The Art of Immersion: how to build powerful story experiences

Adam Westbrook
9 min readMay 30, 2019

Meet the world builders breaking us free from our screens

Image © Adam Westbrook

For a long time, audiences have been silent partners in the storytelling experience. In darkened cinemas we sat, passively consuming a story just the way someone else wanted. But now we want back in, and storytellers are learning to design experiences that make space for The Artist Formerly Known as The Audience. Here are some of them.

On one cold November night in London, journalist Nick Curtis was on his way to prison.

“We were herded into a hallway by yelling guards,” he writes, “told to strip to our underwear and put our clothes and possessions in numbered sacks that contained our prison uniforms. Then we were marched through showers where a naked man lay crouched, bleeding, on the floor, to cells where we were banged up.”

If this sounds like a horrific experience for Curtis and the 400 others, you might be surprised to know that they paid to go through it, part of a growing demand for London’s most popular underground event, Secret Cinema.

The realistic 1940s inmate experience (complete with riots and a black market), Curtis writes in the London Evening Standard, concluded with a showing of Frank Darabont’s cult prison drama The Shawshank Redemption, creating an “oddly nuanced” immersive experience.

This immersion is the much sought-after effect storytellers want to achieve.

Not only do we want to grab our readers, viewers, listeners right off the bat, we want to keep them with us. In a world where 20% of YouTube viewers click away after less than ten seconds, keeping people engaged is imperative.

The thing about immersion is that it is not some new technical fad. You can follow this principle on paper or in front of a group of friends at a party. Yet the discussion about creating interactive and immersive story experiences, particularly for nonfiction producers, has focused largely on the digital tools which might allow us to do it online.

Adam Westbrook

Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a weekly newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity.