Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How to Immerse the Reader

I always say a great story is the most important element of a novel. We can have a great concept, a great structure and great characters, but if we stop there, our stories will lack magic. The readers want to become engrossed in the story. They want to be immersed and live the story experience in their minds. They need to see it, hear it, smell it and more.

The sensory details will bring our stories alive. They can capture mood and atmosphere. They can reflect emotion and tension. They can enhance the feeling of conflict. They can add that extra dimension.

To get it right we need to become observers of life. We need to practise awareness and take note of everything around us – especially of the little things. To write a scene well, we need to see it--not as actors on a stage, but characters in a real, living, breathing setting.

To bring authenticity into our stories we also need to write in specifics, not generalisations. If you want a car going by, what kind of car is it? If you want birds chirping, what kind of birds are they?

We all lead busy lives, so how do you practise awareness? Why do you think you find writing descriptions easy or difficult?

39 comments:

  1. One of the joys of being a writer is moving through the world like a sponge.

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  2. I find it easy as long as I've physically been in a similar situation. It's the scenes I have no direct experience to draw from that prove to be difficult.

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  3. A great essay, especially the third paragraph. When we see things with more than our eyes, that is, employing other senses, we can write about it better.

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  4. Difficult, because I just don't notice those little things. And the book I read are fast-paced, so I tend to plow through my writing as well. I know my first book was bare bones, but with my critique partner's help, I hope the second one will flesh out scenes better.
    And one can also immerse the reader by dipping them in fondue!

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  5. Terrific advice, Lynda. One of my writing mentors always stressed the sensory details constantly asking me things like "What could you smell as you walked through the church?" How did the fence post feel as you leaned on it?" Those things really do bring flat stories to life.
    I loved Suze's comment about "moving through the world like a sponge." Quite descriptive!

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  6. What a perfect picture for your post. I need to do this in a big scene near the end. I got so caught up in writing the tension that I forgot to add more sensory details to create atmosphere. That's a big thing for me to do in the editing stage.

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  7. Layers. Sometimes I write a scene and then add details, layering sensory facets upon concrete features. Writing is such a luxury in that way--you don't have to notice or include everything at once, and you have time to flesh your world out on the page.

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  8. Great post..
    I find I generalise really badly in my first draft and then pick up little by little in each rewrite.
    Good points here.
    xx

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  9. I think Suze hit it right on the head: We're like sponges. We can't help it. We notice things. Forget that, we notice EVERYthing. People, sounds, tastes, smells. The way birds shift in flight as one, how the slightest breeze ripples the grass like water. Why do we notice these small wonders? Beats me. But I do know we're constantly contemplating how to put all of it into words. The world is fascinating to us, beautiful even when it's ugly... Does that make any sense?

    Excellent post, by the way, Lynda. As always. :)

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  10. Great post! Sometimes writing a scene can be difficult if I've never experienced it.

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  11. I'm very cautious with sensory details. Like you said, the story is the most important thing. It's difficult to balance the amount of description and the amount of action. You don't want confused readers unable to connect, but you also don't want to ramble about how pretty the forest is.

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  12. I think we do need to pay attention to the things around us. See how people interact in reality and use all the senses if appropriate. These things can draw the reader in. Like Alex though, I go for faster paced novels and that is what I'm writing. It really would be wrong, if I mentioned a bird chirping, to actually describe that bird. I think it all depends on the type of book you're writing.

    A great reminder that there is more than just sight though.

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  13. An excellent post, Lynda. The sensory details embellish stories and bring them to life, for sure!

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  14. I notice details when I'm thinking like a writer; the more I look for the more I'll find. On days when I'm in a rush, I'll realize that I've missed opportunities, i.e. standing in line at the market and wasting my time staring at the alien on the front of the Nat'l Enquirer, instead of "people watching." As to fleshing out details in my writing, I do, though I have to watch for "telling" (which I'm often guilty of) and be sure I'm "showing."

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  15. Suze, sponge cake? (sorry, I couldn't resist)

    Paul, I do a lot of googling and reading to research scenes I haven't experienced myself.

    Anthony, that's what brings it alive.

    Alex, It's interesting with your book. I was so engrossed in your characters that I didn't feel like I missed anything. That's a rare talent.

    Pam, good questions to ask yourself

    Theresa, hehe, yeah I originally chose a different picture and decided against it because it kinda looked like someone drowning (it wasn't, it was just a shadowy shape in deep water).

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  16. Sarah, yes, exactly! It's better to bring in the details in brief moments.

    Michelle, that's a good technique because it's good to write the first draft fast.

    Alyssia, we were made to notice those small wonders. Maybe that's why we are writers. And yes it makes perfect sense.

