All the Way IN: Immersive Fiction
Kathe Koja’s work is always genre-bending and immersive, but The Cipher might as well be a VR headset.
The real world always feels real.
Like a breeze against your cheek or a slippery skein of slime down your back, the smell of damp mold or the fresh zest of a lemon, a shuddering bassline, a gusting laugh, a sneaker rubbing the skin of your heel: the world is sensory, auditory, tactile, immediate. And no matter what genre you may be writing, a fictional world is always a reality shared, agreed upon, between reader and writer; that reality is the bedrock foundation of fiction’s connection. It’s where your writing and the reader will meet.
So how does a writer make the written world real? I’ve worked with that question for a long time—The Cipher was first published in 1991—and to me the ongoing, ever-expanding answer is immersive fiction.
At first I didn’t know there was a name for it: immersive—from immersive performance theatre, a kind of live show that totally dissolves the fourth wall, and invites, lures, recreates the audience as a real-time, participating entity. Forget about sitting quietly in a third row seat, you could chase a fleeing Lady Macbeth down a dark and echoing school hallway, and I did, at Punchdrunk’s inaugural US production of Sleep No More.
Afterwards I started writing my own immersive live performances, the first based on my novel Under the Poppy, then adaptations of other books I loved, Wuthering Heights and Dracula and Alice in Wonderland. (My last event was in January 2020, just before Covid shut all the venue doors.) When I watched the patrons at these events exploring the intricate set installations and interacting with the performers, it all felt a lot less like theatre and a lot more like reading in 3D.
Yet on the page we don’t have access to actors, we don’t have props and sound design and smoke machines. So how do we make our fiction immersive?
We have words.
And before the words, before we write at all, we have the feeling, ourselves, of what a real world is like, all the particulars and parameters that we may never consciously notice in our actual day-to-day lives, but moment by moment, sip by sigh by fleeting headache by scrolled-past ad by midnight yawn, those details create our life’s mosaic, they are where we really live. And when we as writers start to truly notice those details, and feel their linkages, how one touches another and how they touch us, we start to understand the moving depth of our world’s reality, and understand too that whatever world we may make on the page has to reference that full depth of reality.
We have the words and the world, then.
And—best of all—we have our readers’ sense of reality working with and for us, if we can properly engage it. Which is why the more you can include in your work those enmeshing details, the more immersive your writing becomes, the more deeply you can, and will, engage readers, who will meet your details with their own. Those details will be different every time because every reader is different, and will find different ways to engage with your work.
And if you want to take immersion even further, you have a huge new array of tools at your disposal. My Dark Factory project is and has been expanding its boundaries to include all the places that story needed, and needs, to go. The print, ebook, and audio editions will come out May 2022, but the novel is already making its way in the world, stretching across social platforms, incorporating other media, inviting others to come and share the play.
Because the real power of fiction is and always has been in that shared making, that story created by the meeting of reader and writer. And that engagement is the heart of immersive fiction.
“Bolstered by inventive audiovisual supplements, [Dark Factory] is both intimate and epic, an ensemble genre-bender that envisions new possibilities for the novel as narrative form. This is a daring work of multisensory and multimedia immersion[.]”
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