The Two Pillars of Storytelling

"The Rules of Writing" are all about the reader's experience


By David G Brown


As a developmental editor, I have reviewed many manuscripts and drafted countless feedback reports for my clients. In doing so, I came to realize that all my feedback fits into two main categories: immersion and emotional draw.

Immersion: Sinking Readers into Your Story World

Immersion is the quality of a piece of fiction that transports readers into the story world, making them feel as though they are actually there. Stephen King refers to this as an act of “telepathy”—authors have an image of a scene in their mind which they need to recreate in the minds of their readers. To create and maintain immersion, authors must provide consistent and persistent sensory details, especially as they relate to the protagonist's moment-to-moment experience of each scene.

What Breaks a Reader’s Immersion

Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

There are many elements that can pull readers out of the story and break immersion. Some of these include:

Expectation gaps: a dearth of sensory details about a scene or setting can cause readers to fill in the blanks in their own imagination, only to have their expectations shattered when a significant detail is revealed later. For example, a scene opens with two characters speaking, then on the next page it’s revealed that there is a third person in the room.

Lack of detail when describing action: if readers can’t follow what is meant to be going on, they will quickly lose immersion. What is happening in a scene, where it is happening, and who is involved should all be clear to readers. (On the other hand, why something is happening can often be left as a question mark for readers to figure out later as the story unfolds.)

Overly long descriptions: sensory detail is crucial to immersion, but if descriptions go on and on, readers can grow bored.

Showcasing narrative context over the protagonist’s moment-to-moment experience: when exposition shifts into deep explanations about context, it can be difficult for readers to imagine the characters, actions, and story world. Try not to take readers too far away from the scene.

Minimalist dialog: if there are few dialog tags, actions, or descriptions, readers can lose track of who is speaking. The moment they stop to wonder who a line belongs to, they have lost immersion.

Info dumps: glaring explanations of backstory, world building, or author research (especially in historical fiction) can quickly break immersion.

Language: if the prose is too flowery or the vocabulary too difficult, readers might start thinking about the prose more than what is happening in the story. This, however, relates to the target audience. Poetic prose can be a source of emotional draw if the reader is in love with the voice. 

Pacing: if things are moving too quickly or too slowly, readers can feel either left behind or bored. Again, whatever causes a reader to think about anything other than the unfolding story will impact their immersion.

Mistakes: typos, grammatical errors, close word repetition, and overuse of filtering can pull readers out of the story, which is why line editing and proofreading are crucial to a novel’s success.

Building and Maintaining Immersion Effectively

To build and maintain immersion effectively, authors must focus on rendering the protagonist’s moment-to-moment experience of each scene. This means making sure that the setting, characters, and actions are all well described, with consistent and persistent sensory details. Asides that demonstrate character and give us the protagonist’s emotional reflections on what has just happened, what is happening, or what might happen next are also helpful. The most important thing is to make sure that what is happening is clear above all else.

Emotional Draw: A Deeper Exploration of a Reader's Psychology

Emotional draw or engagement is what keeps readers invested in the protagonist’s journey and anticipating what will happen next—it’s what keeps them turning pages.

How do you keep readers reading?

So, what makes a reader emotionally invested in a story? To answer this question, we need to delve into the reader's psychology. The first component is a protagonist with a clear and specific narrative goal. The protagonist's goal should be something that the reader can understand and empathize with, whether it's rebuilding an old friendship, saving a family business from bankruptcy, solving a murder case, or thwarting a villain bent on world domination.

For a reader to be interested in the story, they need to connect with the protagonist. This connection can be established through the protagonist's struggles and desires, their inner thoughts and emotions, and their reactions to the events of the story. The reader should feel as though they are experiencing the story alongside the protagonist.

The next step is to make the reader care about the protagonist's fate. This is accomplished by making the stakes significant and personal. If the protagonist's goal is something they desperately want or need, and if something terrible will happen if they fail, then the reader will care about whether they succeed or not.

Trajectory: The Connection Between the Inciting Incident and the Climax

Trajectory is created by the protagonist’s causal journey between inciting incident and climax, and it is an essential part of the story’s structure. The inciting incident is the event that sets the story in motion and crystalizes the protagonist’s narrative goal. The climax is the high point of the story, where the protagonist either succeeds or fails in their quest.

Between the inciting incident and the climax is the rising action. These are the challenges in which the protagonist strives and struggles, both in terms of the actions they take toward their goal and their reactions to obstacles encountered along the way. This is where the protagonist's determination, resourcefulness, and resilience are put to the test.

The obstacles should also be unexpected and challenging. The protagonist should be kept on their toes, just as the reader should be kept guessing what will happen next.

Tension and Anticipation: Creating Uncertainty for Readers

Building tension keeps readers turning pages

Tension and anticipation are closely related, and both are essential for keeping readers invested in the story. Tension creates uncertainty, and uncertainty creates a desire in readers to know what will happen next.

Tension can be created in many ways, such as through the protagonist's struggles, the obstacles they face, the risks they take, or the uncertainty of the outcome. The tension should be consistent throughout the story, building up to the climax when the reader's anticipation reaches its peak.

The climax is where the reader finds out whether the protagonist will succeed or fail, and this is where the tension should be at its highest. If the reader has been invested in the protagonist's journey and has been left in suspense for the entire story, the climax should be satisfying and resolve the tension that has been generated by all the rising action.

Stakes and Character Connection: The Key to Emotional Draw

Readers need to connect with the protagonist in order to care about their fate and be invested in the story. They don't necessarily have to love the protagonist, but they must be interested and invested in their journey.

If readers are to care about whether the protagonist succeeds or fails, the stakes must be high. The implications of the protagonist failing to achieve their narrative goal should be significant and personal. If the protagonist cares deeply about what they want and is at clear risk of failure, readers will be invested in the outcome.

In Conclusion

The two pillars of storytelling, immersion and emotional draw, work on two levels. On one hand, ignoring these pillars completely can result in a story that few readers will be able to sink into and enjoy. However, once the basics are in place, what makes a novel truly immersive and engaging will vary greatly from reader to reader. Some may find emotional draw in the poetry of language in literary fiction, while others may be drawn in by the elements of a fantastical world. It's important for authors to understand their target audience and what will resonate with them. Ultimately, the fundamentals of immersion and emotional draw are at the core of what makes a story captivating and memorable.

David Griffin Brown (Septimus Brown) is the founder and senior editor at Darling Axe Editing

David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

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