Stories as Immersive Mental Simulations: How to Improve the Reader’s Experience of Your Novel

Anyone who’s created a computer programme – even the simplest one outputting ‘Hello World!’ to the screen – has experienced the joy of knowing you have the freedom to do whatever you like with it. You can change the text. You can change the colour. You can make it flash at intervals. This same power can be intoxicating when you sit down to create a novel. It’s your book. You, and your characters, can do whatever you want. All you have to do is write well, and the rest will follow.

However, you soon realise that your creation is less for your own benefit and more for the use of others. Similar to programmes, your novel should be designed with the end user in mind. It needs to be logically organised. It needs to be engineered so that it runs smoothly on the operating system it will be installed on. In the case of books, this is the reader’s mind.

But how do we better understand how that operating system works? If we think of stories as programmes, how are they run on readers’ minds?

According to author Lisa Cron, when we read, our minds treat stories as simulations of real life. These simulations are so intense that the regions of our brains responsible for processing real-life sights, sounds, tastes, and movement are activated when we’re absorbed in a gripping story.

In her book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers, Cron explains that stories have been key to humankind’s survival for millennia. We have evolved to crave stories because our brains reward us with dopamine hits when our curiosity is piqued. Curiosity helps us learn. Learning helps us survive better.

We use stories to predict outcomes in order to formulate strategies for coping with danger and uncertainty, and we can run stories in our minds as ultra-realistic simulations with no real-life consequences. They are therefore models used to experiment with different variables and data inputs. What can we, as authors, learn from this understanding of story in terms of structuring, creating, and editing our novels?

When we read, our minds treat stories as simulations of real life. These simulations are so intense that the regions of our brains responsible for processing real-life sights, sounds, tastes, and movement are activated when we’re absorbed in a gripping story.

The first and most important point is that good simulations are immersive. But how do we achieve immersion? What is it that really holds the reader’s attention? Can we take a thematic approach to building our simulations? Topicality is undoubtedly important. This is an area that literary agents and publishers are well versed in. But loading your manuscript with vampires or werewolves for the sake of it will do more harm than good to your simulation. It will do nothing to enhance its quality. Similarly, programming for immediacy and unrelenting pace will not be enough. Killing someone or hundreds of someones in the prologue, or having someone lose their job in sentence one, or ensuring an asteroid hits Earth or that the world is decimated by a virus (we’re full up on those already, thanks!) by paragraph three, will only hold the reader’s attention for so long.

Whatever it is that happens at the first plot point, we, as readers, want the story to allow our brain to do the job it’s so good at doing: anaesthetising us, as Cron says, to the real world outside. We want to be fully immersed in, and lobotomised by, story.

To do this, as authors we need to ensure we never break the story’s spellbinding hold on the reader’s attention. It seems simple enough, but in my work on manuscript evaluations, I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to focus on the author’s selection of detail or choice of where to go next following, or in the middle of, major plot points. In a historical novel, for example, a protagonist might be in the thick of battle only for the text to veer off into endless factual accounts of enemy positions, tactics, and military technologies. Such details feel designed to showcase the author’s knowledge. Or, in a thriller, a protagonist might be in the woods hiding from a killer only for the story to slip into a lengthy flashback that obliterates the building tension.

As Cron writes, ‘Readers are always on the lookout for patterns; to your reader, everything is either a setup, a payoff, or the road in between … Your first job is to zero in on the point your story is making … [This] allows you to do for your story what your cognitive unconscious automatically does for you: filter out unnecessary and distracting information.’

These kinds of interruptions, which cause the simulation to break, pull the reader back into the real world. Few authors realise just how temperamental readers’ operating systems are and how easy it is to break the spell of a simulation. Just one digression can cause readers’ eyes to glaze over.

We want to be fully immersed in, and lobotomised by, story.

This can easily be solved by the author constantly asking, while reading his or her own work, ‘Am I still engaged? Does anything here cause me to zone out?’ A simple trick is to become aware of the feeling you get when your attention wavers while reading other people’s writing. While reading a page, you suddenly might find that, by the end of it, you’ve completely zoned out. Train your mind to alert yourself whenever this happens, and try to identify the same feeling when reading your own work. Are there any parts of your story that you want to skip reading because, you tell yourself, ‘I know this part really well, so I don’t have to read it again’? If so, these might be the very parts that even you, on a subliminal level, don’t want to read. It is a subtle feeling, and it’s difficult to notice at first. But whenever it does happen, you will know that your simulation has lost its immersive quality.

But how do we ensure that texts remain immersive? Does this mean we should jump from one major, earth-shattering event to the next?

This brings us to the second aspect of immersive storytelling: attachment to character. We have all been told that any good story needs a strong protagonist. But what every good story really needs is strong attachment to a protagonist. The brain’s ability to simulate does half the work. ‘We climb inside the protagonist’s skin and become sensate, feeling what he feels,’ Cron writes. Indeed, what causes us to keep pressing the ‘forward’ button to allow Mario to keep running from stage to stage? Why do we ourselves die a little when he gets taken out by a Shellcreeper? It’s likely because we become him.

The trick is to build on this attachment by enhancing the reader’s emotional connection to the protagonist and his or her quest. This can be achieved by filtering everything through the protagonist’s view. Especially when writing in third person, we can’t have events simply happen to the protagonist. We need to feel what she or he is feeling when these things happen. We are now deepening the reader’s immersion.

We have all been told that any good story needs a strong protagonist. But what every good story really needs is strong attachment to a protagonist.

