Jilly: Delivering Narrative Transportation

Lost In A BookHow easily do you get lost in a book? Do you get so deeply engaged that you feel slightly disoriented when you return to your own life?

I’ve always found it easy to slip into a story world, and I usually dive in so deeply that I am completely lost to reality. It causes me some problems. I have to be careful about reading on public transport: missing my stop could be the least of my worries. I remember once, many years ago, waiting for a train from Paris to Lyon and making sure I had both arms through my backpack and the pack itself wedged securely against a wall because I was reading Nancy Mitford’s Love In A Cold Climate and I knew once I cracked open the cover any bystander could have helped themselves to my stuff and I wouldn’t have noticed a thing.

I discovered recently that this phenomenon has a name. Apparently psychologists call it narrative transportation, and research confirms that readers who experience it do actually enter the story world and become detached from reality in a physiological sense.

Logistical inconveniences notwithstanding, the experience of transportation is one of the most amazing parts of reading. I’d love to write something good enough to give readers an out-of-body experience so I decided to see if I could pick up any actionable tips and hints from the experts.

According to that fount of all information, Wikipedia (click here for the page), narrative transportation requires the active participation of the reader (“story receiver”), who must interpret the story. Receivers become transported via two key components – empathy and mental imagery.

Empathy is important because the receiver actively tries to understand the experience of a character – to know and feel their world in the same way. It’s suggested that this action is what causes the reader to detach themselves from their own world.

Mental imagery is vital, because it helps story receivers to generate vivid pictures of the story plot, which makes them feel that they are experiencing the events themselves.

The second point, mental imagery, was a wake-up call for me because, as I may have mentioned before, I suck at description. I knew it was something I had to work on, but maybe it’s an even bigger deal than I realized. Left to my own devices, I’ll write colorful characters with strong goals, pursuing those goals through a combination of physical actions and decent dialogue, but the reader will have no idea where the scene is taking place, what the characters look like, or what the characters experience through senses other than sight. I’ve been reading back some of my scenes, and although I’ve edited to add description, I’ve been asking myself whether I’ve given enough information to enable the reader to create vivid pictures for themselves. Unfortunately the answer is, not so much. I’ll be working on that as a matter of urgency.

I think I can do better on the empathy front, too. I’ve sometimes felt frustrated by contest feedback that some readers found my hero unlikable and that they didn’t see enough potential for good stuff in him to read on and watch him grow and change. I think the problem is that I know beyond doubt that he’s a great guy, and I can’t step away from that to see only what the reader sees. I like my heroes a little obnoxious (it gives them somewhere to go later) and it feels cheesy and insulting to the reader to undercut that by giving Obnoxious Hero a major Save The Cat! Moment, but I clearly need to find a more effective way to persuade the reader to care about him.

What do you think? Do you think a combination of empathy and imagery is what drags you into a book and keeps you there?

Are there any authors you think do a particularly stellar job at pulling you under?

12 thoughts on “Jilly: Delivering Narrative Transportation

  1. I think I’m fairly easy to hypnotize, LOL, and that might be the main reason I go under so hard. Reading is easier for me to disappear into than writing, but when writing is going really well, I’m out of this world. Time goes by in a blink, and things happen. When I’m dragged out, I get so terribly . . . tetchy. I’m ashamed at how unpleasant I can be when I’m interrupted and lose a lovely, lovely sentence mid-stream. I go back and look at the first half, and have no idea how it was going to end.

    Re-reading usually puts me under quite quickly. I like it when the writer gives me the building blocks, but doesn’t present me with the entire Empire State Building (Um, writer, I would have done something a little more Rococo, I think.)

    The danger, of course, is when we give the readers freedom to imagine a world, then they imagine the wrong world and we throw a monkey wrench into their World Building Engine in some way . . . for example, they see the character as a redhead, but we suddenly demand that s/he must be brunette. Or in the case of the Rivers of London series, I think we are pretty much given the freedom to see Dr. Walid as a Scotsman who has converted to Islam, or the son of immigrants who has converted to being Scottish (one of my college friends was from Lebanon and had curly auburn locks). But I think on Aaronvitch’s blog, he makes it clear that Walid is a Scottish convert to Islam. (I’d guessed the other way. It’s a book full of immigrants! Why not one more? Doesn’t matter; interesting either way. Just a bit of a surprise, since I really took to Dr. Walid, and to tell the truth, I still see him as a distinguished, handsome guy from Lebanon. Don’t tell the author!)

