The quick and dirty understanding of reader immersion is that the main character is the narrator, and the reader is getting the story in the character’s voice. We want to keep the distance close so it feels like we’re perched on the viewpoint character’s shoulder.
Everything is subjective. The viewpoint character’s past colors how they see things. Descriptions should reflect that. In my epic fantasy, my villainess is a vain, snotty, self-important person. She is always putting other people down while describing them. They smelled like a wet dog, or her bright, red face clashed with her secondhand dress. How would a person who is a shut-in see a new place for the first time? Would a thrill seeker find a commuter train boring?
Emotions should be visceral. How do they affect the character? This is where filters and naming emotions get tricky because there is always a place and time for each. Would drawing out the emotions—what it felt like; how their body reacted—considerably slow down the pace? Showing doesn’t have to be wordy.
The light was red. Someone banged on my window and I felt startled.
The light was red. Someone banged on my window, and my heart shot in to my throat.
In example one, I used a filter and named an emotion. Sure. Fine. There really isn’t anything wrong with it, but it does feel distant, doesn’t it?
In example two, it’s the same scenario, but with a visceral reaction that I have felt before. Here, I understand what they’re feeling, and I have empathy for the character.
Here’s another example.
I pressed the window button. “What do you want?” I angrily asked.
I jabbed the window button, narrowing my eyes. “What do you want?”
In example one, the description is bland. I could be rolling down my window to place an order at a drive-thru. Sure, I tucked in “angrily” at the end, but that only colored everything, and in my opinion, too late. The exchange was finished before I knew the character was angry.
In example two, I colored how the character pressed a button. It wasn’t light. They jabbed it! They pushed that button with purpose. Then they narrowed their eyes. In my head, the dialogue was growled because I could tell they were angry.
Our emotions color our actions, and I think showing it can remove a layer of distance and help immerse the reader deeper into the story.
But wait! You never said when it’s okay to use filters!
I know. It depends on the scene, your writing style, and story. The best advice I can give is to consider all your feedback. If you have a majority of people complaining that all this showing is slowing down your pace, then it might be a good time to use a filter or name an emotion. Read. Write. Read. Write. If you’re part of a writing community, then give critiques of others’ works. These are all great learning experiences.
I also want to point out that these things (filters, naming emotions, ect) can be used in your rough drafts. Think of them as scaffolding for your book. You can always remove and add whatever your story needs in revisions.
“What I write is smarter than I am. Because I can rewrite it.”—Susan Sontag
Do you have any tips on how to fully immerse your readers? Share them in the comments below!