As fiction writers, we frequently talk (and blog…!) about the challenges of “making the story come alive” but do we really know what we need to do to submerge our readers so deeply into the worlds we invent that they forget they’re even reading?
Sure, we pay attention to fictional elements like creating realistic characters and we research our settings and we think about plot points that will — hopefully — keep the reader turning pages, among other things… but those are pieces and parts. What pulls it all together?
Maybe if we stopped thinking about what we need to do as writers and consider the task before our readers we’ll get some ideas.
Being the Reader
In Kurt Vonnegut’s 1958 essay, “How to Write With Style,” (with his eight rules for great writing, as captured in this Brain Pickings post), he wrote, “Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t even master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.”
Think about that.
It’s a lot to ask of someone: look at these markings and envision an entire world and its people and their thoughts and actions using just the markings.
Pretty amazing feat, isn’t it?
Yet you know that feeling yourself: you’re caught up in the book so fully that you can “see” the main character, the world he or she is inhabiting. You’ve forgotten entirely you were just looking at simple markings on a page or screen.
We’re no longer aware of where we’re sitting or standing or lying… the sounds around us (that dog barking across the street or the sound of the rapid-transit rails…) aregone, replaced by the chirping crickets the book tells us are humming in the main character’s back yard.
In many ways, we’re no longer in our own corner of the world but have been transported into the world of the book we’re reading.
If you doubt me, then you’ve never been so absorbed in what you’re reading that someone interrupts you, startling you as if you’ve been woken from a deep sleep.
And it’s all the result of how the writer arranged those squiggles on the paper or screen.
Being the Writer
Early in my writing, I suffered from a common beginner’s malady which I’ll call “vacuum world.” My characters might have been fully rounded in my head and the worlds they inhabited were as familiar to me as my own bedroom, but when people read my stories or novellas, they just couldn’t shake the real world. They were always aware they were reading something. That submersion into the world I wanted to pull them into just wasn’t happening.
So when a reader of my first novel said, “I felt as though I could walk down a street and meet these characters” and another one said, “You know, I pick up other books and about half-way through I realize I’ve already read them, but yours — your book I remember. I can still see it.”
Wow! That’s quite a turnaround.
So how does a writer manage to submerge readers into alternative universe just by using scribbles on paper (or marks on a screen)?
Lulling your readers into the stupor of a dream isn’t really that complicated. At least that’s what I discovered. For me it was a basic mantra.
I made a little sign and hung over my desk, then I looked at it every time I sat down to write:
Nothing new here, right? Just make it sensory. If your readers can smell the nasty basement, they’ll feel the creepiness more than if you tell them the basement “was creepy.”
Give it a try: pick an object (better yet, have someone else randomly name an object for you). Write for five minutes and incorporate all five senses into describing that object.
Now go back and look at your longer fiction. Find those scenes that sound flat. Chances are good they’re solid with “sight” — so add a second sense to it. If the room feels creepy, what about its smell or sound makes it creepy?
Coming to your senses now, aren’t you?