They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I’ve always thought that is grossly unfair to words. A picture might get details you’d need a thousand words to capture fully, but with well-chosen words you can do so much more. In a thousand words I could tell you the history of a world, or capture every detail of an exploded moment. In a thousand words I can transport you into someone’s head to show you exactly what they are thinking as they stand on their parent’s grave, or I could show you their body language so you can see their sorrow. A thousand words is enough to pull a character apart, lay them bare for the reader, and when you put them back together the reader will understand them in a way they never could have from a photograph or even a video.
When done right, the reader now is immersed in your story. And when done wrong, you won’t even have the weight of a picture behind the words.
Now, after a brief interruption to talk about the MCU’s villain problems, we’re back to the third and final installment of our questions you should ask your beta readers. Immersion is the third of the major critical elements that holds a novel together, with Characters and Analysis (which is really the structural elements of the story) being the other two. If you are able to get those three down, you’re going to have a solid book. Things like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are subjective qualities, but if you can get these elements right, it would be hard for someone to claim the book isn’t well written.
Immersion is also the hardest elements of these three. Character and structural elements are usually things we can point to fairly naturally – we love Stranger Things’ Steve Harrington because he underwent a relatable character arc and then became the coolest soccer mom on the planet, we hate Jar Jar Binks because of everything about him, The plot of Spider Man 3 is a mess because none of the villains have clear motivation, while Mistborn is a masterpiece of world building because of how wonderfully consistent it is throughout.
You see where I’m going with this. You can point to solid elements that make for good characterization or hold up well under further analysis. But if you’re not getting immersed in the story, it’s harder to point out why. It’s just like a horror movie not being scary, or a comedy not being funny – it’s partially a matter of taste.
However, there are absolutely questions you can ask your Beta Readers to help you figure out how you’re doing with Immersion.
Here they are.
What was the most immersive scene? What took you out of the novel?
These questions are two sides of the same coin. You, as the author, are always immersed in your story – you see it happening in your head, you know what the characters are feeling and thinking and doing at all times. It is extremely hard to figure out where someone who isn’t you will be immersed in your story.
That’s where these questions come in.
Knowing where immersion was strongest is going to help you carry that to other scenes in the book. Ask follow up questions – why was that scene immersive? What drew you in and stuck with you? What could I do to make it even better? Finding out what you did right is every bit as important as knowing where you went wrong, because you can keep doing that in future parts.
On the flip side, knowing where it was weakest is going to be where you want to spend the most revision time. Similar follow up questions – ask the same ones as before but reversed. Find out why it broke the reader’s immersion. Were you showing instead of telling? Were your verbs flat and bland? Did you substitute adverbs for description? (Believe me, at some point we are going to have a talk about adverbs and using them well.)
There is a possibility that they’ll answer “I don’t know.” If they can’t identify a particularly immersive scene, you need to follow up with asking why to find out what you’re doing that breaks immersion. If they can’t find a place they were taken out of the novel, ask some probing questions to make sure they aren’t trying to be nice. Some of the follow up questions here are really going to help with that.
Where did you feel the most tension?
A good novel has conflict, and good conflict generates tension. Like some of the questions from previous sections, you probably already have a good idea of where you’d like this answer to be. However, unlike “who is the protagonist?” and “what is the climax?” a reader giving you a different answer than what you expect might not be grounds for a major rewrite.
Let’s go for an example here. In Weird Theology, where I was aiming for maximum tension was the climactic battle of the book, the big showdown at the end. However, that’s not where people were feeling the most tension. They were feeling it during the battle that had preceded it, the one that took place in a hotel. During that fight, alliances were shifting and it wasn’t clear who was going to be the victor. Part of that was because of how I wrote it, but part of that was also because it was the mid-point fight, and readers know that’s where things most often can go wrong.
While it did give me some suggestions for how to improve the finale and add tension there, I didn’t completely change the book to shift the tension points. I liked that scene having the most tension. Like the last point in the immersion section, this is a place where it’s important that you know, so you can decide if you want to keep it that way.
This also is a good chance to find out if your book is lacking in tension. I’m writing a series about gods with insane levels of power, so that’s a very real concern I have to worry about throughout, but even if you’re writing a book you should be making sure the reader is feeling tension. In a romance, there should be romantic tension. In a coming of age story, tension could happen between the child and his parents. In a thriller, tension will make or break the story the same way “is it scary” will for horror. If the reader can’t find a place where they felt a lot of tension, you need to expand your conflict and weave it into the narrative better.
What was the part you wanted to skim? When were you bored?
