It’s not often that a conversation about writing will escape the importance of immersing audiences in your story—but what often does escape the conversation is how to do this. I used to struggle with this a lot. Coming from a gaming background, I would wonder how I can make people feel immersed within in a traditional story—one they can’t change. What does immersion even mean, I would wonder, for stories like that? But after some writing experience, I’d like to share my idea of immersion, and some quick tips I’ve discovered that can help you really pull you audiences into your world and make them feel like part of the story.
So, What is Immersion?
I find the way everyone describes this feeling is different, but for me, being immersed in a story is feeling surrounded by its world and characters. It’s feeling like you are there with them, and like you could learn more about everything in their world if you were allowed to freely explore. Immersion is the overall sense that the world is living and breathing and expansive around you, which helps the characters and events be believable. All of this helps you feel engrossed in the world and its people, and hooks you into finding out what happens next. Essentially, immersion is what makes the story feel real enough to care about.
Sweat the Small Stuff
Little pieces of information are perhaps the easiest way to make your writing feel immersive, and help your characters and their world real and feel lived in. You want your world to seem like everything existed before your story starts, and will continue to after it ends. This is especially important for fantastical fiction, which needs to do a little more heavy lifting to make audiences feel like they understand and are part of your imagined world. A good way to do this is to introduce little parts of a character or place’s backstory during dialogue or description, or to pick out small details about the place and person you’re describing. Knowing that Kieran’s favourite coffee shop always had a tinge of petrol underlying its roasted-coffee smell, that the city of Evapolis was built atop the skeleton of the Dragon-God, or that Andrew and Laura did something just like this in Malta back in 1993 doesn’t need to have any further significance to your story, but all these details make these characters and locations feel that little more tangible. Kazuo Ishiguro is a master at this in his novels—read the meandering narration of An Artist of the Floating World for a brilliant example of criss-crossing backstories and wonderfully detailed realisations.
A good example of all of this working together in a fantastical setting would be the Mos Eisley Cantina scene in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. The futuristic scene is full of many weird and wonderful alien patrons in the background that help immerse viewers into the atmosphere of an alien saloon, and of course features Han Solo’s iconic boast that his spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, ‘made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs’. Do audiences know what the Kessel Run is? No! But it clearly means something to the characters, without it ever appearing on screen*—and that makes the universe feel a whole lot bigger than just a few movies. Seeing scenes and hearing small details from characters like this goes a long way to making a story immersive—it teaches us a lot about the characters and their world from direct experience with the world itself, which I feel is much more immersive than an info-dump from a narrator (though that can still be valid).
Make Sure Audiences Experience What Characters Do
Letting audiences share experiences with your characters is a little harder, but is the real core of an immersive story. In fact, that’s exactly what the Mos Eisley scene was an example of. It sounds simple, but for something so central it’s often overlooked. It’s so central, that it actually impacts every following entry on this list. That’s because the most straight-forward way to immerse audiences in a character’s experiences is to make audiences experience these experiences, and allow them to draw their own conclusions about the world and what characters should do from there. A story showing that which comes immediately to my mind is that of Aloy, a tribal outcast in the video game Horizon: Zero Dawn. During the game, playing as Aloy allows audiences to experience first-hand people’s disapproval of her not only as an outcast, but as a woman—which motivates not only Aloy but you to prove that Aloy is not useless simply because she is who she is, as they’ve just disrespected both her ability, and the audiences’. Consequently, audiences become arguably as immersed in Aloy’s goals as Aloy herself.
But you don’t need a game to do this: any story becomes immersive by putting its audience through the same pain that drives the characters to their goals. Frankenstein and Deadpool are two very different stories, but both immerse us in the goals of Frankenstein’s Creature and Wade Wilson respectively by showing us first-hand the pain they go through, be that the constant rejection the Creature faces, or the torture Ajax forces upon Wade—resulting in both characters wanting to seek retribution from their “creators”, and us, knowing their pain, wanting them to get it in some form.
Give Audiences Space to Imagine Changes
Following directly on from the last point, a sure-fire sign of an immersive world is that audiences understand how they could change it. This is literal and fairly obvious in games, but I believe that it applies to less-interactive fiction too. I find my sense of immersion is greatly increased in stories when I can see more than one way to solve the situation a character is facing, and I can clearly imagine what might happen if I was in the character’s shoes, and could make a different choice for them. Not only is it a sign of well-built characters and worlds in that instance, but it also helps to characterise the members of your story through the choices they do (and don’t) make. For example, a character choosing to end an affair at a key moment when they could have continued it tells the audience a lot about who they are and the pressures they’re feeling—especially when audiences can guess what might have happened had they let it continue. Being able to do this also allows character choice to become even more painful, as audiences understand the reasons—or lack thereof—for their choices (there was space for two, Rose!). Either way, audiences are immersed.
