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) 

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