Ultimate Duty, by Marva Dasef (19:45)

IOD-UltimateDutyA good example of how “Show don’t tell” doesn’t mean what you think it means, and its implications for achieving immersion.

What I gleaned about the story: Remy Belieux is a hard working young woman, who is finally of age and anxious to escape the drudgery of colony-world existence. What follows will be an account of her competent rise in the space navy, and her experiments with love.

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Kudos: Dasef has constructed an interesting character in Remy. Her world, her hobbies and her entanglements with the people around her add up to something more than just another cardboard cutout protagonist.

WTF #1: Consistent verb tense and grammatical issues. Subtle, but the kind of thing a good editor should have caught. I particularly noticed an absence of past perfect when called for.

Notes: These were subtle complaints perhaps, but when the wrong verb tense is used, it jars me out of the flow. And I’ve come to realize that any time I find myself thinking about the writing, rather than about the story, I am no longer immersed. That’s what makes the ImmerseOrDie challenge so fierce. You can do a hundred things right, as a writer, and still, one mistake can break the spell. Marva Dasef does a lot of things right with her prose, and I don’t tend to charge a WTF over transient mistakes, because we all make them. But when a mistake stops being transient, and seems to be persistent, that’s when I throw a flag on the play and charge a 10-yard penalty, as I did here.

WTF #2: It’s all tell, all the time.

Analysis: One of the worst pieces of advice ever given to authors is the old saw about “Show, don’t tell.” Not because the intention of that advice is wrong. It’s bad advice because it’s misleading. Many authors interpret this to mean that they must be a faithful camera, reporting everything that happens, but that’s not it at all. “Show don’t tell” isn’t about the actions of a story. It’s about the judgements of a story. And this gets to the very heart of how immersion actually works.

Immersion, as I’ve come to understand it, is nothing more than the process in which the reader stops being a passive witness to the unfolding events and begins to make subconscious judgements about what they are experiencing. Immersion is when we see the old crone snatch the teddy bear from the frightened toddler, and then react with revulsion to what we’ve just seen. We make the instant judgment that she’s a mean-spirited old bitch, and then we hate her for it.

But when the narrator explicitly tells us what the emotional result is, we are robbed of the chance to make that judgement for ourselves, and so we do not achieve immersion. We skim across the top of the emotional experience instead of diving in. In that way, describing emotional reactions is like a surface tension that repels readers from immersing, from sinking down into the emotional sea of the story.

WTF #3: Unaffecting emotional scenes.

Analysis: In hindsight, this is a corollary of WTF #2, but that didn’t become evident to me until I sat here thinking about it while trying to write up these notes. But in the course of my 19 minutes, there were three scenes that I should have engaged with on some emotional level, but did not. Two sex scenes, and then a character receiving news about a family tragedy. In each case, the facts were relayed in a faithful manner, but the scenes still completely failed to speak to me on the emotional dimension. At the very least, that bad news from home scene should have carried a punch. But it didn’t. And when I’m detached enough to notice that I’m not responding to an emotional scene, it means I’m not immersed.




Self Made, by Darusha Wehm (18:09)
River of Possibilities, by Marti Lawrence (19:37)

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.