Jami Gold, Paranormal Author

Story Immersion: What Pulls You In?

by Jami Gold on March 2, 2017

in Writing Stuff

Woman's legs sticking above water surface mid-dive with text: Becoming Immersed in a Story

When I joined Goodreads back in May of 2010—long before I published and became a “Goodreads Author”—I had the chance to think about the type of books I liked to read. That’s an official question, right in the account settings for Goodreads profiles:

“What Kind of Books Do You Like to Read?”

At the time, I’d never put my preferences into words before. I was like the stereotypical design client from hell: I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it. *smile*

The answer I eventually figured out captured something about the kinds of stories that stick with me. I wrote:

“I want books to envelop me in the characters’ world and keep me turning pages. To me, that means paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and historical romance, with some YA, sci-fi, and fantasy thrown in for good measure.

Essentially—even though I hadn’t learned the term yet—I was talking about story immersion.

Story immersion is the sense that we’re not just reading words on a page—we’re experiencing the story. Depending on how our brain works, we might feel and see and imagine the story, or the real world around us might simply fade into the background.

We’re no longer aware of our existence in that doctor’s office waiting room or carpool line. Others might ask us questions that we don’t hear. Our promise to go to bed at the chapter break is for naught because we don’t notice the formatting change for the start of the next chapter. All our focus is on the story.

Some readers don’t prioritize that aspect of stories when determining what makes them “good” or “engaging,” and that’s okay. We each prefer what we prefer.

However, what I discovered about myself when answering that Goodreads question is that I love story immersion. That’s what makes reading fiction worthwhile for me. If the words never disappear from the page, that’s a sign of a “bad” story to my way of thinking.

But what creates that sense of story immersion? Let’s take a look…

Story Immersion Is Created By…

In some ways, it might be easier to talk about the kinds of things that can prevent readers from immersing themselves. We’ve probably heard about these before:

In contrast, the elements that encourage readers to immerse themselves in a story are often just what we think of as good craft (and which all have multiple posts here on my blog—use the search field in my side bar to explore):

  • interesting premise
  • compelling characters
  • unpredictable plot
  • deep point-of-view
  • primarily “shows” rather than “tells”
  • settings we can imagine
  • well-developed worldbuilding
  • evokes emotions
  • curiosity, tension, turn-the-page, etc.

As Jefferson Smith found in his “Immerse or Die” project, story-building and story-telling were 75% of what authors can get wrong—or right. As I mentioned in that post:

“Authors who keep readers immersed in the story can get away with so-so writing, and sometimes they can even get away with unlikable characters, characters who make stupid choices, lame subplots, sections with slow pacing, etc. We’ve probably all seen reviews of stories where the reader says “the writing was laughably bad, but I couldn’t stop reading.””

So to keep readers immersed, we need to build and tell a story. Sounds too simplistic, right?

Our Preferences Can Be Unique

To get back to the question of what creates story immersion, all those elements listed above that encourage readers to immerse themselves can apply alone or work together in tandem. But our preferences for what’s most engaging to us can be unique.

Some people will be sucked in most by a plot they try to unravel. Others won’t be able to put the book down until they see the characters they care about “win.” Still others will feel most strongly about an emotional experience.

For me, the second part of my Goodreads answer clued me in to my preference: All those genres I listed as my favorites include worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is what forces me to separate my mind from my body, my imagination from the words on a page. For me, worldbuilding encompasses many of the other elements:

  • interesting premises, settings, etc., of something I haven’t seen before
  • provides complications and obstacles for the plot and tension
  • integrates showing and characters in risky situations, as the characters explore the story world
  • creates curiosity, as I try to understand the unfamiliar
  • Etc., etc.

In my paranormal romance genre, it’s obvious what worldbuilding refers to, as I have to create the “rules” for my paranormal characters and their story world. But worldbuilding can apply to many other situations as well.

Worldbuilding with Genres

All stories need to create a story world, whether that refers to a small town or the restrictions of the characters’ circumstances. However, some genres require more worldbuilding.

Throughout my life, my favorite genres have all focused on worldbuilding to some extent. My first genre love was fantasy, starting with Ruth Chew’s stories and the Narnia books.

Fantasy’s reliance on worldbuilding is obvious. Narnia’s “rules” say that animals can talk, and Aslan is a powerful figure all respect, admire, or fear.

My second genre love was science fiction, and again, its need for worldbuilding from a “story rules” perspective is clear. Some stories incorporate artificial intelligence among humans, and some focus on aliens. Some are planet-bound, and some take place among the stars, etc.

My third love is romance, specifically the subgenres of paranormal romance and historical romance. Like the fantasy aspect of paranormal romance, historical romance takes readers out of this world in an obvious way. Readers are transported to Regency England, Pioneer Western U.S., or other times very different from our own.

Worldbuilding with Settings

Some settings—such as Harry Potter’s Hogwarts—are well-known for what they add to the world. The setting itself is as well-developed as many of the characters. But settings can build a world in other ways as well.

