Have you ever read a book you just couldn’t get into? We all have. Events happen, characters react, the plot moves… somewhere, but none of it feels real. Like you’re witnessing it from behind a veil, and no matter how hard you try, it skews your perception.
Everything is one degree removed from reality, from immediacy, so you never feel what you’re supposed to feel. This kills the reading experience. But what is “this?” Why does it happen? And what can we do to make sure that every reader who picks up something we’ve written finishes the book?
“This” is a lack of immersion.
You know what it is. The feeling of being in the story. The loss of the awareness that you’re reading a book, a story written by another person. You know what it feels like. The pages turn themselves, the characters come alive, and your imagination fills in the gaps and colors the story without conscious effort. When everything you’re reading about feels real and immediate.
Immersion happens when you experience the story through the eyes of the viewpoint character. When there’s no filter, no gap between them and you, the reader. You aren’t reading about them, you are them. You feel their fear, their pain, their joy, their embarrassment and guilt and hope and triumph.
As great as this phenomenon is, the opposite is equally tedious. You know the feeling. You’re being told what happens, not experiencing it. You’re an observer in the story, not a participant. None of it feels like a real world you can see, smell, and touch. It feels like a product from someone else’s mind. Because it is. You’re acutely aware that you’re reading someone’s writing, and until you forget that, the story is bland and lifeless.
So how do you make people forget you’re pulling the strings of their imagination?
The general idea is something you’ve heard a million times before. Show, don’t tell. Now, I personally think that rule is stupid, because there’s a whole lot more nuance to the issue than three simple words can illustrate. Telling can be very useful, sometimes even more powerful than showing. I prefer to tell when it’s cumbersome to show— things like regret, relief, pity.
For example, a character is about it die in battle. It’s a fast-paced, chaotic scene. To detail his expression, body language, and internal monologue would bog down the pacing and diminish the scene’s intensity. So instead of all that, I might instead say “Cold steel slipped through his ribs, and with it, something even colder. Regret. The last thing he felt before the world went black was the peculiar sting of things left undone.”
You could say this is a combination of showing and telling, and I wouldn’t argue against that. However, the difference between showing and telling on a macro scale is a topic for another day. Today is all about showing. We’re going to focus on one of the most powerful tools at your disposal when it comes to creating and maintaining immersion.
Your senses are the way you perceive and interact with the world around you. You do it unconsciously, instinctively, and if you write it well enough, your readers will process your character’s surroundings with the same natural ease.
In the case of sensory information, showing stomps all over telling.
Let’s go back to Kindergarten.
Five senses: Sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste. Let’s ignore all the fancy scientific senses like perception of temperature, pressure, body and spatial awareness, etc. You can use them all (not necessarily at the same time), to bring the world to life in the story.
Check out the examples below:
Through the fog, he saw mountains in the distance.
Mountains sprouted from the distant horizon, their jagged outlines punching through the fog.
He heard a loud crash from the next room.
An ear-splitting crash whipped his head to the side.
The house smelled of mold and mildew.
He pressed a cloth to his face to combat the stench of mold.
The grip was a smooth, black leather.
The leather grip sat comfortably in his hands, smooth from years of use.
He tasted his own blood.
The hot tang of iron filled his mouth.
The first examples all have filter words in them that create distance. These are things like “saw,” “smelled,” and “tasted.” More often than not, they’re the same word as the sense they’re describing, though not always. These words put up a wall between the character and the reader, an obstacle they have to surpass because you’re reminding them the character is someone else, somewhere else.
The second examples show what’s happening through the character’s experience— the reader is left with more information and a feeling of immediacy. The reader isn’t being told the character tasted blood, they’re shown the sensations the character experiences and are left understanding that the character’s mouth is bleeding.
Now, you don’t want to run through a laundry list of senses when you do this. Too much information is as bad as no information, because the reader won’t know what to focus on, or what’s important. Point out the most vivid detail or two, things your character would actually notice or appreciate, things that would affect them, and move on to the action. Between bouts of action, give your reader small doses of sensory information directly through the eyes and ears of the character.
Make no mistake, the action should be constant. I don’t mean epic battles and pulse-pounding chase scenes, although those are a lot of fun. Keep your story moving forward at all costs. When the reader is swept up in the ebb and flow of the plot, they won’t have time to get bored, to put distance between themselves and the character because nothing is happening to the character. The character isn’t doing anything. Pacing and structure are far beyond the scope of this post, but if you keep the story moving along at a fast clip, it will help the reader feel like there is a world beyond their control, something real and fluid that they have fallen into.
And you use sensory information to drown them in it.
Don’t bludgeon them over the head with it. Feed them an IV drip, a little bit at a time. This will make the world feel constant and inescapable, like a real place with a million things to offer. The reader will want more, completely engrossed in the world they’re exploring. It can be difficult to execute this balance of action and sensory information, but it’s well worth the effort. If done correctly, it will invest the reader that much more in your characters, their experience, and the story.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling your reader what your character is feeling, seeing, hearing, and when this happens, they’ll feel like they’re observing someone else. That creates distance. Make them feel like they’re experiencing the world through the character, and you’ll have their attention until the very last page.
Author of the Shattered Fate series, Cal blogs about his writing process and experiences. From rejecting publishing contracts to character development, his posts give amazing insight into his publishing journey. You can find him on Twitter @calplogan or through his website www.calplogan.com.