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Fiction writers often strive to draw readers deep into the pages of their works. We know the best stories are the ones that make time seem to stop. So what makes a fictional world seem so real readers forget where they are? It’s in the details.
Whether your writing style is rich with description or close and efficient, well-placed details are what bring a world to life. A common mistake for beginning writers is limiting description to visuals, likely due to the prevalence of Hollywood movies and TV as the most popular way to consume stories in modern society.
But although stories are technically words on a page, reader’s imaginations are doing some heavy lifting to make them feel real. As writers we can take advantage of that by evoking not only gorgeous sunsets, but the soft flutter of a spring breeze, the echoing chirp of swallows through a quiet forest.
According to an article in the Harvard Gazette published in February 2020, there is a strong link between the senses of scent and taste and memory and emotion, due to the proximity of these centres in the brain. Describing common scents and tastes can evoke visceral reactions. Warm, sweet vanilla triggers feelings of comfort while rusty, metallic blood is unsettling.
Touch is very useful for describing fashions. The textures of clothes can tell readers a lot about a world’s climate. Are they thick and furry, sheer and silky etc. But describing touch is also an excellent way to build immersion. Are your characters sailing the ocean in search of treasure and adventure? Don’t forget to mention the cold, misty spray of the sea on their skin, the rocking movement of the deck beneath their feet.
And focusing on a few key sounds when describing a locale can take your immersion from FM radio to surround sound. Instead of describing the noise of a busy market as a “dull roar” or “chatter” try really scaling down. Zoom in on the clucking of chickens, or the high-then-low call of a vendor shouting at passerby or better yet, something uniquely specific to the world you’re creating.
While getting detailed with the scenes is a vital tool for pumping up immersion, depending on your writing style you might want to keep description sparse, but still have readers feel invested. Well-placed details about the minutiae of daily life—how people clean, or eat, or get from place to place— as well as your world’s history, religion, food and moral leanings all paint a picture of the culture, and make it believable. And combining world details with tactile descriptions can really take immersion to new heights. But be careful not to overdo it and stumble into info-dump territory, providing long lists of details in an attempt to foster immersion can make a scene feel cluttered and worse, derail the story. Two to four details are usually enough to create that sense of realism in a scene.
Try it for yourself and watch your stories come alive.
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