there are some interesting articles about immersion in the field of gaming–some of which are relevant. As it happens, I'm in the midst of responding to a number of requests (including some I got out the conference), so I'm keenly interested in understanding the immersion phenomenon. Before I did any rewriting over the last week or so, I investigated, and here are some of my conclusions.
Note: I'm not through with my investigation yet, and I'm sure this is incomplete, but it was a good starting point for me and I hope it will be for you, as well.
Sensory details–One mistake a lot of writers make is having characters talking to each other in a white, ethereal space. It's disconcerting to follow a conversation in limbo where no details about the locale are offered. How can you get immersed in nothingness? On the other hand, some writers provide laundry lists, describing every piece of furniture, the color of the drapes, the texture of the rug, the faint smell of formaldehyde in the air, the slight chill that raises goosebumps, etc.
This brings the story to a complete stop. More importantly, it gives no opportunities for the reader to participate. You only need to provide a few anchor points to create the location for your readers. And when they get the chance to supply the rest, they are more engaged. So, the question is always getting the balance right.
Part of the balance needs to be providing more than just the visuals. We want multi-sensory experiences. I know writers who make it a point of including “all 5 senses” on each page. (Well, that's what they say. As a matter fact, the sense of taste rarely shows up in most novels.) The best guide to getting these sensory experiences right for your readers is to go to a book you like that is similar to what you are writing and see how that author engages the senses and provides description.
Emotion—When we’re afraid for the protagonist or sharing an exhilarating experience or feeling their embarrassment, we are totally involved in the story. And, of course, jeopardy is one of the most important goads that get readers to turn the pages.
A prerequisite for all this is empathy for the characters, usually the main character. We don't have to like a character to be involved and care what happens to him or her. We just have to understand the situation and what's at stake. This involves careful layering in of backstory (such as how a character has been wronged), evidence of the character’s value (such as a positive attributes that are demonstrated—saving a cat), and a clear presentation of what the character wants, what is at risk, and what needs to be accomplished for success. All this needs to be done with in a context that doesn't stretch our credulity, so…
Verisimilitude—You can have the wildest fantasy in the world if you want, but it still has to follow clear and unambiguous rules. And, more important than the boundaries other story and the world is making the characters authentic. When the folks in your story act “out of character,” especially when there is advancement of the plot by stupidity (opening the door for the ax murder), readers are taken right out of the story. The experience is no longer immersive, and distractions from the real world are likely to get them to put down the book.
That’s what I’ve got for now. I’m looking at some other ways writers trap readers and catalyze immersion. If I come up with good ones, I’ll post them to the blog next week. If you have good ones, feel free to share them. Or say a little about a great experience you’ve had getting lost in a book. 
May 4-May 29 Bigger Stories (online)
May 16 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Workshop (face-to-face) 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Spoiling for a Fight—Conflict in your scenes

Virtually every scene in your story should include conflict. That is, a character should want something and should meet resistance. Ideally, the purpose of the scene should be revealed near the beginning, the obstacles should occur as the seeing develops, and it should be clear at the end of the scene if the character has achieved her goal, failed to achieve her goal, or created a change in circumstances (usually for the worse).

A scene may not have all these elements in the first draft, but they are good to check for when rewriting or critiquing. It is also good to look to see that the resistance and/or stakes increase with each obstacle. (Of course, with each scene, resistance and/or stakes should be increasing for the story as a whole.) These obstacles cannot remain the same, which is why repetitive arguments or simple contradictions don't work as obstacles in a scene.

What goes for rewriting, goes for critiquing. I make it a practice to look over scenes for conflict even when it's not my own work. Often the key to improving the story is finding those places where conflict is missing and the story lags. Sometimes this can be subtle, and I got a surprise recently when looking over someone else's work.

The scene was between the protagonist and her mentor. There is a lot of humor in the scene and warm feelings between the two characters. I got totally lost and it and enjoyed every moment, but I couldn't understand why. The protagonist didn't seem to want anything, and the whole discussion was, on the surface, very agreeable. I had to look more closely to see that what I was reading was more than just a pleasant exchange. In fact, it was a battle. The mentor urgently wanted the protagonist to agree to doing something, and the protagonist was fighting back with jokes, distractions, and compliments. She absolutely did not want to do what her mentor advised, and she was not going to commit to it. So, beneath the friendly surface, she was working hard to change the subject or escape.

All I knew as I read the scene the first few times was that I liked it. I had missed how sneaky the author was, and I almost wrote a note saying that, though I enjoyed the scene, it might benefit from adding conflict. So now I'm on alert. If I really like a scene, and I don't see the conflict, it means I haven't looked at it closely enough. I've been charmed by a clever writer who has something to teach me.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Problems with the Premise 4: Needs and wants.

I thought I'd conclude this last time, but my efforts met with Calamity. Just as with fiction, articles can take unexpected turns if you let them. Nonetheless, your life is made easier if you have a strong premise to begin with. It's a bit like knowing the rules before you break them. No matter how far you might stray, you know you can return to solid ground. And that can help you go confidently into the unknown.

As a reminder, the formulation for a premise is this:

To achieve an important Goal, the Protagonist must Act and overcome Obstacles, or Calamity will occur and she/he will not get what she/he Wants and/or Needs.

This time, we'll look at the protagonist's needs and wants. A good place to explore wants and needs is Maslow's hierarchy.

This is a good place to start, though I have problems with some wants like curiosity and the desire to feel complete.

Also, for practical reasons, many of these need to be reversed:

Food --> Hunger
Water --> Thirst
Security -->Anxiety
Friendship --> Loneliness
Esteem --> Humiliation

And, honestly, I don't know what you'd put that was useful for the inverse of Self-Actualization (or if it would work in fiction). Dissatisfaction? 

My reversed list is not complete, but, if you think of stories where people are trying to dodge killers, escape poverty, avenge a wrong, recover from a divorce, break out of prison, etc., you can see how building a backwards view might be valuable and you come up with wants and needs.   

The Wants in your story should be evident. Usually the Goal is what the protagonist wants and he/she attempting to attain it provides the engine for the story. That goal is visible. Achieving it should be something you could take a picture of, according to Michael Hauge.

But it is good to explore Wants more deeply. The hero or heroine will want an external goal for an acknowledged reason that is internal. They have their own version of why they are doing something, and that is important to understanding the motivation even if it is wrong. They may even state why they are obsessed (and all story goals are obsessions) with achieving their goals. The stated reason may have be real, provide a whiff of the real reason, or be the exact opposite of the reason the main character is pursuing the Goal, but it is unlikely to be unrelated. The only major exception I've seen has been what the reason is parroted. Always be suspicious of a reason that is in almost the same words as someone else who has sway over or control of the main character.

Needs are, of course, what the character needs deep down to grow, develop, and evolve. They are often hidden from the character or only given lip service. In a sense, they are the reason the writer writes the story. For commercial fiction, they do not need to be in a premise presented to others, but they should be articulated in a premise used to build a story. Life is easier if you know the character's Needs early, but it can be fun to discover them in the writing. 

I often cannot clearly articulate the Needs before a draft is done. In one case, the true Needs did not emerge until the third draft, and they ended up changing the ending to something that was much more powerful. So, even with an action story that does not demand much in the way of an internal life for your character, it is often valuable to make the effort to articulate Needs. Once you have them, they can raise the level of your story.

Upcoming classes

April 15-April 29 Story Bootcamp (face-to-face) Westchester Community College
May 1-May 29 Bigger Stories (online)