    But anyway, if it matters, it should probably be frontloaded. (But god, it all matters, doesn’t it? Can’t frontload an entire novel . . . .)

    (-: And with that unhelpful meditation, I leave you to wrestle the description demon.

    • I know what you mean about tetchy. If somebody drags me out of a book, I feel as growly as a hungry dog whose dinner got interrupted. I sometimes lose myself when I’m writing, too, though sadly not at the moment as my story has too many missing pieces (a whole jigsaw’s worth, in fact).

      If my mental image of a character doesn’t match the author’s, as long as it’s not critical to the story I usually stick with my version and ignore information to the contrary. I read a series of books ages ago (probably Westerns) where the hero always had a moustache. I think it was short-hand for virile, alpha, outdoorsy-type manly man, but since I don’t like moustaches I just shaved ’em all off. Sorry, author 🙂 . And I’m pretty sure that Jessica in Lord of Scoundrels is petite and blonde and pink-and-white. Not in my mind, she’s not.

      I hadn’t given much thought to Dr. Walid, though now you mention it I imagine him being partly or wholly from an immigrant family rather than a Scotsman who’d converted to Islam. I think it’s as you said, the whole book is a melting pot of cultures so that’s what I would have expected. I must say, I love Peter Grant. He’s from my part of London, and I can picture him clearly. I love the description in Rivers of London/Midnight Riot. And now I must go back and pull the book apart to see how much of it there is and why it works so perfectly for me.

      • (-: Oh, gosh, yes, the RoL series is so much fun! And the descriptions are really good at sparking my imagination. I don’t know what else I got “wrong”, but I feel I can see The Folly, and Molly (most of the time), and Peter and his family . . . I love the mix and melting pot. I love the characters (well, most of ’em — some I love to hate), and I love the solidness of London. I can practically feel the cobblestones beneath my soles.

  2. I’m right there with you Jilly – description is not my strong suit. Many times when I’m reading, the descriptive stuff just leaves me cold, either because it is kind of cliche or because I just can’t visualize what the writer is trying to describe. As I reader, I need to be grounded in “where am I” and “what is around me.” Other than that, leave me alone. The stories I fall deepest into are the ones that give me just enough key facts to let me build the picture I want in my mind without hitting me over the head with it. Loretta Chase’s Captives of the Night is the best example of that for me. It is one of the few books where I could not only see the characters, I could hear them too. And she did it with the very judicious use of details. There was enough imagery to draw me into the story, and the story was so well done I had empathy, not only for the main characters, but even for the non-redeemable character.

    In my own writing, I tend to be skimpy on the details that don’t matter. I have no idea, for example, what colour my herione’s eyes are, because it is irrelevant to the story. I’m still working on making the story more visual, but it’s a challenge.

    • Loretta Chase is an author who almost always drags me under. As you say, she gives just enough description to let the reader build the world for themselves. For me it was Miss Wonderful that really made me appreciate her skill, because it’s set around Matlock Bath, in Derbyshire, and I know that area very well indeed. She gets the look and feel of the place perfectly and never hits a wrong note. It’s important to the story because the heroine, Mirabel, loves the wild, unspoiled landscape and will fight anyone who wants to change it. Hm. Another text-book for me. Must go back and look at how much description there is and how much my imagination added.

      • And re: Jessica. I don’t see her as blonde, either! I do see her as petite, but with dark curls or possibly as a redhead. Very serious face. Large pistol.

        She may not be petite. Dain, as I see him, is a hulking great dark monster. Dark curls (a la Byron), and solid muscles, almost like a Disney blacksmith. So, Jess would look tiny next to him.

        (-: I should add more Loretta Chase to my wishlist! Both Elizabeth’s rec and yours sound like a great deal of fun, and educational to boot.

  3. This is where I think Margie Lawson’s EDITS system can be so helpful. Everything that’s setting (basically anything you can visualize) is highlighted in green. When you look at a page or two and don’t see any, you know you’re skimping on description and setting.

