On Word Choice and John Gardner’s “Fictional Dream”

Lamar Giles, Spalding MFA Faculty, Writing for Children & Young Adults

There’s an excerpt that I share with every student I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching. It’s by John Gardner (1933-1982) and comes from his essay “Basic Skills, Genre, and Fiction as Dream,” which appears in the anthology Crafting Fiction: In Theory, In Practice, edited by Marvin Diogenes and Clyde Moneyhun. While the entire essay is a marvel of craft advice and analysis, it’s the portion about the fictional dream that stuck with me so long ago, and that I make sure every writer willing to take advice from me at least knows about. Like my mom says, “You can’t say no one never told you.”

A dear writing teacher presented the essay to me when I was 19 years old, and as you can see, it’s never left me. You might say it haunts me. At two paragraphs, I can’t share the whole excerpt here, but this line is the chief specter: “If we carefully inspect our experience as we read, we discover that the importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind…”.  This passage articulated flawlessly an experience I’d only been loosely aware of: the sensation of losing yourself in someone’s words, that impression of slipping out of this world and into the pages you hold. It’s a sensation I only experienced in my favorite books, I realized. It was a trick I needed to duplicate if I was to eventually produce professional-level work. But how? Fortunately, Gardner was not without answers.

For the dream to work, it must be vivid and continuous. “By detail, the writer achieves vividness; to make the scene continuous, he takes pains to avoid anything that might distract the reader…”.

Simple, right?

Not exactly. If only a couple of quoted lines from an essay could transform us into master scribes. While Gardner provides examples in the form of a scene featuring two snakes fighting— “the heads hover, jaws wide, slowly swaying and then strike; … the teeth sink in, … the tails switch and lash”—the conceptualization of creating the fictional dream is both deceptively simple (strong verbs and nouns help) and unimaginably difficult (which verbs and nouns?). Here’s the thing, though…were you thinking in these terms before I (or Gardner) mentioned them?



Lamar Giles is an author, speaker, and founding member of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.  His latest novel, Overturned, was called “an utterly compelling whodunit” in a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. He holds an MFA from Old Dominion University.

School of Creative and Professional Writing

Spalding University

851 S. Fourth Street

Louisville, Kentucky 40203

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