An author by the name of Gardner wrote an outstanding book called, The Art of Fiction. In it, he used the phrase, the fictional dream, to describe the transformation a reader makes from reading words on a page to experiencing events in a novel. Let’s start at that beginning.
What is the fictional dream? How does an author create one? For what purpose does an author create one? The fictional dream is the means by which an author transports a reader from reading words on a page into the pages of the story. It is the combination of craft techniques implemented specifically to capture the reader’s interest in, and empathy for the characters; those tools which, effectively incorporated, facilitate the reader becoming an active participant in the story events.
• Vivid Imagery
• Sensory Perception
• Author Distance
• Universal Identification
• Deep Characterization
While each of the above tools is strong and effective at creating the fictional dream, the most potent writing contains a combination of tools. If an author can paint a specific picture in a reader’s mind, then the reader can imagine him/herself in that scene and in the depicted situation. The incorporation of sensory input—things the character (thus the reader) sees, smells, hears, touches, and tastes, reinforces the reader’s mental image and draws that reader into the story at a deeper level. Create author distance, by avoiding intrusion and filtering, by not insinuating the author between the character and the story events, and the reader experiences the story firsthand.
Use a story event that creates a universal reaction. For example: outrage at a child being abused (versus outrage at an injustice which is generic and non-specific), depict the character’s emotional response to that injustice through thoughts and actions, and the reader becomes involved. That involvement is often referred to as reader empathy. And an empathetic reader lives the fictional dream.
Let’s look at each of these tools. To create vivid imagery, use specific, concrete details:
• Don’t write book. Write the title of a specific book—one that conveys the tone and mood of the character at that moment, his or her reading preferences that convey insight of his or her character.
• Select specific details that create and convey the emotional impact you, the writer, want conveyed. An example from Upon a Mystic Tide: Sitting in her old, red rocker, Miss Hattie turned on the big, antique radio behind her. Big band era music drifted through the kitchen, and she softly hummed along with it. Her head bowed, she studied the embroidery in her lap. She was sewing the Seascape Inn logo onto a new batch of crisp, white napkins. Yellow thread.
Was the color significant to women of her age?
In this example, the specific and concrete details are:
• Sight: the red rocker, the big, antique radio, embroidering napkins with yellow thread
• Sound: the big band music, humming
Incorporating these details into the work has created a vivid image of Miss Hattie, sewing, humming, and rocking. Obviously, she isn’t stressed so, by the type of details selected, mood is created, tone is set. Sensory perception includes sight and sound, as well. By letting the second character, the viewpoint character observing Miss Hattie, think direct thoughts without intruding, without filtering those thoughts through the author, the remaining tools have been lightly incorporated as well. The reader glimpses inside the mind of the viewpoint character, unobstructed by the author’s presence. The text is working hard, accomplishing more than one task.
Remember, vivid imagery requires specific and concrete details. Don’t write tree. Write oak. Don’t write emotion. Write fear or sorrow, guilt or shame. Don’t write dog. Write Doberman, or Yorkie. Don’t write chair. Write rocker. Write cinematically. Vivid images that create pictures in the reader’s mind. Think of the novel page as a blank canvas. Only what the author chooses to disclose will be painted on that canvas. The more specific the detail painted, the more vivid the image on the canvas--and in the reader’s mind. Writers tend to lean heavily on visual images. Visual images are crucial, but not all-inclusive. The other senses should not be neglected. They too are important. Actually, they’re vital.
Smell is particularly powerful. In the above scene from Upon a Mystic Tide with Miss Hattie, there are references to the scents of sea spray, of blueberry muffins, of peonies. (Note that all are soothing images, which reinforce the emotional mood and tone of the scene.) What do the characters hear? A grandfather clock’s steady ticks, the fridge motor’s soft whir. The fridge’s ice-maker, plopping cubes into the bin. Birds chirping. Soft, homey—comforting sounds. If your character is standing on the shore, does he feel the sea spray gather on his skin? Does it chill? Raise goose-flesh? If your character is mellow, does he look out upon the sun-spangled sea and feel lulled by the smooth roll of the waves? Does your character rub a nubby quilt when uneasy? Do pungent fragrances make his nostrils sting?
In the above references, the mood of the scene, the mood of the character, is portrayed by the images selected and the character’s sensory perception.
Tactile perceptions add texture. Feel the grate of sandpaper, the smooth finish on a beloved antique, the needle punching into fabric and the silken thread pulling through it. Ever had your mouth water at a particular smell? A memory evoked by the sound of a song? Ever taste a cherry tart and remember the first one you ate? These sensory perceptions breathe life into human beings. Characters emulate human beings. Therefore, to breathe life into characters, the writer should include the character’s sensory perceptions. We’ve all heard the saying, "Author, keep out!" We’ve also heard, "Show, don’t tell." In the cases of author distance, both are apt and good advice.
