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.

Passionate Writing and The Prague Cemetery

I was thinking again about The Prague Cemetery, and I realised that there was a lesson in how I responded to it.

Umberto Eco is clearly passionate about the subject matter of this book. Insane amounts of research must have gone into getting the details right. But that passion, that intensity, isn’t there on the page.

As a writer, it’s not enough to care deeply about what you’re writing. That won’t automatically appear in what you write, or transfer from there to the minds of your readers. You have to think about how you get that passion across. That’s a skill, not a feeling.

Guess I’d better go practice that then.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

I just finished reading The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, leant to me by everwalker‘s faithful raptor. It’s the story of Simonini, a nineteenth century forger, told largely through diary entries as he pieces together his broken memories. It examines some of the darker aspects of Europe at that time – crime and inequality, the emergence of professional espionage and the rising tide of anti-semitism. As with much of Eco’s work, it’s also concerned with the uncertain nature of human experience, the subjective and unreliable way we bear witness to our world. There was a lot to enjoy here, but there was some stuff I found disappointing too.

First the good bits. Eco is a very clever writer. He pulls together the threads of history in a seemless and convincing fashion. You don’t need to know anything about the real history to understand what’s going on, but if you do then those details become more convincing. He does what Dan Brown fails to do, deftly tying together story and reality, making the incredible convincing.

Simonini is a fascinating idea for a character. Lurking in the background of great events, he develops from fraudster to conspirator to spy, raising questions about the boundaries between these activities. This is a character designed to make a point, but one who has depths and darkness beyond the nature of his career.

But these strengths are tied to the book’s weaknesses. Eco’s writing is clever at the expense of passion, and I never felt much emotional engagement. Simonini was so busy weaving his way through history that he seemed to lack his own sense of drive and purpose, and I didn’t feel for him. Whether things went well or badly, I remained largely indifferent.

Trying to break this down as a writer, I think it may come from an obsession with details that doesn’t translate into bringing them to life. For example, Simonini loves his food. He often records what he goes to eat. It’s an interesting character quirk that should make this immoral man more likeable. But these passages just turn into lists of dishes and ingredients, not descriptions of the food, how it tasted, how it made him feel. And maybe that too is meant to show us something about the character, but I soon started skimming those parts. Simonini didn’t really seem to care, and so neither did I.

I love that the world contains such a clever writer as Umberto Eco, but in this case I found his writing too dispassionate. He’s tried to do something really admirable, but it didn’t work for me. If the good things I’ve mentioned appeal to you then I’d recommend reading Foucault’s Pendulum or The Name of the Rose first. And then, if you still want more Eco, try The Prague Cemetery. Maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did.