Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Writers, Try This at Home 14 - Anchoring your readers to your stories

I saw a short documentary about the creation of a music video. The special effects expert took a detour from all the celebrity gossip to talk about the key elements in drawing viewers in. He said reality was the biggest hook, which was why he had spent time creating just the right shadows for each segment so that the band – which had been reimagined as giants performing against different city backgrounds – would seem real.

This can be one of the great tricks for maintaining the suspension of disbelief for readers or viewers of any story. I think the best way to do this is to incorporate truth expressed in a novel way. When we recognize something the story as being authentic, and apt description as life as we know it, we tend to surrender to the dream being composed by the creator. Another approach, which works with mimetic fiction, is including details from real life. If, for instance, you can correctly describe a place where those in the audience have been, you can get them nodding their heads and looking for more.

What else can you do to stop your readers from escaping the artificial bounds of your story? It goes without saying that any errors – in language, and facts, or in internal consistencies – will pull them out the story. So avoiding mistakes is half the battle. A more subtle trick, which works especially well in the realms of fantasy (including science fiction and horror) is to use the credibility of a sympathetic character to make images and situations more credible.

Ultimately, I think the most powerful anchoring strategy is to choose a few details that connect with the reader through the point of view character. It isn't really necessary in most cases to provide a full description of a scene or a character the protagonist meets or a process – such as a sword fight. Selecting those things that matter to the viewpoint character, especially those that evoke emotion, is one of the most powerful ways to keep readers immersed in the scene you've created.

This is actually so powerful it can overwhelm problems and story logic and distortions in perceptions. Over and over again, I've noticed that readers will completely buy into the perspectives of unreliable narrators – which is a powerful proof of how identifying with a character creates its own reality. (This tends not to pay off for most readers. I found that the most difficult stories to sell are those with unreliable narrators — perhaps because it violates, or at least bends, the contract of trust between writer and reader. But it's not a bad thing to keep in mind when you need to finesse something your story to keep the plot moving forward.)

So what should you try at home this time? Here are three suggestions:
  • Find is scene you really love and a story and determine how the writer established credibility.
  • Take a scene you've written and see if an apt description will make it more credible. (Try this even if you believe the reality is already well-established. You might discover something useful.)
  • Consider one of your key scenes from the point of view of a different character. This is an exercise, so it doesn't have to be the best choice in terms of the full story. Rewrite the scene so that the details and factual elements would be true and compelling for a reader identifying with this alternative perspective.
There are other things worth exploring in terms of anchoring readers and the reality of your story. One powerful technique to look at is anything involving action, movement, or change. Just as it's easier to remember what a person looks like if you think about them doing something, it is more likely that a reader will put him or herself into a story if you can activate the mirror neurons that cause them to experience engaging in that activity.

Ultimately, the goal is to not just get your readers to lose themselves in the story, but to keep them as completely within the story world is as possible. It is this sort of attention to living within your narrative that makes readers want to go back to Middle Earth or Hammett's San Francisco or Scarlett O'Hara's Tara.

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