When the movie Avatar came out, I went to see it and wrote a little review on it. I said then that it transported its viewer to another world better than any previous science fiction film—and that because of that, it would be considered by many youngsters to be the “best science fiction film of all time.” Mind you, the dialog was just okay, the characters rather stock, and the themes were actually overdone and cliché. In fact, the only thing that I could praise about the film was the care put into the worldbuilding—which was remarkable—and the film went on to become the best seller of all time.
This has been true in a number of genres for written works, too. He who builds the best world, wins. Thus, we see that books like Dune, Lord of the Rings, and Gone with the Wind, which all relied heavily on worldbuilding, are each classics in their fields.
There are several ways to “transport” a reader, to take them out of their seats. Let’s explore a few:
We can transport our reader to another world by creating a powerful illusion of another world. This requires us to brainstorm the world—its geography, history, cultures, peoples, plants, animals, politics, languages, magic, technology, and so on. But it also requires us to describe it well using sights, sounds, smells, and touch, along with the protagonist’s thoughts and emotions, so that the reader feels the world come alive around him.
Transport into Another Character
When a reader enters the world of your book, you are in effect asking the reader to don a new persona—that of the protagonist(s) of your story. Your reader will take on that new persona easily if a) the protagonist wishes others well, is in the service of others, b) the protagonist is in pain, so that the reader empathizes, c) the protagonist has a characteristic that makes him admirable in some way, so that we want to be him.
We often read characters who have interesting abilities, which make them intriguing, but they’ve got nothing else going for them. You can have a powerful bounty hunter as a protagonist for example, and many readers will allow themselves to become transported simply because of the novelty of feeling like a badass, but it could be so much more if you take into account the points listed above.
Transport into a Conflict
We can become transported into your novel’s conflict in a number of ways. It may be that the conflict has wide appeal, that it is something many of us have dealt with. For example, if your protagonist has financial worries, most people will relate. If your protagonist has health concerns, your readers will relate.
In fact, a story can’t really begin until you have a protagonist, in a world, with a conflict. Looking back on the stories that engaged me most over the years, I realize now that a major conflict occurred in the first scene. For example, Star Wars opened with a huge spaceship being attacked by a star destroyer. Nice conflict there. In Raiders of the Lost Arc, Indiana Jones goes into a cave filled with tarantulas and booby traps. In The Road Warrior, Mad Max is being chased by a powerful gang of cutthroats. All three movies had me riveted immediately.
Conflicts can be interesting in many ways. The conflict can be unusually severe, for example. Let’s say you’ve got a woman whose husband is cheating on her. That’s bad. What if the husband is cheating on her with her own mother? That’s even worse. And what if, as the story goes on, we discover that mom is planning on offing the daughter? And then we learn that the husband is really just using the mom to off the daughter so that he can run off with his wife’s younger sister and collect the family fortune?
Sometimes a conflict can be engaging—look for ways to make the conflict universal, so that the reader sees how it relates to his or her own life. In such a case, at some point the conflict might morph into the “theme” of the story, so that we consider the conflict of “cheating” and how it hurts both us and others on a larger scale.
However, note that when a conflict is too small, the reader quickly loses interest. If a protagonist breaks her fingernail and spends three pages crying about it, most readers will leave. Conversely, if the protagonist is put into too much pain, the reader may leave. You want a balanced conflict—one that is powerful but where the reader feels there is hope for a successful conclusion.
At the very least, I think that if you want to engross a reader—get her to the point where she forgets she’s reading, forgets where she is, and forgets even for a bit who she is—you need to figure out how to transport her into your fictive world and protagonist, and encourage her to accept the burden of your imaginary conflict.
This weekend Dave will be in Hollywood, teaching at the Writers of the Future writers conference alongside Kevin J. Anderson, Orson Scott Card and more!
Thanks to your support, Zombies Need Brains’ recent Kickstarter project reached their funding goals! As a result, not only will one of my stories be featured in their upcoming anthologies, YOURS COULD BE, TOO. As they reach their stretch goals, more authors will have the chance to have their stories featured in the anthologies.