Is Your Story An Experience?

I’ve been reading a book on game design (not because I want to design a game necessarily, but because that’s how I roll) and the author made a really fascinating observation.  When you’re designing a game, you need to think about the experience you want the player to have.

The game itself is not the experience.  It’s just the vehicle the player uses to get to the experience.  For example, if a player wants to experience challenge, mental agility, and the triumph of solving a puzzle, he might choose something brain-bending like Portal.  If he wants to let out aggression, a first person shooter like Halo might do the trick.  If he wants to be immersed in another world, a lush role playing game with a lot of world-building, like Skyrim, might be the ticket.

You can’t control the player’s experience: you can only create elements that will hopefully contribute to the experience.  That said, it’s not something you want to ignore, either.

What do you want your reader to experience?

Think about your favorite books.  How do you feel when you read them?

Engrossed, I’d imagine.  When you read, you’re immersed in the novel and the world.  That’s the result of craft:  interesting world-building, smooth prose (so you don’t get yanked out of the story by confusing sentence structure, continuity errors, or typos) and steady pacing with consistent, continual hooks that keep the pages turning.

If you’re reading thrillers or horror, maybe you experience the slight adrenaline spike and tingle of nerves.  Maybe you’re affected to the point where you’re jumping at shadows.

That’s thanks to development of a persuasive, plausible and tangible fear.  The author creates a fear so empathetic, a situation so plausible and easy to envision (even if fantastic) that you, as a reader, can easily put yourself in that situation in your mind.  (On a side note, they say that people will wince more when they see someone get slashed with a knife on screen than when they see someone get shot, mostly because almost everyone has cut themselves with a blade at some point.  A lot fewer people have felt a bullet wound.)

If you’re reading romance, then maybe you get swept away by the passion, and you actively remember/re-live the dopamine high of falling in love.  Even if the situation isn’t necessarily “believable” (how many sheik princes are running around looking for brides, for example) the situation is still something the reader can and will willingly absorb.  The more important element is the character behavior.  It doesn’t matter if he’s a prince or a Navy Seal or even a superhero.  If he’s in love with the heroine, if he is devoted to her and behaves in ways that show his love (sacrifice, caring, etc.) then the reader can experience the sensations of falling-in-love.

Turn it up to 11.

If you’ve read anything like Donald Maass’s wonderful book “The Break-out Novel Workbook” you’ve read the advice:  people want fiction to be larger-than-life.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that every heroine needs to be a size zero and every hero needs to be able to bench press a bus.  What it does mean is the emotions experienced need to be amplified.

Everyone can be mad at a guy who pulled a love-’em-and-leave-’em.  Not everyone will then hit said guy with her car.

Everyone can feel frustrated in a job.  Not everyone will quit that job to start his own company.

Everyone can fall in love. Not everyone will be put in a situation where they’re forced to choose between family and lover.

Plan carefully, build thoughtfully.

These experiences don’t just happen in a first draft.  It takes careful thought, getting to know your characters, thinking about how you want your story to develop.  It takes looking at every completed scene, and asking “how can I make this richer?”

Not louder, not bigger.  A rich experience is thoughtful, layered, and evocative.

Whatever other issues I may have with the guy, John Locke has an interesting writing approach: in every book, he tries to include what he calls “water cooler” scenes… the scenes that readers will talk about.  Just off the top of my head, I can think of the scene in The Hunger Games when Katniss volunteers to spare her twelve year old sister from an almost certain death sentence.

Or, instead of a water cooler scene, there’s a standout character:  Stephanie Plum, Hannibal Lecter, or Odd Thomas stand out, for example, by dint of their very personalities.

When people talk about your book, what scene is going to stand out?  When they mention it to other people, what’s going to stand out?

Then let it go.

I mentioned in a previous post on “showing not telling” that some authors go too heavily into exposition because they’re trying to control every aspect of the reader experience.

You can have all the best intentions in the world.  You can certainly plan, craft, build, polish.  But at the end of the day, you’re going to need to trust that your reader will get what you’re sending.

With the meteoric rise of digital self-publishing, there are more stories than ever to choose from.  How do you feel your book stands out?

 If you found this helpful, click below for more craft posts.

Star Wars:  Plot Points in Action

Story Structure vs. Reader Experience

Plot Help:  How to Blow Sh*t Up

4 Replies to “Is Your Story An Experience?”

  1. Perfect timing, since I’m trying to make each scene richer at this very moment. I like Locke’s water cooler scene. Funny, several pop right into my head for books two and three–scenes that several betas have mentioned. But I’m not so sure I have one that pops like that with a preponderance of readers for book one. I think I know which one ‘should’ pop. So I’ll have to see what I can do about getting it to 11. 🙂

    Thanks for having perfect timing, and for your great perspective on this revision, Cathy! (And not just in this post.)

    1. No problem! This is definitely a question for the revision stage. I can think of a few potential water cooler scenes in your work — can’t wait to see how it develops!

  2. As always, you’ve made some great RL connections!
    Years ago, my daughters and I played Pharaoh (computer/video game) and once I began to write, I realized that experience had taught me a lot. Creating a virtual ancient civilization from the ground up mimics the birth of a real culture– a thriving population. You can’t get a better, or more balanced world building education. 😉

    1. Game theory is actually fascinating… I’d recommend reading about it to any writer. It just changes the way you think about things. And I agree, world building games like Pharoah or Sim City or whatever are perfect microcosm experiments to show you how to think about all the aspects of a world — how one thing can affect everything! 🙂

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