    Shelly, that's part of the challenge ;)

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  17. McKenzie, exactly, it's finding that balance. We don't need mountains of description, just small gems scattered through the story.

    Rebecca, absolutely, it does depend on style, but even fast paced books can benefit from the occasional one-liner of sensory description.

    LynNerd, thanks

    Lisa, yeah I'm guilty of telling too. Thank goodness we can fix our first drafts. Hehehe.

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  18. I have an over active imagination and tend to daydream a lot too - so I sort of am unobservant in a very creatively observant way! LOL! Or completely useless to have around when trying to be focused!
    :-)

    Take care
    x

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  19. What Sarah says, layers, they work for me as well. And also, when I’m writing a scene, I sometimes picture myself standing in the middle of it, and then I simply start looking around. What’s there to see? How does the ocean smell? Is there a lot of wind? Are there specific colours?
    It can be difficult if I’ve never been in a situation myself. For example, my novel starts with a tidal wave, a destroyed village and a bleak refugee camp. Obviously, I’ve never seen or experienced any of those things, so I find myself writing silly, illogical things, delete them, and struggle to get something I think is believable.

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  20. Yes! It's those details that bring the story alive! :)

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  21. I'm not a descriptive writer, generally and I always adding it in last. I need to be more conscientious about watching and listening!

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  22. Every story you share or hear has meaning. I'm really good at sitting in the background and taking it all in. Parks, Coffee Shops, Watering Hole, all places to find some wonderful conversation.

    Just the other day I was at the pool and two girls were discussing men. I was working on my novel 30 Guys in 30 Days and it just so happened the girl had a bad first date. I easedropped and walked away with two great dating drama's for my novel. She'll never know but I would have loved to thank her.

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  23. I haven't been immersed by a book for quite some time now :(
    Working in the publishing industry has made me quite grumpy and critical towards book :( I does hone your taste but it also makes you dissatisfied with most of the books you read.

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  24. I just let it flow and the descriptions follow. Ocassionally, I write something that is really really cool while describing something. So I just go with it and after a few revisions, the descriptions develop.

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  25. So true it's all in the detail :O)

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  26. I think I definitely need to pay more attention in my day to day living.:P

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  27. Oh yes, good points. Although I wouldn't put in a name of a bird, for instance, if the character would have no idea what kind of bird it would be. Guys would notice car types--probably down to the year and model. LOL

    But yeah...I should check my ms for sensory details. I have some, but more might make some scenes "pop."

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  28. Great points, Lynda....nowadays I watch everything (people shopping, two students chatting and walking). I watch their facial expressions, study their body language, I try to notice small details that would go into my character descriptions. I don't stare, but I study them.

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  29. I couldn't agree more! I love sensory details, but for some readers it can be too much, so I find it requires a subtle balance in order to both entertain, but not slow down the pace of the story. Good post:)

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  30. I like to feel like I'm in the scene whether I'm writing it or reading it. It's like a movie playing in my head.

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  31. Old Kitty, daydreaming is a good thing for a writer.

    Dawrei, cool start to the novel though. Worth the extra pain of writing it.

    Laura, indeedy

    Talli, I think we all do

    Jen, haha how fantastic! What perfect timing :)

    Dezzy, yeah... I find it hard to read a book without self-editing it in my head. I can't just enjoy it. hehe

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  32. Stephen, gotta love revisions :)

    Madeleine, :)

    Emily, same

    Carol, oh yes, it always has to be in the POV of the character. Good point.

    Rachna, people watching is one of the best things.

    Mark, exactly right. Too much tips the balance and distracts from the story.

    Raising Marshmellows, yes, as a writer if you feel you're in the scene then it's likely your readers will too.

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  33. I don't add a lot of description in my first drafts - but I'm getting better at going back in and adding those specifics!

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  34. I love atmosphere. I always loved Thomas Hardy's descriptions and I suppose that's who I learned 'atmosphere' from.

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  35. Great points, but if you're writing in first person POV, the specifics have to be something the character knows about. I hear birds singing all the time. But I can't tell you what they are. And I can only tell you what the car is if I've seen it's make written on it.

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  36. A great post, Lynda. Sesory details make the story all that much realistic and it is also one of the thing which I lack in my story-telling....there another is show vs tell! I'm always telling.

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  37. Jemi, yeah first drafts are for power writing and getting the story down.

    M Pax, yes Thomas Hardy's atmospheres are great.

    Stina, absolutely. They were just examples, though.

    Nas, sensory detailing and telling can always be fixed. A broken structure is harder to fix.

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  38. A great post, and reminding to us all. I would say description is my weakest point as a writer, though I've got better over the last year. I tend to underwrite in the first draft and then add the details in the second!

    Ellie Garratt

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  39. Lynda, really? Wow. I hope I repeat that for the second book.

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