Monday, January 17, 2011

Put Your Reader to Sleep

Yes, you read the title correctly. Put your reader to sleep

Okay, maybe not completely to sleep, but at least allow them to dream. What does dreaming have to do with writing? Everything. The dream I’m referring to is the fictional dream. If you’ve never heard the term before, don’t worry. I guarantee you know what I’m talking about. I think author, John Gardner says it best. 

“What counts in conventional fiction must be the vividness and continuity of the fictional dream the words set off in the reader’s mind.”

A fictional dream occurs when the world in the story you’re reading becomes more real than the physical world around you. We’ve all be there at one time or another—transported into another time or another place by an author’s well crafted words.

This experience is one that we try to create for our readers. And it’s one of the biggest differences between a good book and a great one. So how do we create this dream world? We do it by paying attention. Notice where you are right now. Are there sounds? Smells? Even if you’re not overwhelmed by your setting I bet you’re aware of it. The same thing is true for our characters. If we've written them as three dimensional people then they should notice and be affected by what's around them. However, if we neglect those details, we deny our readers the chance to be transported.

Even more important than what we do to put our readers to sleep is what we DON’T do. I think writers are far more often guilty of waking a reader up. We, as the author, have an obligation to not jolt our readers out of their fictional dream world. So what are some things we do that interrupt pleasant dreams?
  • Bad Grammar—I’m not talking about a missed comma or two. I’m referring to sentence structure that’s difficult to read, modifiers that modify the wrong thing or even complicated punctuation. All of these things can cause a reader to stop and ponder what you’re trying to say. Once they stop you’ve lost them, they’re awake.
  • Confusing Dialogue—This can include things like long sections of dialogue with no speaker tags or beats. If the reader has to go back and figure out who’s speaking it means you’ve either not put in enough tags or your characters don’t have unique enough voices to be identified. One word of caution, overuse of ‘said’ instead of interspersing with speaker beats can be just as jarring.
  • Creative Speaker Tags—Anytime you use a speaker tag other than said or maybe asked you run the risk of making your reader stop. The word said is so common place in literature that it’s almost invisible. The reader skims lightly over it, uninterrupted. If, on the other hand, you pull out your thesaurus and try to find other words to use in its place you end up with jarring prose that tells the story through speaker tags instead of dialogue.
  • Characters who don’t act right—I’m not referring to moral actions. We’ve all read stories where a character does something and we find ourselves shaking our heads. Know your characters well enough to keep them from acting out of character.
  • Overwriting a dialect—I’m not against allowing your character to speak with an accent or in a dialect, but be careful how you do it. When the character is first introduced you can use a heavier hand with the spellings that denote dialect, such as learnin’ instead of learning. But after the reader gets to know the character they can hear the character speaking in their head and you don’t have to use spelling to convey their voice. In fact, if the reader has to work too hard to decipher your intent they will never even make it into the fictional dream.
  • Head Hopping—This is when you switch POV (point of view) from one character to another without a good reason. The rule of thumb is that each scene should have a single POV character and that should be the character with the most at stake.
The storyteller who can invite the reader into his world and make him believe it's real has captured the essence of what it means to be a great writer.

Now it's your turn. Have you ever read a book where you were jolted out of your fictional dream? What about one where you were transported to another world by an amazing author? Share your experiences and we'll compare notes!

And, don't forget to join the conversation!


  1. Edi, I loved this subject. Though a bit different, I was hit this morning with the idea that our kids in schools that are considered "daydreamers" should have a pen put in their hand along with the gift of a journal. They should be told to daydream on paper. Otherwise, We may be supressing some of our greatest writers to be.

  2. Cathy, what a great thought! We could even apply that to ourselves. How often do we beat ourselves up for not "accomplishing" something as opposed to daydreaming!

  3. Excellent points. As a reader and a writer, I totally agree with not wanting to wake up from the fictional world. I hope my writing allows the readers to blissfully remain in the dream world.

  4. Edie,
    I'd have to say the same applies to non-fiction, as well. I've been reading a lot of memoirs lately, which are written like fiction. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls maintained the "fictional dream" very well. I felt part of her story and couldn't put it down.
    On the other hand, I tried to get through Mennonite in a Little Black Dress and couldn't. There were very funny parts, but the rest left me trying to figure out if I was in the past or present.

  5. Great lesson, Edie! I'm so excited about finally starting another fictional dream for my readers! Your post will help me stay on track! :-)

  6. Tim & Abigail, thanks for your comments! Alycia, great point about non-fiction. Even if the author isn't writing memoir it still applies - we're all wooed by a well told story!
    Vonda, I' like the rest of your fans - I can hardly wait until you put us to sleep again!