Creating the Continuous Dream
John Gardner wrote The Art of Fiction, a classic coverage of learning to write. If you haven’t read it, it is worthwhile although I find him a bit rigid (e.g. he believes that people can have such faults of the soul that they should just walk away from the keyboard). However, he does have one concept—creating the continuous dream—which I find immensely helpful when talking about the difference between a reader and a writer. Okay, the obvious—one reads and one writes—but the continuous dream helps reveal their different roles in fiction.
The reader, the writer, and the continuous dream
As a reader, I want to sink into the world created by the author, to immerse myself completely in the story, to identify with the characters, to feel at home in the writer’s world whether it be a planet in outer space, a different reality, or the story of your life.
When you’re successful in creating this continuous dream, the reader will not even realize he’s in one. He’s likely to experience it as, “I couldn’t put it down,” or “I wanted to make sure the guy got his comeuppance.” For me, I know the continuous dream is working when I near the end of the book and am worried that things are not going to turn out as I want them to for the protagonists.
So, according to Gardner, the job of the writer is to create this continuous dream—that is, a world that a reader can drop into and remain in happily until the end. You want to weave a world which is completely engrossing and persuasive.
Easier said than done, of course. This is where our creativity and mastery of the craft come in. Which is, of course, the subject of this entire blog. But there is one aspect of the continuous dream I want to focus on: the breaking of it.
Breaking the continuous dream
When the reader gets pulled out of the world you created, when she momentarily ‘wakes up,’ she doesn’t say, “Oh, gosh, the writer broke my continuous dream.” Instead, she’s likely to experience this discontinuity as boredom, disinterest, or confusion. She’s more likely to say, “I put it down and just couldn’t get back to it,” or “I tried to get into it, but it didn’t grab me” or, the worst, “I lost interest.”
The problem for the writer is that these types of comments are minimally useful because they provide no clues on how to make the novel fascinating and unputdownable. Nor, realistically, is it the job of the reader to do so. The reader’s job is to read; it’s the writer’s job to figure out how to make the writing compelling so the reader will want to read it.
Of course, writing can be successful largely because of the magic I discuss elsewhere. But there are other, more mechanical means, by which the writer can inadvertently break the continuous dream. What these means are and how to fix them is the subject of the next post.