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Friday, February 03, 2012

Put Your Reader to Sleep

Yes, you read the title correctly. Put your reader to sleep

Okay, maybe not completely to sleep, but at least allow them to dream. What does dreaming have to do with writing? Everything. The dream I’m referring to is the fictional dream.

If you’ve never heard the term before, don’t worry. I guarantee you know what I’m talking about. I think author, John Gardner says it best. 

“What counts in conventional fiction must be the vividness and continuity of the fictional dream the words set off in the reader’s mind.”

A fictional dream occurs when the world in the story you’re reading becomes more real than the physical world around you. We’ve all be there at one time or another—transported into another time or another place by an author’s well crafted words.

This experience is one that we try to create for our readers. And it’s one of the biggest differences between a good book and a great one. So how do we create this dream world? We do it by paying attention. Notice where you are right now. Are there sounds? Smells?

Even if you’re not overwhelmed by your setting I bet you’re aware of it. The same thing is true for our characters. If we've written them as three dimensional people then they should notice and be affected by what's around them. However, if we neglect those details, we deny our readers the chance to be transported. 

Even more important than what we do to put our readers to sleep is what we DON’T do. I think writers are far more often guilty of waking a reader up. We, as the author, have an obligation to not jolt our readers out of their fictional dream world. So what are some things we do that interrupt pleasant dreams?
  • Bad Grammar—I’m not talking about a missed comma or two. I’m referring to sentence structure that’s difficult to read, modifiers that modify the wrong thing or even complicated punctuation. All of these things can cause a reader to stop and ponder what you’re trying to say. Once they stop you’ve lost them, they’re awake.
  • Confusing Dialogue—This can include things like long sections of dialogue with no speaker tags or beats. If the reader has to go back and figure out who’s speaking it means you’ve either not put in enough tags or your characters don’t have unique enough voices to be identified. One word of caution, overuse of ‘said’ instead of interspersing with speaker beats can be just as jarring.
  • Creative Speaker Tags—Anytime you use a speaker tag other than said or maybe asked you run the risk of making your reader stop. The word said is so common place in literature that it’s almost invisible. The reader skims lightly over it, uninterrupted. If, on the other hand, you pull out your thesaurus and try to find other words to use in its place you end up with jarring prose that tells the story through speaker tags instead of dialogue.
  • Characters who don’t act right—I’m not referring to moral actions. We’ve all read stories where a character does something and we find ourselves shaking our heads. Know your characters well enough to keep them from acting out of character.
  • Overwriting a dialect—I’m not against allowing your character to speak with an accent or in a dialect, but be careful how you do it. When the character is first introduced you can use a heavier hand with the spellings that denote dialect, such as learnin’ instead of learning. But after the reader gets to know the character they can hear the character speaking in their head and you don’t have to use spelling to convey their voice. In fact, if the reader has to work too hard to decipher your intent they will never even make it into the fictional dream.
  • Head Hopping—This is when you switch POV (point of view) from one character to another without a good reason. The rule of thumb is that each scene should have a single POV character and that should be the character with the most at stake.
The storyteller who can invite the reader into his world and make him believe it's real has captured the essence of what it means to be a great writer.

Now it's your turn. Have you ever read a book where you were jolted out of your fictional dream? What about one where you were transported to another world by an amazing author? Share your experiences and we'll compare notes!

Edie Melson is a freelance writer and editor with years of experience in the publishing industry. In keeping up with the leading edge of all things digital Edie has become known as one of the go-to experts on Twitter, Facebook, and social media for writers wanting to learn how to plug in. Her bestselling eBook on this subject, Social Media Marketing for Writers, is available on Kindle and Nook.
Fighting Fear, Winning the War at Home, is Edie’s latest project. This devotional book for those with family members in the military debuted on Veterans Day, 2011. Married 30 years to her high school sweetheart, Kirk, they have raised three sons.


  1. I am now convinced I should lull my reader to sleep, Edie!
    Another way I've been jolted awake: When there is a flimsy reason for conflict ... the hero and heroine are kept apart for the silliest reason. I kept turning pages thinking, "Surely something else is going to happen to deepen this plot." I wasn't engaged in the story at all.

    1. Beth, you're so right! That really irritates me. Thanks for adding to the list.

  2. I love how you put this, Edie. Great advice and well put.

  3. Love this--just learned the dialogue tagging rules myself. I had to learn how to place those beats. "This is an important post for writers," she cackled. "I hope that everyone learns how to write dialogue," she said with a loud snort...Seriously, it's so true that when you say anything other than "said," it kind of takes the reader out of it.

  4. I've been enjoying a fantasy book lately, but the author never uses the word 'said'. There was one rapid-fire exchange between characters that ended in, "He encouraged, she moaned, he cajoled, she mumbled" and so on. It was so ridiculous that I stopped to notice it, and put the book down because the dream had been broken.

    "This is what you must never do, now let this be a lesson to you!"

    1. Kassie, I've read books like that too, and it drives me nuts. I get so distracted by the tags I can't follow the story. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I get bored to death with "said". I don't need a bunch of adverbs or descriptive tags, but, please, go easy on the saids.

    If there's evidence you don't know you've made grammatical errors, I'm immediately distracted. I can do all kinds of rule bending IF I see that you know what you're doing. Otherwise: no.

    POV swift changes can work - again if I sense you're doing it with awareness.

    I love versatile, creative styles. I just have to know you know what you're doing.

  6. Nicole, you're so right, too many "saids" can be irritating. As with most things, moderation is the key. I also like that you brought up the voice (versatile, creative style) of the author, it's so important. Thanks for dropping by!

  7. I still remember a line from a YA novel I was reading 40 years ago... four friends were searching for something and three of them decided they'd better bypass a rope ladder leading to an upper level. One of them "looked at the ladder as if he would like to try it..."
    That seemed so lame, it jarred me right out of the story. I tried to come up with better ways to convey the guy's reluctance to leave.
    Thank you for this post! I'll be saving it for reference.

  8. You're so right Edie. If I take the time to read a novel, I want to go to a fictional world that pulls me back, even when life's demands necessitate that I stop reading and say, have to feed my kids! I love worlds that pull me back!


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