top of page

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

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

Lamar Giles

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.”

MFA Gardner

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?

Maybe you were. Maybe this means nothing to you even after my mention. Or, maybe you’re like me, and a light bulb’s gone off. So now, every time you sit to write or revise, you agonize over the exact right word to use! It’s maddening, and anxiety-inducing, and partial misery…until you find it. Until you’ve found the first right word, and the next right word, and the next, each one a hook snagging your reader and pulling them—vividly, continuously—into a realm of your making. As hard as it was for you to create the dream, if it’s hard for your reader to leave, then you, I, and Gardner have done our jobs. So dream on!


mfa giles

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.



bottom of page