The magic circle – stories and immersion

Immersion is vital to enjoying a story on its own terms. That sense of surrendering to the imaginary world, living within its confines, accepting its rules, buying into what’s at stake. And one concept that’s crucial to this is the magic circle.

The magic of immersion

The magic circle is the idea of a special space, a set of circumstances that supports an audience in setting aside the real world and immersing themselves in a story. It’s the pool of light around a campfire, the darkness of the cinema, the moment when the curtains are pulled back revealing the stage. Here’s the folks at Extra Credits explaining it in more detail:

The magic of writing

Readers may have their own space to help with their immersion, whether it’s curled up on a corner of the sofa, sitting with headphones on in a crowded tube train, or lying in bed with just the light a small lamp.

But as writers we have no control over that space. We have to create the magic circle through the words that we set down on the page. Any time we break the flow of the story, that we remind readers that they’re reading a story rather than living it, we break the circle. And the loss of immersion that creates can lead to dissatisfied readers.

But its not just about avoiding breaking the circle – it’s about building it in the first place. We have to create a virtual space that draws the reader in, that replaces their thoughts with story thoughts, their emotions with story emotions. We have to make a circle so compelling that they won’t drift out of it and back to the ordinary world.

Too clever by half

I think this is part of why I’ve not been immersed in some of the books I’ve read recently, ones that relied on particular intellectual conceits. Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery is a prime example of this, being as it was a stitching together of fragmented history. But Samuel R. Delaney’s The Einstein Intersection also suffered from it. For readers already immersed in the mythology Delaney was using, the work tapped right into their thoughts, making it all the more immersive. They filled in gaps and connections that Delaney didn’t make, and the fact that they were doing some of the work for themselves added to the immersion. This wasn’t somebody trying to lure them into the circle – it was them stepping forwards to create their own.

But I had to step back to make those connections, and that disrupted my immersion in the story just as surely as the fragments from Delaney’s journal did. This wasn’t my sort of circle, and I wasn’t immersed.

Yes, but…

My thoughts on this are still half formed. After all, I found some of Pratchett’s early work compelling despite the flow-breaking footnotes, and I love the intellectual playfulness of Tom Stoppard’s plays even when they break out of the traditional circle. How does such fourth wall breaking work fit into the model of the magic circle? Is it making a different sort of circle, or embracing audiences in another way?

Odds are I’ll be coming back to this one in a week or two. In the meantime I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on the subject – just leave a comment below.

Clever vs engaging – Delany’s Einstein Intersection

An award winning sci-fi novel that’s now several decades old, Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection isn’t the sort of book I would normally pick up. The fact that I did is a tribute to the value of joining a reading group – in my case the Sword and Laser group on Goodreads. Because this took me away from the sort of reading I’m normally comfortable with and has given me some food for thought in the process.

Einstein Intersection

About the book

The Einstein Intersection is the story of Lobey, a member of a race who have taken up residence on Earth after humanity’s departure. Living amid the remains of human genetics and civilisation, his society is one facing difficulties as mutation creates growing numbers of unusual people, people who would previously have been locked away from society for the wider good. Following a tragedy, Lobey sets off on a journey that is more mythological quest than science fiction speculation, in which characters become as much symbols as people.

A postmodern patchwork

The Einstein Intersection came out before the triumph of post-modernism and its fetish for playful reinvention. But it feels like a product of that movement, a book than stitches together elements of science fictional speculation, fantasy quest and metaphor made manifest. It’s the sort of writing that feels clever more often than it does emotionally engaging, and where you feel like you’d get much more out of it if you had a guide to explain its references. That’s not to say that it’s not enjoyable as a straight up story, but rather that it’s somewhat fractured and disconnected, like King’s The Gunslinger.

The writing is often beautiful, with neat little poetic phrases and unusual characters. There are quotes at the start of the chapters, and presumably they are meant to help pick out the theme, as such quotes often do. But unlike other such cases I’ve read, it often wasn’t clear to me how the quotes were relevant, so most of what they did was disrupt the flow.

Which, I suspect, may have been half the point.

The problem of head and heart

Any writer has to balance the interests of emotional and intellectual engagement when reaching out to an audience. A book that’s all emotion, full of action and passion, can be lacking in new ideas or intellectual challenge. On the other end of the scale a book that’s all about intellect and being clever, like Eco’s Prague Cemetery, can sometimes fail to engage intellectually.

Think Davies era Dr Who vs Moffat’s recent work on the show.

It’s a matter of reader taste where on this spectrum you like your books, but for me The Einstein Intersection ended up a little too far into being trying to be clever while not making it clear in the text what the cleverness was about. Delany clearly wanted the reader to be thinking about the text and what it represented, but that distracted me from living inside the story and engaging with Lobey’s journey. I enjoyed the reading experience because of the fine prose but ended up dissatisfied with the story. Which is a shame because, describing it like I’ve done above, it sounds like the sort of thing I should love.

And the lesson is…

I guess what I’ve learned from this one is that references and structures are all very well but they have their problems. Building a story around the myth of Orpheus is a fine idea in theory, but if your audience isn’t familiar with that myth, or isn’t on the lookout for it, then they may miss the context, and without that context your story can lose its power. And if your writing keeps drawing attention to what it’s doing as writing then it’s going to disrupt the emotional flow.

By all means write something clever, I like clever. But try to make something engaging as well.

So, have any of the rest of you read this or Delaney’s other books? And what did you think?