When it comes down to it, the ultimate goal of every writer is to communicate. I believe that you can break that goal down into two secondary goals: to inform, and to entertain.
These are not mutually exclusive goals by any means; in fact, they are usually blended together. There is an abundance of creative non-fiction on the shelves that aims to provide information in a way that is entertaining, rather than simply dump data onto the page. And likewise, while the primary purpose of fiction is to entertain, more often than not the author has an agenda, another purpose: to use the power of story to bring real ideas about the world and humanity to their readers.
By this description, the two extremes of this inform-entertain continuum would be textbook/report on one side and pure escapism on the other side:
Now, given that nothing is really black and white, try to imagine where a particular work of writing sits on this continuum. Since the title of this post is “The Fictional Dream”, you can guess I want to focus on fiction here. Clearly, fiction is always going to tend toward entertainment; but to what degree does any story aim for pure escapism (which certainly has its place on the shelf), versus attempt to inform, enlighten, educate?
Your Brain on Story
Let’s step aside for a moment and take a look at what John Gardner said about a writer entering the “fictive dream”:
In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. This and nothing else is the desperately sought and tragically fragile writer’s process: in his imagination, he sees made-up people doing things—sees them clearly—and in the act of wondering what they will do next he sees what they will do next, and all this he writes down in the best, most accurate words he can find, understanding even as he writes that he may have to find better words later, and that a change in the words may mean a sharpening or deepening of the vision, the fictive dream or vision becoming more and more lucid, until reality, by comparison, seems cold, tedious, and dead.
– John Gardner, The Art of Fiction
I recently attended the meeting of a critique group where this question was asked of the work being reviewed: how well does it achieve the state of the “fictional dream”? While this quote from Gardner references the perspective of the writer, the same description can be transferred to the reader; how well does the story take the reader into a dream-like state, where the world around them falls away, supplanted by an entirely new world that exists only in their mind?
I’m reminded of a recent post on the Radio Lab blog: Why We Fall into a Good Book, where a listener has written in to ask the question: What makes the page disappear?
The answer is very similar to what you’ll find in the Lisa Cron’s book, Wired for Story: our brains have evolved very specifically to take advantage of storytelling. Every time we read, our minds naturally put us in the place of the characters on the page, visualizing the environment and facing the conflicts ourselves. We can’t help but to always ask the question: what if this story was about me?
But I’m not here to get into brain science today; I’m here to suss out what is useful in this information in the context of achieving this “fictive dream” that causes the page to disappear for the reader. The nature of this dream-like state ultimately depends on the type of story being told. Different genres aim for different states of immersion. Some books will place you in another world, whereas others will make you feel like you’re watching a movie.
One of the key takeaways – from either the Gardner’s description or the Radio Lab post – is that it’s not just about how well the setting is presented, it also includes anything else that draws you into a story: tension, action, intriguing characters, compelling storylines, mystery, plot twists, and so on and so forth. Some elements are more important than others, particularly depending on the genre and the expectations of the reader. For example, a mystery lover is drawn in when turns and twists keep them on their toes, whereas a fantasy lover wants to be whisked away to another world where the rules of science are sidelined by magic.
To provide the reader with an effective fictive dream, the writer has to know why the reader is reading their work. If the reader is expecting escapism, too much information is going to break their immersion. If the reader is expecting to be informed or to marvel at a “true story”, too many creative liberties will discourage them. If a reader wants to be thrilled, much of the immersion doesn’t rely on setting or even character, but rather from the well-paced suspense/action/reflection cycle. Conversely, many literary works are most successful when the characters are so realistic and relateable that the reader puts themselves in their shoes, sees the relationships and conflicts directly through their eyes.
So what are your readers looking for on that inform-entertain continuum? What elements of your story will appeal to their imaginations and effectively engage them, crossing the line from reading words on a page to mentally being there, experiencing settings, events, and emotions as though they were dreaming?