Give Character Choices Lasting Consequences
Once again linking to the last point, once audiences see the experiences and the choices (or lack thereof) a character has, they need to see the decision they make (and the ones they don’t) have a permanent impact. This is because the choices your characters make, and the other choices you can see as a reader, only mean something if they change the world irreversibly. As most writers will know, an immersive story responds to its choices in both predictable and unpredictable ways. For example, a character’s self-sacrifice is emotional because it will often remove a character permanently from the rest of the story, and predictably save the others while putting them into mourning, but what audiences may not predict is that that death could be what shapes our protagonist into a supervillain a few chapters or even books down the line.
Many writers tend to forget that in the real world, choices are forever (not just for Christmas): their impact will last for the entire story, not just a couple of scenes. The choices only mean so much because they can’t be undone—and I find little more immersive than a choice from chapter two coming back to bite the protagonist in chapter fifty-four, no matter how minor it is. Even the protagonist choosing to wear green when first meeting their love interest can become meaningful if said love interest begins to take more of a liking to green throughout the story, only for them to tell the protagonist as they die that green became their favourite colour because of the protagonist. It just makes the whole story feel (painfully) cohesive, realistic, and this immersive.
Let Audiences Play Detective
Pulling the previous points together is the next pillar of immersion—giving audiences space to play detective. The amount of immersion that comes from trying to figure out what happens next, and feeling like you can work it out, is often underestimated. If audiences feel they understand your world and characters enough to be able to guess at what will happen next, they’re going to feel like they are imagining and immersing themselves into your story properly. Even better, part of the fun as a writer is being able to play with the audiences’ sense of that. Immersed audiences will naturally be trying to take the clues and situations you’re presenting, and form them into predictions of the future. So, make sure it’s possible—but don’t make it easy. Use vague, twistable hints, and throw in red herrings: the real world is complex, after all. Not every action and event needs its motivations and relevancy clearly explained (the old adage ‘show don’t tell’ comes to mind here). If Gina is wearing a ring, you don’t need to tell us that it was a gift from her best friend. It might be a family heirloom, or from her partner, or many other things. Throw in a couple of hints, and leave it to the reader to decide.
Having a multitude of situations to sort through isn’t just entertaining and realistic, it also lets the reader interpret the world in their way, making them all the more immersed. In my experience, if there are two things audiences love, they are plot twists, and the space for fan theories. Being able to see the world your own way, and still be surprised by it, is perhaps one of the most immersive and enjoyable experiences of fiction.
Summarising all of these ideas, and ironically directly contrasting the first point, controlled ambiguity itself is the crux of immersion. Ultimately, constructing characters and worlds deep yet flexible enough to allow audiences to build their own theories and head-canons is a great way to immerse them. Introducing a mix of solid fact, what-ifs and possibilities into your world and characterisations allows audiences to feel they understand your world while being able to project themselves into it and really become a part of it. For me, whether your sci-fi epic allows audiences to slot their own planet into your universe, or you romance-thriller allows audiences’ own theories of why someone rejects someone else asking them out to abound, is true immersion: it allows your story to fully live within your audiences.
I honestly believe it’s the key to why some stories have lived with people so long—from being able to join a house in Harry Potter, to creating your own theories around Nick and Jay in The Great Gatsby, characters and worlds audiences can get actively involved and immersed in tend to be the most enjoyed. Even if you aren’t planning on writing something with the scope of a fantasy epic or cultural novel, giving audiences space to fit themselves among your characters and your worlds will always make your stories more immersive, and by arguable extension, enjoyable.
Well, those are the best tips I’ve come across during my time writing. What do you think of them? Did I miss out your favourite immersive technique? Let me know in the comments below!
*The Kessel Run did finally come on screen in Solo: A Star Wars Story… but whether you want to include that film in your head-canon is up to you.
About the Author—Leon Lynn
After helping out with the festival on a gap year while contracting in video game writing last year, I’m now completing the final year of my Creative Writing Undergraduate degree. I’m also very excited to be one of your Assistant Directors again for SNWF 2022! You can find my writing portfolio at http://www.itsallagame.com/leonpaullynn.