In one story I did a manuscript appraisal on, the plot hinged on an important scene in which a character was sexually violated. Following the event, because there was no strong attachment to any of the characters, there was no pause for reflection on the meaning of what had taken place. The victim seemed to bounce back extremely quickly from the trauma. The people in her life immediately set about hunting the perpetrator, while the victim’s partner, among them, didn’t make any attempt to check in on or give support to the victim. Readers were never given insight into how the characters were changed, and there was no reflection, as a result, on the societal issues at play. As a rule, readers are interested in the undiluted anger, passion, and pain of a story’s protagonist(s).

In another manuscript, the author tended to attach to multiple characters. We’d see events unfold through the eyes of onlookers and minor characters. This resulted in a strange, schizophrenic, disembodied feeling. Yet, it was as if the author was moving behind the pages, trying to get us to feel a certain way about things. Instead, this influence should be invisible. It should be based on a genuine attachment to the major characters that bolsters the power of the simulation.

An example, albeit not from books, of successful attachment to protagonist, is in the 2014 survival-horror video game, Alien: Isolation. In this first-person shooter, players become engineer Amanda Ripley who, thrown from one bad situation to the next, has to outsmart an intuitive and unpredictable Alien (not to mention go around fixing blown transformers like an Eskom maintenance person, since the recurring issue seems to be the space ship’s power going out). What makes the immersion so powerful is the game’s timing. Unlike other games, which emphasise pace, Alien: Isolation slows things to the point of the player being immersed in what feels like real time. As a result, we get to experience the fear that Ripley feels when, hiding in a locker and looking out through its air vent, she sees the Alien slink past, and we have to hold our breath and wait for long enough so that it doesn’t detect us. When she can’t hold her breath any longer, Ripley’s vision flashes red and she sounds like she’s about to explode (is this what Eskom employees do when not replacing transformers?). This makes the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. The immersion is unbroken.

The third aspect of immersion is the use of imagery. Any good simulation, and immersive story by extension, is built using powerful, specific imagery.

Cron, relating her research into mental simulations, writes, ‘As Antonio Damasio says, “The entire fabric of a conscious mind is created from the same cloth – images.” Neuroscientist VS Ramachandran agrees: “Humans excel at visual imagery. Our brains evolved this ability to create an internal mental picture or model of the world in which we can rehearse forthcoming actions, without the risks or penalties of doing them in the real world.”’

Any good simulation, and immersive story by extension, is built using powerful, specific imagery.

By contrast, we don’t do so well with half-formed pictures. This tends to arise when authors lazily fall back on automatic writing and descriptions because, in the heat of composition, they don’t take the time to thoroughly think about the image they are forming. They therefore neglect to tailor details so that they achieve specificity. Consider phrases such as ‘fear squeezed her heart’ and ‘the familiar scent of his body’. So much more can be done here. Familiar in what, specific ways? And what does that familiarity mean to the character? These are missed opportunities to evoke sensory imagery. Each line should be carefully considered and personalised in terms of context, to strengthen attachment to characters, to infuse the language with emotion and uniqueness, and to enhance the simulation.

Finally, if we consider stories as programmes and mental simulations, how do we perform quality control?

If story is so intrinsic to us, so key to how we understand the world around us, and if indeed we are all ‘wired for story’, how is it that we struggle to tell where our novels have gone wrong? Why do we have blind spots when it comes to the structure, pacing, and flow of our stories? Why do we battle to tell why our stories just aren’t that interesting to others?

As Cron writes, ‘Evolution dictates that the first job of any good story is to completely anesthetize the part of our brain that questions how it is creating such a compelling illusion of reality.’ We are similarly sucked in by our own stories and our ideas about their quality. We struggle to imagine how they might be experienced as mental simulations by other people loading them for the first time. We are doomed by what is known as ‘the curse of knowledge’, a concept coined by Chip and Dan Heath. As related in Cron’s book: ‘“Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”’

So, if we can’t ‘uninstall’ our stories in our own minds, how do we overcome the curse of knowledge? The answer lies in developing a higher-order ability to not only run the story simulation in our minds, but to simultaneously run it as it will be simulated by readers. This is a simulation of a simulation. It is a skill that editors develop through years of practice. But it is also an ability that is ingrained in each of us. It is as simple as always stopping and sceptically asking, ‘How will the reader make sense of this? Does the reader have enough context to understand what I’m trying to say here? Will the reader still be immersed in the simulation by this point? What could I cut or change in order to keep the reader engaged?’

As Cron notes, ‘What makes good writers different? We can hold in our minds what we know and what our characters believe and at the same time keep track of what our readers believe, sometimes to the sixth or seventh level. Sounds like a video game, doesn’t it?’

This ability was identified, according to Cron, by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar as key to answering the question, ‘Why are good writers so rare?’ Dunbar found that ‘intentionality’, the ‘ability to infer what someone else is thinking’, is one of the things that sets great writers apart.

How do we overcome the curse of knowledge? The answer lies in developing a higher-order ability to not only run the story simulation in our minds, but to simultaneously run it as it will be simulated by readers. This is a simulation of a simulation.

This is a skill that can be practised and honed over time. It can also be developed by asking others what they think, taking their suggestions on board, and building this new understanding into your approach.

To conclude, it is magical to think that we can dream up simulations in our minds, and that, through the medium of words, which have the power to create beautiful tapestries of woven images, we can share these dreams with others so that they can experience them as simulations. This is a unique form of telepathy that uses the simplest of technologies: the minds we are gifted with. In spite of all the immersive media invented on a daily basis, this means of sharing simulations through writing remains undeniably powerful and, whether on screen or in print, will continue to thrive. As someone once said, ‘The book is the killer app of the ages.’ How do you plan to use this wonderful gift? (Hint: write a book so good that it kills people.)

Published by Wesley Thompson

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