Fiction is neither as long-winded, random, or forgettable as the scraps of stories that visit us during the night. The novel’s achievement starts with the creation process that John Gardner describes:
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 is narrative at its happiest and best—writing that gives readers a world more dramatic, realistic and moral than daily routine. But the boundaries of this world are fragile. In fact, as Gardner points out, “one of the chief mistakes a writer can make is to allow or force the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream.”
Those distractions come in many shapes and sizes, but the other kind of dreaming goes a long way toward explaining them.
If you’re gifted enough, of course it’s possible to write anything. But, for the most part, any version of “Henrietta woke, relieved that it was only a dream” won’t work. Dreams may be messages to the dreamer, but rarely to anyone else. If you want your novel to delight others, everything must seem new, starting with the plot and ending with the details capturing it. Cliches like waking from a bad dream? That is a bad dream.
Dreams let us fly out windows, land in foreign countries without deplaning, simultaneously chat with former lovers and elementary school teachers. If there’s anything fun about dreams, that’s probably it. But readers demand a fictional dream that, however invisibly, explains arrivals, departures, changes of location, and everything else that makes any world outside a dream clear, logical, sensible, and compelling.
In your nightmare, your patient and adoring Mama turns on you for no reason, viciously humiliating you in front of every teacher you encountered in your entire life. No wonder you can’t wait to wake up! But the point is that fiction, unlike dream, requires motive and causality. It’s logically true to itself. Anything else shatters the fictional dream that Gardner describes.
Often when we narrate our dreams (or are forced to hear someone else’s), events and details emerge with agonizing slowness. Trivia receives meticulous tedium, while grounding rarely arrives at all. In contrast, novels need momentum and context. Without those, readers doze off, blissfully escaping to the other kind of dream.
Tip: Dreaming is the first step for many writers. But it shouldn’t be the last.