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?