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
“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
- 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.
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!
Edie Melson is a freelance
writer and editor with years of experience in the publishing industry. In keeping up with the leading edge of all things digital
Edie has become known as one of the go-to experts on Twitter, Facebook, and
social media for writers wanting to learn how to plug in. Her bestselling eBook
on this subject, Social
Media Marketing for Writers,
is available on Kindle and Nook.
Fighting Fear, Winning the War at Home,
is Edie’s latest project. This devotional book for those
with family members in the military debuted on Veterans Day, 2011. Married 30 years to her
high school sweetheart, Kirk, they have raised three sons.