Let’s be honest without ourselves – we’re interested in everything we write. If we weren’t interested in writing it, we’d gloss over it, same way a reader would skim it. However. Just because we are interested in writing it doesn’t mean the reader is interested in reading it. And nothing will kill immersion faster than boredom.
This is something even big-name authors should be asking. A particular example comes to mind from the Wheel of Time series. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s one of the big fantasy epics of our time, so large the creator couldn’t finish it in their lifetime. Books 1-5 are some of my favorite fantasy novels of all time, although they haven’t aged well. Books 6-10 are a study in rapidly declining quality. I’ve heard some of the later books, especially the ones written by Brandon Sanderson to finish the series, are good. I haven’t care enough to find out.
One particular chapter sticks out to me in that regard, and this question could have helped salvage a series that was going to hell in a handbasket. There was an entire chapter that was devoted to shopping. That’s not an inherently bad thing – shopping scenes can be a good way to world build organically while also allowing for character development. However, what Mr. Jordan did instead was drone on endlessly about dresses. A beta reader would have been more than able to tell him to stop it. Do not do that. No one wants that, and it’s very good to know if you got hung up on some detail that literally no one will care about besides you.
Where did you get confused?
Confusion is one of the biggest ways immersion can get broken. This can help you find where your plot started to break down, or where characters began to act nonsensically. It also can also help you find places where your sentence structure broke down or you worded things poorly.
To choose an example – when tired, I wrote this sentence into Strange Cosmology. “Everyone alive was dead.” My editor does not know what I meant by that, and neither do I. I think I was trying to say “everyone who had been there was now dead,” and just worded it in the most confusing way humanly possible – and it didn’t even make sense then, because there were still alive people in the scene. Actual alive people, not dead alive people.
I’m just going to let that sentence stand as a testament to the dangers of writing when sleep deprived.
Beyond that, this question can also uncover larger problems with your story or plot. To make up an example, let’s say you were writing a story about an underwater city and the people who live there. You established early on that these people breathe air and must return to the underwater city to get more air, or surface. Then you write a scene where a character is held prisoner by the Shark King, and you forgot to mention how they get air. Even though you know perfectly well the Shark King is working with a cabal of Dolphin Wizards and thus has air pockets throughout Fin Castle, if you haven’t mentioned that yet, this is where your beta reads will catch those problems.
What were some things you want more of?
This is a great place to find missed opportunities.
When I handed the first draft of Weird Theology to my editor, she wanted two things. Well, that’s a lie, she wanted me to fix dozens of things, but two things that matter for this anecdote. One was more of my protagonist’s history. Another was an object I mentioned, the Reliquary of Lost Souls, which shows people what their life would have been like if they took more chances. In the first draft, it was mentioned and then the characters moved on, never to see it again. There was no plan at the time, it was just a thing that I introduced as world building and then walked away from.
My editor pointed out that I was wasting a huge chance here.
So, after working with her, the final draft has Ryan going into the Reliquary and in the process also gives the reader more backstory – a win-win scenario. It’s also my second favorite new scene in the entire book, the first being a chance to actually see Moloch, Ryan, and Crystal interact in an extremely pivotal moment that I’d just yadda-yaddaed over earlier.
This is also a chance to find out if you have characters the readers love watching but don’t use often enough, or if you gloss over something that you didn’t think would be interesting, but left readers wanting more.
What seemed contrived? What seemed gratuitous?
You’ll note the answer to these questions could be ‘nothing,’ but by phrasing it this way, it’s less likely people will say ‘no’ when they have an answer.
Contrivance kills immersion because it feels to the reader like the thing only exists to further the plot. It can be a McGuffin, it can be a fight between characters – whatever it is, it reminds the reader that they are reading a book, and the author wanted to move the plot further. That doesn’t mean you need to remove the contrived scene, but instead might need to go back and set things up better to make sure they aren’t contrived. You can also find plot holes that actually impact enjoyment you might have missed otherwise.
Gratuitous scenes, on the other hand, remind the reader that they are reading a book, and the author really wants to talk about one thing. It could be sword fighting techniques, or a sex scene, or a character being tortured. Whatever it was, immersion gets broken because it’s clear you are just doing something because it appeals to you, not because it’s what works in the actual story you’re writing.
The biggest take away from all these posts is two-fold: one is that Beta Readers are a great tool you absolutely should be using as part of your publishing journey. The other is that this is absolutely, at the end of the day, your story. You don’t have to make changes based on anything they suggest, but you should listen to their feedback and consider it carefully. They want the same thing you do – the best possible book. Treasure them.
And seriously, don’t write a Jar-Jar Binks.
Any questions you would add? Any you would remove? Let me know in the comments! And why not pick up my free book? It combines the two best words in the English language – “Book” and “Free.”