For many years, I assumed that I wouldn’t find contemporary romances as immersive because the distance between the real world and the story world wouldn’t be as great. However, I’ve discovered stories in other subgenres without the obvious style of worldbuilding that manage to create an all-encompassing sense of the story world anyway.

For example, many readers love cozy mysteries for the worldbuilding of the small-town setting, and small-town romances feature similar settings. At the other end of the spectrum, motorcycle-club romances establish a unique sense of place and story rules as well.

One series I loved was Lizzie Shane’s Reality Romance series. The reality-television-show premise (think The Bachelor) keeps readers under the control of the producers in the story world just as much as the contestant-characters are.

Worldbuilding with Cultures

Many fantasy books build a sense of the world through the cultures of the characters. Compare our impression of hobbit culture versus elven culture in Lord of the Rings to understand how much cultural elements add to our feeling of the story world being even bigger than what we see.

However, even contemporary stories can create a sense of culture. If you’re familiar with the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, think about how Greek-American culture was featured.

Stories based outside the U.S. will take American readers on a journey of world-exploration. Or even within the U.S., a story based in New York should have a different feel from one based in the Deep South.

When I was curl-up-in-a-ball sick this past week (with a nasty cold on top of an intestinal infection I’ve been fighting for a month), it was the immersive qualities of “own voices” romances that distracted me from my misery. (#ownvoices are stories written about diverse characters by authors who share those traits—that is, they’re members of the culture or group they’re writing about.)

I finally got a chance to read Shaila Patel’s Soulmated debut, which features an Indian-American heroine. Shaila guest posted here a couple of weeks ago with an excerpt demonstrating her approach to improving our opening pages, and I knew her story would be fantastic, but now I’m impatiently waiting for the next in the series. *taps fingers* Waiting very impatiently…

After I loved the Indian-American cultural feast in Shaila’s story, I next inhaled Sonali Dev’s A Bollywood Affair (and immediately started her The Bollywood Bride story right after that). (Thanks to both Shaila and Sonali for getting me through the (hopefully) worst of my “zombie” sickness! *smile*)

Each of those styles of worldbuilding worked to suck me into the story and make me forget that I was reading a book. Worldbuilding often creates a high-concept “hook” for our story as well, helping it stand out for agents, editors, and readers.

Others might prioritize different story elements for what immerses them into a story, however. Whatever it is, if we understand what works for us, we might have a better chance of finding books we love.

Also as my examples show, no matter the type of stories we write, we might be able to incorporate strong worldbuilding. If we can, we might find readers who don’t want to leave our story behind. *smile*

Do you enjoy becoming immersed in stories? What story elements help you forget that you’re reading words on a page? What types of worldbuilding contribute the most to a story world feeling “real” to you? Can you think of other types of worldbuilding? What stories have worldbuilding you love?

Pin It
13 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Sieran March 2, 2017 at 11:48 am

Story immersion is something that I take for granted that most readers love, but that I don’t think that much about. Hmmm for me, I think it’s the character-related things that I care about when it comes to story immersion. I am extremely fond of fun dialogue, preferably with humor. Intense emotional and psychological moments are great too. Oh what really gets me are the relationships where you anticipate or dread something happening (romantic or platonic tension). You know that something is going to happen to these characters’ relationships, and that keeps me turning the pages!

Hmmm in general I love fantasy or sci-fi world building. I especially enjoy reading about fantasy/ sci fi cultures that are different from ours. E.g. A completely LGBT-friendly fantasy society!

Reply

Christina Hawthorne March 2, 2017 at 12:37 pm

This is always a fun topic. Who doesn’t like talking about the stories they love and why they love them. We have a winner!

Immersion is what I’m always looking for, regardless of genre. There are good books, interesting books, and well-written books, but the ones I don’t forget are the ones that wrap around my mind. Those are the ones I’m reading while cooking and eating. The ones that call to me until I drop all else and return. Those are the books that pull me in, but also pull responses out. Tears. Laughter. Awe and wonder conjuring dreaming day and night. Tension in my shoulders. Chills down my spine.

My preferred genres are fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and suspense. That said, although I read few straight-up romances, I want a romantic element in my favorite genres. Give me a good book with fantasy, mystery, suspense, and romance and you won’t see me until the next sun cycle.

World building. Now there’s a tricky topic. No matter the genre, I’ve run into world building that screams FAKE. For instance, mysteries taking place in (what should be) fascinating locations where there’s no true sense of place. Instead, I’m treated to an author naming off points-of-interest they either pulled off a map, out of a guide, or added to a list while they were on vacation (lucky them!).

In a sense, world building isn’t about the world, but about the lives in it and how they relate to that world (if a tree falls over in a world and no one is there to experience it…who cares?). The lives of hobbits taught us more about The Shire than description ever could. World building isn’t just about sights, but about people (or any occupying life form), and then about culture, climate, geography, technology (or lack of), and a host of other elements hiding in my brain at the moment. To be more precise, SHOW me what it’s like to LIVE in that world. Yes, yet again “showing” is important (and also is a great way to help avoid info dumping, which loves “telling”). This requires, not skimming over the world’s surface, but diving to its bottom.

