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.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Finest of the Best

There are a few authors out there that stand out from the others for me, writers that I consistently enjoy and appreciate.  I don't buy a lot of books because I don't have the money it would take to buy all the ones I'd like, but there are some authors that I try to buy everything they've written.

These are authors that I recommend to everyone and believe make the world better for having lived.  You cannot go wrong by picking up something by these authors and reading it, and every library is enriched by having their works.

Raymond Chandler: Chandler took what Hammett had begun, and mastered it, taking the hard boiled detective to new heights of literary skill.  He was able to write a mystery so interesting, filled with such fascinating characters and events that you didn't even care how the mystery turned out, just so you could keep reading and see what happened.

Bernard Cornwell: Today's master of historical fiction.  Cornwell reached his fame with the Sharpe series, but has crafted a half dozen other fascinating historical series with equally amazing skill and entertaining talent.  This man understands historical warfare and the men who fought it better than any ten other writers combined.

Loren Estleman: The greatest living author, in my opinion.  A master of the language, skilled in writing dialog to a degree I only can dream of, Loren Estleman writes primarily detective and western stories.  He has a grasp of history and personalities involved and brings them to life in such a skillful manner that it is a crime he's not as well known as more popular authors.

C.S. Forrester: Although his best work is his Horatio Hornblower series, Forrester's other works such as African Queen are also excellent.  Forrester excels in creating memorable, flawed, and deeply interesting characters.

Dashiell Hammett: Hammett's work has all of the genius that people attribute to Hemingway, but with greater skill and less self consciousness.  Hammett's comfort and casual style with the "hard boiled" genre created a new phenomenon in literature, and his works grow in esteem every year.  A true master of the art of writing.

 Louis L'Amour: although not considered great literature, his skillful and easy to read storytelling is always engaging and he was so prolific you don't have to worry about running out of books he's written.  Some of his works are better than others, but they're all entertaining and fun to read.  Primarily known for western (he calls them "frontier fiction"), L'Amour also wrote detective fiction, adventure stories set in Southeast Asia, other historical fiction set in various times, and even a poetry.

C.S. Lewis: Another master of language, Lewis wrote more non-fiction than fiction, and I recommend it all.  Nothing he wrote is anything but superlative, and books such as The Abolition of Man should be required reading in every institution of higher learning around the world.

Patrick O'Brian: If people didn't speak as O'Brian writes them in the early 19th century, they ought to have.  His Aubrey/Maturin books started out great and just got better every novel.  O'Brian is destined to be considered one of the greatest writers of English literature in human history.

Edgar Allen Poe: One of the greatest writers in all history.  Poe's genius is easy to underestimate until you read his actual work.  The man single handedly created the detective and horror genres, and his creativity seemed to know no limits.

Robert Louis Stevenson: Possibly the best writer that has ever worked in the English language.  Not only a gifted storyteller, he was so creative and inventive that no two books of his are alike.  In fact, sometimes it can be difficult to find Stevenson's "voice" or style of writing, because he so skillfully changes it to match the requirements of the story.

There are other authors that I enjoy, but these are the crown jewels, the finest of the fine.  Each of them holds my attention easily and repeatedly, and I've always been glad I have read anything they have written.

They also give me a bar to shoot for, something to strive for in my art, to try to equal.  I'll never be as good as Robert Louis Stevenson, I'll never be as creative as Edgar Allen Poe.  I'll never have the skill at writing dialog as Loren Estelman or the talent of Patrick O'Brian but I can learn from them and try.

And you'll not be sorry you read any of these writers, either.