In his book On Fiction, John Gardner writes that good fiction is “a vivid and continuous dream.” How perfect. If you keep this metaphor in mind while writing, you will be forced to be a better writer, and you will be giving your reader a beautiful thing.
As a writer, you are a dream weaver. Your most important task is to keep the dream going and to avoid at all costs waking the reader. Think of how easy it is, and how terrible it is, to wake up in the middle of a dream. Think of how much we hate alarm clocks, babies wailing in the apartment next door, sirens in the middle of the night. Good writers will do everything they can to keep their reader submerged in the dream. But how do they do it?
John Gardner has some advice. Use precise detail, or, what he calls, “moment by moment authenticating detail.” Give your reader constant proof that your world is real. This proof works best in the form of physical detail. The more concrete detail you give, the more authentic your world becomes, and the less likely it is for your reader to shift in sleep and think, “Wait a minute…” Too many moments of “Wait, would that really…?” or, “Wha?!” and your reader will wake, find you standing beside the bed, and despise you for interrupting the dream. And we all know how impossible it is to re-enter a dream once we have been pulled out of it. Your reader will find another dream to replace yours.
Here are some of the ways you could wake your reader. Here are your sirens, your colicky babies.
You got your facts wrong. As soon as readers realize you have made a mistake in something basic- a date, an event, a weather pattern, a natural law, the spelling of a name- they will be introduced to the possibility of you being wrong about many things. In short, you will lose their trust and your credibility.
You don’t really know your characters. Or maybe you are just not being true to them. Don’t make your characters act in a way that doesn't make sense for them. Don’t make timid Jenny suddenly, and without provocation or proper set-up, curse a blue streak and sucker punch her boss. Avoid the C'mon, really? reaction.
You are being inefficient. Don’t include anything that is not necessary to the story. Don’t lose your reader in lengthy, unnecessary scenes, description, or backstory. Keep your reader’s attention by keeping your story’s momentum. Notice your tempo. Move swiftly and smoothly from one scene to the next.
Your writing is clumsy. Readers should only ever reread a sentence because it is so beautiful and true they want the joy of experiencing it again. They should never have to reread your sentences because of clumsy writing. Cut ruthlessly. Aim for elegance.
You are getting carried away by the sound of your own voice. Don’t keep something just because you think it sounds smart or poetic. As Gardner writes, “the style must work in the service of the material, not in advertisement of the writer.”
You are explaining too much. Be confident. Write only what needs to be written, and then trust that your reader is smart enough to get it. This is especially true at the beginning of a piece of writing. If you are hesitant entering your story, your reader is less likely to be swept along. Maybe you are creating a fantasy world. Don’t go on explaining why the laws are different in that world. Just show us the world with confidence and we will believe you.
Of course, there are many more ways you can jolt your reader out of your dream—because it is the easiest thing to do. But doing everything you can to avoid waking your reader is worth every effort. Do this because you would like to avoid an annoyed reader, but do it also out of generosity, because life is richer, deeper, and more textured when we dream.