There are times when it’s advantageous to the story to create distance between the story event and character and that character’s reaction to the story event. But on the whole, whenever an author intrudes, that author places her/himself between the reader and the character. This distance pushes the reader away, reminds her she’s reading and not living the story event. Reader empathy is greatly diminished, if not lost, and the powerful impact the story and characters had on the reader is gone.
The novel dictates the best means for portraying the story. Each scene within the novel is weighted and its value must be judged. Pivotal, key scenes are ones wherein the writer loses far too much by intruding, or by filtering the events through the writer before allowing the reader to experience them. Background information, on the other hand, should be given quickly, efficiently and in small doses. Dribbled into the scene, a few sentences at a time, background information can be fed to the reader on a need-to-know basis.
Ask yourself: Does the reader need to know this information now for what is occurring at this point, in this scene, to make sense? If the answer is yes, include the information. If no, cut and reinsert it in the scene and at the point where the reader does need to know it.
Remember, background information is stagnant, passive. It brings the story momentum (pace) to a dead halt, prohibits the plot from any advance, and leaves the characters dangling in suspended animation. A reader patiently wades through this only because s/he feels the matter is of import or it wouldn’t be there. So be sure it is important, give the information to the reader, then get back on with the story.
In addition to telling intrusions, the author can intrude in seemingly inoffensive ways. One of them is filtering. Note the following two sentences:Example 1: He thought she had the temperament of a squealing pig. Example 2: She had the temperament of a squealing pig. In Example 1, the author is telling the reader what the male character thought. His thoughts are filtered through the writer and then passed along to the reader. The writer is telling the reader. In Example 2—without the filter, he thought—the reader is planted inside the character’s mind and is hearing his thoughts direct. The writer has effectively created author distance and is not intruding. The writer is not on-scene. And the bond between the reader and the character has not been violated. An effective tool used to create and maintain the fictional dream is universal identification. Meaning generally that via plot the author strikes a familiar theme, or chord, in the reader: one s/he can identify with. More often than not, the most effective universal chords are emotional ones. Who among us has not experienced grief, or loss, or embarrassment, or guilt?
For example: an angry character commits a murder. Do you, the author, hope to strike a familiar chord on the event, the murder, or on the motivation for murder, the anger? If you are a skilled craftsman, you could do either. But more craftsmen will opt for the motivation because it is universal.
Many of us have not murdered. All of us have been angry. We all are able to identify with anger. Through it, we establish reader identification, and tap into a universal emotion. Those two inclusions force the reader to become an active participant in the story. And an active participant is one living the fictional dream.
Frequently authors get overly zealous at telling readers the color of a character’s hair and fail to realize that this topical tidbit isn’t nearly so interesting as the fact that the character bleached her hair at sixteen and it all fell out. She had to wear a wig and baseball caps for six months, and she missed her junior prom!
Which interests you more? Which gives you more insight into a well-rounded individual with a history? Which tidbit makes this character more real to you? Before you attempt to impart a character to a reader, get to know the character. Sit down and chat. Interview the character. Know what the character loves and hates, her hopes and desires, her fears. Know her goals and her happiest moment, her most humiliating experience. Know her as well or better than you know yourself. Make no mistake, this is a time-consuming task. But once you start writing about this character, you’ll find it time well spent. You, the writer, will not have to stop and ask how this character will react to this particular situation. You’ll know. And all of the little things you found out in the interview/chat will drive the plot and make this character three-dimensional. Real.
We are shaped by our experiences, our background, our exposure to the world. So, too, are our characters. In fact, it’s wise to stop thinking of them as characters and to start thinking of them as people. People who are rich in their diversity, their unique individuality. What about them interests you, the writer? If the character fascinates you, then that character is apt to fascinate a reader.
Don’t be satisfied telling us the color of her hair. Let us know what she thinks and yearns for, what she feels, why she feels as she does. You’ll learn far more about a character than you impart in a novel, but you will have steely insight into what drives that individual and you’ll depict her as a well-rounded individual; one with whom the reader can establish common bonds and cheer on.
Incorporate these tools in your work. Combine them for maximum benefit to your story. And permit your readers to live the fictional dream.*
© 2007 by Vicki Hinze. All rights reserved.
Dr. Vicki Hinze is an award-winning, best-selling author who routinely shares her expertise at national writers' conferences, online, and through her writing guides. You can visit Vicki's author site at www.vickihinze.com.