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)
So, 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 anintrospectiveworld.blogspot.com. Shocked smiley face is from shocked free.clipartof.com. Footrest cat is from LOL Cats.