Whether we're writing fiction or non-fiction, we want our prose to carry the feel of immediacy, or a sense of time and place that draws the reader in to the exclusion of all other distractions and detractions. Compelling central plots do this to a certain extent, of course, but to carry someone along for the duration of a book requires some hooks-within-the-hooks. Immediacy boosts action to a more lively level, and it helps root scene and character to-the-minute instead of somewhere, out there, in time.
For example, let's say you and I just won a shopping spree (here's the plot hook), but the event takes place in the wee hours of the morning on an excruciatingly hot day and the air conditioner in the store is broken (here are distractions from the initial excitement of the primary hook) and we're both just getting over the flu. Feel your enthusiasm waning, even just a little? What if we added a treasure hunt within the spree, perhaps a very valuable diamond ring is hidden somewhere among the merchandise, and we get to keep it if we find it - a hook-within-a-hook that can motivate beyond the heat and discomfort and bring an immediacy and action to something that might otherwise be more descriptive than dramatic.
Immediacy is helped along by avoiding gerunds (pardon the pun!) and connective phrases, and by precision. "We were looking in the shoe department hoping to find..." becomes "In the shoe department, we found..." or "We were running out of time..." becomes "We only had six minutes left..."
In non-fiction, creating immediacy makes facts come alive. This is not the same as fictionalizing a situation or place, but rather is expressed in the way various details are described. For example, perhaps you need to write a piece about your church's Sunday prayer service and potluck. Beyond the "who, what, when and where," paint in the "why." Why does one person always bring a fruit salad? Why does a particular worship song bring tears to a young man's eyes? Why does the assortment of dishes provided always seem to satisfy, even if no one plans it down to the ingredients? The "why" allows for personalities to come forward and details to leap to life in their daily context - immediacy in the making. It also helps build empathy between the reader and story.
Another strong technique for non-fiction is to write about what's going on outside a particular place or event as a backdrop for what is going on inside. I was able to do this in an article I wrote for Saint Anthony Messenger Magazine (www.americancatholic.org) last year, when I contrasted the freeway traffic humming outside a school with the beautiful music of a children's choir within it.
For inspirational non-fiction, such as a devotional or prayer book, immediacy comes from the specific examples you can write about that illustrate the point you are trying to get across. Think Our Lord teaching in parables. So, an essay on coping with pain becomes lessons learned from someone's journey through a dark valley of pain.
To create your own sense of immediacy while you are writing, practice this: Imagine your reader only has sixty seconds to spend on your story. Imagine the seconds ticking by (or place a clock that ticks off the seconds next to your workspace) as you write. Feel the pressure of that time passing, disappearing, and taking away your reader. At the end of the minute, put your work aside for awhile (a few hours, or even a day). Revisit it, and see the difference in what you wrote while under the immediacy of pressure - you might really like it!
The more in-the-moment writing can be, the more powerful, and immediate, the pull for the reader to keep reading, no matter what else is going on in the world around.
Joy and peace,