    The empathy part I see dovetailing nicely into the character truths I talked about two weeks ago. Digging into the truth for the character, and how that truth manifests itself in the story — whether it’s an internalization, a description, a metaphor…whatever — is what draws you into the reader, eliminates the cliches (hopefully), and can bring you closer to the reader. For example, take the color green. For a money-grubbing businessman, he might think of green in terms of greenbacks, dollar bills (or 100s), etc. For a nature lover, the green may be rolling hills in Ireland or something. For a sports guy, it’s the green of the artificial turf in AT&T Stadium in Dallas. That’s their truth. It’s green, yes, but green in different ways, and it digs deeper into each character.

    And I never saw Jess as petite and blonde. Brunette all the way. Dark, fiery eyes (they may have been described as blue, but that’s not how I saw them) and tall, because Dain is gigantic.

  4. SEP always pulls me under. With her, I think it’s because her characters are so empathizable.

    Georgette Heyer, more for setting. She introduced me to Regency England.

    John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars because Hazel and Gus were so amazing.

    And Steven King, although I don’t read him anymore. He’s a superb craftsman, but I just don’t love what he writes about, and I don’t want to get pulled into those worlds.

    I read an essay he wrote on description once. He said the trick was to pick one or two really striking things about what you’re describing and leave everything else to the reader’s imagination. An example he used was a description of a derelict house. All he said about it was that weather had punched a hole in the roof. From that tiny detail, I immediately had the whole house–that rounded hole, the generally decrepit roof, the windows with broken panes from rocks thrown by school boys daring each other, a sagging front porch.

    So that’s what I try for. I’m happy with the level of detail in my books, though I know it’s pretty minimal. I took Margie Lawson’s EDITS class. Once I have a draft of something, I’ll run it through and see what it says.

    • Maybe I need a Margie Lawson lecture packet or two for Christmas. I think I’ll always be a minimal-detail girl, but I’d like those details to be evocative enough to draw the reader into my world. I love the Steven King example. I wish I could read his books, but I can’t. I’m a total scaredy cat and I’d never get a wink of sleep.

      • It’s worth it, IMHO. The lecture packets are $22US apiece. Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and More; Digging Deep into the EDITS System; and Empowering Character Emotions are sort of the standard canon to understand and use her system. She’s got a few others that are worth downloading, but to do the highlighting at a minimum, snag Deep Editing and Digging Deep.

        Just so you understand, I don’t have green splayed all over the page. In some cases, I have too much green. But it’s making sure there’s bits here and there, used judiciously, and also making sure they’re the best green they can be (or yellow or blue or whatever…there are six colors).

        If you do download the packets, get yourself a few highlighters (blue, yellow, green, orange, pink) and a red pen. Good luck!

  5. Thanks for the article!

    None of these are literary giants – they just do good story and really seem to do the transporting thing well. I notice the thing they all have in common are fun quirky, well-defined, characters with good voice. You’re in it with them almost immediately and feel a part of the entire thing.

    I love Jim Butcher – I’m in there gnashing my teeth with Dresden, feeling the body hit the cement, and sucking in the sarcasm.

    I’ve been reading Craig Johnson’s Longmire books… again – once you’re in, you’re in. He’s got a set of short stories out right now “Wait for Signs” – that’s how I checked out his writing style and voice (I’d recently gotten hooked on the series on Netflix.) Insta-love and if you want some bite-sized lunch break goodness – you can’t go wrong with this one.

    Fun set of “cozy mystery” stuff I’ve been eating like candy for the last month… is Jana DeLeon’s Miss Fortune series. I get full on guffaws – regularly – not brain surgery – you can guess 75% of what might happen at any given moment, but the ride is always fun, you just keep queuing up.

    There are great world builders and that can definitely transport – but I think I’m finding – good character sucks you in fast, and keeps you going for the long haul.

    • Fun, quirky, well-defined characters with good voice. I’m going to try them all, starting with Jim Butcher. I tried a taster on Amazon and got my head in the story straight away. Was horribly tempted to buy the book and start reading on the spot, proud to say I resisted.

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