I was raised in the suburbs of Long Island, New York and spent almost twenty years in central Wyoming. Want to talk contrast? I’ve been in over 40 states and lived in over half-a-dozen others. The influences on the people in a world are beyond counting. Show me their fears and hopes? That’s what makes a world real.

Examples? Sue Grafton’s California coast comes alive for me. Of course, there’s Middle Earth from The Shire to the Mines of Moria. Science fiction? Anything Dan Simmons mentioned in his Hyperion books. Yet, what always first comes to mind in those places are the experiences that now feel like they were mine.

Okay, sorry. You caught me in a chatty mood, though this was fun. 🙂

Reply

Deborah Makarios March 2, 2017 at 8:23 pm

I love Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion books for this very reason: the world seems so real, and it’s such a fascinating place!

Reply

Julie Glover March 3, 2017 at 8:42 am

This was an eye-opener for me in my writing. Because I do write contemporary, and my books are set in suburb/small-town Texas. But I took for granted stuff I’d grown up with, until an agent pointed out that my world contained elements that New Yorkers she lived around didn’t get and I needed to mine that treasure. Suddenly, I realized how much world building I needed to do, even in contemporary YA. So I started sending my characters to the rodeo, pointing out that they own trucks and boots, made my mentor character a hippie cowgirl — stuff that was normal in my world, but consciously including these elements in my story immerses readers even more. Thanks for highlighting this!

Reply

Donovan Quesenberry March 3, 2017 at 9:41 am

This post is an eye opener, so I totally connect with Julie Glover’s comments
I always immerse. I just didn’t know there was a name for it. In fact, this is my number one issue at my critique group with other’s work. I can’t “get out of the story” and see elements for improvement. This has been a big problem for me. I have to read the stories, like, three times before I begin to see sentence and scene errors.
I can’t relate to stories that expect me to suspend belief, twice, because of unrealistic plot points because I want to immerse so much. For example, I am willing to believe that a radioactive, zombie spider can bite and change a high school kid into Spiderman. But when all the villains have weird origins and circumstances, I just want to STOP reading or watching. Sandman. From sand. Really? There were so many unbelievable plot points in the latest Star Trek, Beyond, quite frankly it chapped my butt.
Jami, believing and praying you will recover from your zombie virus (before you turn, of course). Fascinating that people still disbelieve in the coming Zombie Apocalypse in our day and time. As an infect-toid, I am sure you have experienced this. *emitting a long, deep, audible breath expressing sadness*
Get well soon!
Donovan Quesenberry

Reply

dolorah March 3, 2017 at 11:33 pm

Yeah, I’m more drawn in by well developed characters than an active plot too. And an exciting and unique world. I want to immerse myself, get lost, forget about everything else.

Those are the books I want to write too.

Reply

Clare O'Beara March 4, 2017 at 5:14 am

Sorry to hear of the continued infection, Jami. I expect you have read up on digestive problems, but they are often related to antibiotic treatments and a dose of good gut bacteria is a way to overcome them. Capsules are better than drinking yoghurt and hoping some bacteria make it through the stomach acid.

Reply

Clare O'Beara March 4, 2017 at 5:19 am

Immersive is definitely the way to go for me.
My mysteries have to show the reader what it is like to live in this situation and place, from the clean or polluted air to the people on the street.
My SF also deals with crime and if I expect the reader to follow me to an alternative version of our world, that world had better be easy to get to know. It has to feel much like ours with understandable characters leading more technically advanced but similar lives. So one of my journalist heroes is a restaurant reviewer. I reckon we’ll still have them, and it lets the reader see, hear, smell, touch and taste the world.

Reply

Laurie Evans March 7, 2017 at 5:40 pm

I love really vivid settings, like Harry Potter. I think sometimes settings are semi-neglected in some stories. I’ve read some fabulous historical romances that were very immersive due to setting.

Reply

Anne Kaelber March 8, 2017 at 4:32 pm

Jami,

I am tickled to hear of another Ruth Chew fan! I have been hunting down her books, because I read them all at the library as a child. I have two books signed by Ms. Chew. I don’t think I’ve read ALL of her books, but I think “What the Witch Left” and “The Wednesday Witch” are my favorites. I missed a chance to meet the author because her signing event was the same weekend as a Girl Scout ‘camping’ retreat. Fortunately, my sister had my book signed for me. 🙂

Immersion is the one thing I expect from a book that is non-negotiable. My husband says that well-planned worldbuilding makes it feel like you can peek around a corner and see more of the world, not just “movie sets”. I think that sums it up quite well.

I would love to see you delve into the world building you do for your paranormal romances. How detailed do you get? How do you keep your “universe” right in your mind, notes and projects?

Thanks for another excellent post. 🙂

Anne.

Reply

What do you think?

13 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Previous post:

Next post: