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.

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Story Structure vs. Reader Experience

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Story Structure vs. Reader Experience.

When I revise my work, or when I’m editing someone else’s work, there are two main elements I consider.

The first is story structure:  what the story is.

The second is reader experience.  This is how the story is told.

Structure first.

When I revise, the first thing I do is a quick read through.  I look at what’s working, and what isn’t, just in general notes.

From there, I look at how the story is constructed.  I double-check my plot outline.  If I’m working with someone who is revising, a student or coaching client, then I’ll have them create a chart of every scene.

I’ll double check that the characters all want something.  That what they want is big; that the reason for what they want is understandable and urgent.  That the obstacles in the way of the want are equal to, or even larger than, the scope of what they want.

I’ll then ensure that each scene is essentially a mini version of the larger story, until I get to the resolution scenes.

When I’m satisfied that the story itself is sound — that the characters are both consistent and well developed, that the plot line demonstrates that arc in a satisfactory way with an escalating conflict — then I’m able to move forward to reader experience.

“What am I trying to accomplish with this scene?”

Scenes are the basic building blocks of any story, and reader experience is built scene by scene.

When you’re working with structure, you’re looking at the macrocosm.  When you’re working with reader experience, you’re going microcosm.  It’s holographic:  each small piece reflects the whole.

Confident that you know where your story is going and how it works, you’re going to look at each scene and ask:  how can this scene support the story?

What does the genre expect?  Do you play to expectations, or experiment?  And why do you want to?  How will that make the story better for the reader?

Why are you choosing this POV character instead of another one?  Does his external voice (dialogue) match his internal voice (exposition?)

Why have you chosen this point of view?  Do you want the closeness and immediacy of first person?  Or the almost clinical distance of third — not deep third, but more “narrative” third — or even omniscient?

How can you get the scene to accomplish more than one thing?  How can you layer the scene, multi-tasking both character development, conflict escalation, and maybe some subtext and theme?

Is the scene anchored?  Can the setting help accomplish, say, setting emotion or theme?

Is the scene visually boring?  Can you add something — Elizabeth Berg calls it a Talking Head Avoidance Device — that is interesting in and of itself while still imparting crucial information?  Instead of sitting at a coffee house talking about what’s happening, can they be at a dance-a-thon?  Or working out at the gym?  Or at target practice?  How can you shift this around?


You’ll also look at how the scenes work together:  from micro back to macro.

Do you have too many scenes in one character’s POV, so that another POV character essentially disappears?  (See Happy Days, where Richie’s older brother goes upstairs for skis… and never comes back down.)   Is everyone getting enough screen time?   If you have one scene with a non-major character’s POV, why?  And do you think the reader will appreciate it for what it is, or be frustrated at getting close to a character that essentially disappears without an arc?

Do you have too many action scenes back to back, so the reader is essentially “falling asleep at the edge of his seat?”

Do you have repetitive conflict?  Or repetitive anything, for that matter?

Does each scene carry you into the next one?  Or is there a “stopping” point that’s essentially a fat speed bump in your novel?

Sequence matters.

One of my best friends has to polish each scene before she can move forward in writing a story.  I’ll be honest — this baffles the hell out of me.  In my mind, getting the story laid out is like framing a house.  If I polished before I got the mechanics worked out, it’d be like getting one room framed, putting in all the stuff, wallpapering and carpeting and painting… and then ripping a lot of it out, because I realize I’d gotten the electrical wrong.

Of course, people vary. If it’s your process, you need to honor what works for you.

But if you’ve been flailing a little in the revision process, and you’re not sure how to proceed, I’d recommend trying it this way:

Zoom out:  structure.

Zoom in:  scene work.

Toggle:  Scene sequence.

Every element supports the other.  And when you’re finished, like an impressionist painting, it will create a cohesive whole.