The Fictive Dream

You know that feeling you get when you suddenly realize there’s a hole at the back of your sweatpants, and you’ve just showed the UPS guy more than your signature? Mortified to the point of death is an accurate description. If you know that feeling, welcome to my world. And I truly wish this was a made-up story (it isn’t; it happened last week), or that I had the assurance of never again clapping eyes on this guy. Alas, avoidance is impossible, since my street is within his route.


If you cringed at my story even a little, you have the right mindset for a fictive dream. What do I mean by that? Take a look at this quote from The Art of Fiction by John Gardner:

In great fiction, the dream engages us heart and soul; we not only respond to imaginary things—sights, sounds, smells—as though they were real, we respond to fictional problems as though they were real. (Gardner 31)

Man rides cloudSo, how does one go about creating the fictive dream? Don’t look at me. I really am asking you.

You’re still looking at me. Sigh. Fine. Let’s examine the dream state first. In a dream, we experience the tang of ripe strawberries, the velvety softness of a flower petal, the fulsome beauty of a sky at sunset—as vividly as if we were awake. We solve problems or escape from them. And that in a nutshell is the fictive dream—total immersion in a story. As Gardner explains, “Fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind” (31).

Consider the last book you read that gave you the sense of stepping behind a curtain into another world—one in which you longed to dwell. Maybe you think of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, thanks to J. K. Rowling’s vivid imagination, or you think of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and its sequels. Or perhaps Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is your drug of choice (I would live in Lothlórien if I could) or you prefer classic books like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Zorah Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Coming to the end of that fictive dream was as startling as waking from a dream, wasn’t it?

In the fictive dream, not only are the senses fully engaged, a reader’s empathy is as well. If you feel nothing for the characters or their conflict, total immersion is not possible.

Authors weave their stories to keep a reader (or listener) engaged. As I consider how to craft such a story, I keep this advice in mind: I must be fully immersed in the world. If I’m not fully engaged, how can I expect you the reader to be? If I only half-like my characters or even . . . shudder . . . hate the “bad” characters, as if my role is to judge them, how can I expect you to love, sympathize with, or even come to a place of understanding about them?

What do you see as the key ingredients of the fictive dream? What book have you read that fits this model? Has there ever been a time when your familiarity with a story, or the situation depicted, prevented you from being fully immersed in it?

As you consider those questions, I’ll leave you with this cat, who seems to be living the dream.


Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1983, 1991. Print.

For another great post on the fictive dream, click here.

Man riding a cloud picture is from Shocked smiley face is from shocked Footrest cat is from LOL Cats.

17 thoughts on “The Fictive Dream

    • Andrew, thanks for your comment. I’m glad to discover your blog. And we have a word-count issue in common (though yours had more). I’m pretty much a pantser until I get toward the end of a book. Then, to make the ending work, I come up with a list of scenes I need to write.

      I’m glad you’re soaking yourself in your world. I try to do that by telling myself parts of the story before I go to bed. I go over scenes in my head: how the character would react or what he or she would say. What do you do to tell yourself the story you’re writing?

      • I can see how that would! I do that too, but I sometimes cast current actors as they were 20 or 30 years ago if they have the look I want for my characters. Sadly, they’re too old to play those characters!

  1. You bring to light so many good points, Linda, but one leaps off the page at me. Familiarity is an enormous obstacle for us. If we can only remain detached enough to feel every second of our character’s world as if it were new then I think we’d do a better job at describing it. Shaun Tan talks about how he tries to see the familiar in a new way…to bring a freshness to the mundane. I think this is the writer’s job as well.

    • And Shaun Tan certainly proved his freshness with The Arrival—a gorgeous wordless book. I’m glad you brought him up, because I need to look at that book again and gain inspiration for one of my characters who doesn’t talk a lot.

      But you’re so right, Laura. We have to, as you put it, “feel every second of our character’s world.” I find I have to be emotionally prepared for some aspects. Case in point: I’m writing a very difficult chapter with tragic elements. I keep putting off the actual moment of the tragedy. I’m trying to psyche myself up to do it.

  2. Great article, Marie. I think creating the fictive dream is a culmination of exciting setting, interesting characters and stimulating plot. It’s why targeting an audience is important because you’ll never write a book where those three things line up for every person out there.

    I think I’m cursed with an overactive imagination though, because even with ‘bad’ books, I can usually compensate enough to enjoy them. Some may consider that a good thing, but it makes being critical, difficult. 🙂

    • Thank you, Phillip. Yeah, knowing your audience is important. Knowing your own passion level concerning a story is important too. I have a high tolerance in some things, which is why I have seen many movies others consider bad. I have a basement level of entertainment. If someone meets it, fine. Usually someone meets it if he or she is sincere about a project or at least looks as if he/she had fun making it.

  3. You hit the nail on the head, this is exactly what I aim for when I write, too! I think dreams and visions are an important part of what makes us human, and language too is related on a fundamental level … language itself is actually a way to re-create reality, just like dreams are an alternative reality, and each story we write as well…. Thank you for this inspiring post!

    • Oh good. Thank you. And that’s what I see in your poetry. With just a few well-chosen words, you create a powerful image. That’s why I usually avoid writing poetry. I’m terrible in short bursts. I need about 350 pages to say what I mean. 🙂

  4. Thanks for reminding me as a writer to be fully immersed in my fictional world. Only then can I hope the reader will be, too. One of my goals is to share my passion for those worlds and characters!

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