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:
- unbelievable or unrealistic plot points, character actions, etc. that make readers question the story
- slow pacing, lack of tension, too much “telling,” information dumps, backstory, etc. that make readers bored
- distracting editing mistakes, speed bumps in our reading (convoluted sentences, reversed cause-and-effects, etc.), head-hopping, inconsistent stage direction (“Wait, how many hands does he have?”), story interruptions, etc.—all can confuse readers, making them back up to reread and reminding readers they’re reading words on a page
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