Thursday, September 18, 2014

Immersing Your Readers

Not this kind of immersion
A term I've used several times in the past on this blog is "immersion."  The word "immersion" in the sense I use it here is not so much physical depth or being covered, rather I mean it in a psychological or intellectual context.

Immersion is used often in reference to computer games or other entertainment media, and refers to the level of suspension of disbelief and subconscious agreement with the premise of the story or game.  In more plain terms, it means the person involved in enjoying the entertainment buys into what they are enjoying so much that they at some level believe it or find it consistent enough to accept psychologically.

This means that as someone, for example, reads your book, at some level they believe the situations are real and the characters are actual people.  They are so immersed in your work that they buy into what you're presenting, even while knowing it isn't real.  Ideally, if your work is well written, immersion can become quite profound, to the point that readers think about your characters and what they are doing when not reading the book, or imagine them in different circumstances.

Immersion does not mean people literally believe your work is factual when it is actually fiction.  They know - unless they are mentally unstable - that this is just make believe.  But when handled properly, a story can be so compelling and plausible, even with unrealistic elements such as warp drive or dragons, that it can seem real while being enjoyed.  You have likely encountered this in the best works you've read.

Immersion is what makes you lose track of time and space; you forget where you are and what is going on, and are pulled into the story.  You're so much a part of the book or movie or game that you don't remember the world around you and are focused on that specific entertainment.  Its ideal for a writer to generate this in your readers.

There are tools you can use to increase immersion, devices that will help pull your readers into your work more effectively.

The main one is to be a good writer.  If your book is well written and clean, without grammatical and spelling mistakes or annoying typographical errors, your reader won't be jarred by something they read.  Every mistake reminds them they're reading a book, but lacking those will let them soak into the words and allow their imagination to take over.

That means your style can be a drawback.  If you are too deliberately stylish and creative in your writing, it can jar readers out of immersion.  When you read an ee cummings work devoid of capital letters and punctuation, you know you're reading his stuff, but that's mostly what you know; the story is lost in the style.  Many a movie has been wrecked by being so overwhelmed by the director's "visual style" that they were turned into music videos rather than a story and you lose immersion.

Another important tool is to be internally consistent.  Readers will agree to certain conceits in your book such as the existence of magic, interstellar travel, werewolves, or whatever absurdity you're writing about, because it interests them.

But you have to keep that world they've chosen to accept consistent, logical, and plausible within its framework.  This is why people struggle so hard to come up with a good magic system, or a culture for that alien race, or a biology for their zombie plague.  Because if the story just throws things out without any pattern or structure then it feels implausible and inconsistent.

For example, if you say your world has magic in it, but the magic has no rhyme or reason; it can do things then at other times it cannot, or it works one way, but then because your plot demands it, suddenly it works another, then people notice this and it pulls them out of immersion and they remember they're reading just a book.

Another device is to create depth and breadth for your setting.  This is why many writers struggle so hard with "worldbuilding."  What they are doing is trying to create a setting that feels complete and plausible, a world that could be somewhere else, if only in imagination.

Places to go, people to see
This means the world isn't just a series of places to travel to, but it has the places in between, a history behind them, a culture around them, plants and minerals and animals within that world, and interaction between it all.  Constructing a plausible setting means that when your hero enters the ancient tomb to find the sword of doom, he enters a place that could exist in that world.

It also means he doesn't find a hot girl in makeup and beautiful clothes locked in a 10x10 room sealed away for centuries or a ravenous beast living in a room next to a bunny rabbit warren.  The monster needs food and air and water, it needs room to move around.  There has to be a plausible structure around everything or it ceases to make sense and your reader loses immersion.

A third technique is to avoid contrivances and annoying contradictions.  If the dragon in chapter one breathes fire and flies, it should breathe fire and fly in chapter 2 unless there's a very good reason it stops.  If the mighty warrior fears snakes in chapter 5 then he shouldn't shrug off being covered in serpents by the reptile mage in chapter 18.

Further, you should avoid backing yourself into a corner that requires you to violate all sense of plausibility to resolve the conflict.  That means you shouldn't have your character just happen to inherit the money he needs suddenly to buy the item critical to the plot, or have your hero show up at the right spot on the right day that occurs once every thousand years.

You should not violate your reader's trust and faith in your writing, by having events take place that will insult them or damage their belief in your writing.  Unless you're writing something silly, the hero shouldn't always be the very person he or she needs to be for that situation.  Why, who knew that you were the last living heir of Dazgath with the tattoo of power that will let you open the gate to ultimate power, Bobby!

There are other things that violate immersion.  If your book is set in medieval Spain, then having your characters speak with modern slang or use idioms from Japanese animation will jar your reader out of their immersion.  If you're writing a satire or comedy, that can work, but if your work is supposed to be serious then having Don Rodruigo shout "by the power of Grayskull!" might make your buddies laugh but its going to make your reader annoyed.

Promotion is rapid in the Empire
Using cliches can be very damaging to immersion as well.  Readers will put up with a well-rendered theme that has been used many times in the past, but there are limits to what they will put up with.  Your hero can be prophesied but be very careful with that idea because its been so overused people are tired of it.  Your villain can off his minions just to show how mean he is, but its a device you should limit to only very psychotic villains because nobody would work for a boss that might capriciously kill you or punish the slightest infraction with instant death.

Immersion can work for you as an author as a powerful tool for you as an author, by taking your readers into your imagination and carrying them along.  It will make readers into fans and fans into evangelists for your writing.  They will carry your characters with them as they go through life like people do Batman and Sherlock Holmes, if done well.  Grab your readers and pull them into your book, and don't let them go.