What Is Fiction and How It's Like Dreaming

On this page, you'll find an answer to the question, "What is fiction?", and an explanation of the incredibly simple Daydream Technique, which can help you write better stories. At the bottom of the page, you'll find more creative writing resources, including our free online writing courses.

What is fiction?

Fiction is make-believe, imaginary. If a story's true, it's non-fiction. If it's made up, it's fiction.

Novels are fiction.
Fairy-tales are fiction.

Newspaper articles are nonfiction (even if they "slant the truth," they are intended to be read as factual). So are encyclopedia articles, biographies, and memoirs.

Though fiction is made up, good fiction often seems more real than a newspaper report. Have you ever read a fiction book where you started to care about the characters, where you felt as if they were your friends or your enemies? (I have a friend who went through all the classic stages of grief -- rage, loss, denial -- after reading about the death of a Harry Potter character). Have you ever felt as if you'd actually visited an imaginary place that you read about in a novel?

A skilled writer can create a kind of dream in the reader's mind. It's like a magic trick, and it's something you can learn how to do.


What is fiction - Where does fiction come from?

You probably have dreams sometimes that take details from your real life and scramble them all up into something new. That's your grandmother standing there, but in your dream, she's also a bank teller, and you're trying to rob the bank, which looks exactly like the kitchen of the house where you grew up. And then the police arrive, and your high school gym teacher is "playing the role" of the chief detective.

Writers are constantly recycling real details in this way. Anything in their lives can show up in a work of fiction; for example:
  • people they know
  • pieces of overheard conversations
  • streets where they've walked
  • events in the newspaper
  • feelings they've had
Just as in dreams, these true details can take on a very different form in a story or a novel. Your fear of dogs can turn into a fictional character's fear of heights. The abandoned shed where you used to hang out with your friends in high school can become the hideout of a fictional teenage runaway. You can give your attractive next-door neighbor a starring role as the romantic hero or heroine who saves your character from a dead-end relationship.

The writer Sue Grafton says she was inspired to write her first murder mystery after fantasizing about killing her ex-husband.

The stories are make-believe, but the details and feelings are real. This can help the writer to imagine the story more vividly and create an intense experience for the reader.

What is fiction - How to think like a writer

Writers tend to be especially observant. They notice and remember small details, the clicking sound a moth makes against a lampshade, the metallic aftertaste of canned string beans, the way the shop assistant sticks out her tongue when she laughs.

When the children's writer Linda Leopold Strauss watches the news with her husband, he sometimes becomes impatient with her because instead of commenting on current events, she tends to comment on the newscasters, their way of talking and small mannerisms.

Such details, transplanted into imagined scenes, make them seem real. Practice really paying attention to the way things look, smell, taste, sound, and feel. Eavesdrop ruthlessly on conversations on the bus. Collect details that you can use later in fiction.

Keeping a journal is a great way to start writing. You can use it to keep track of your observations. Then whenever you need creative writing ideas, you can go to your journal for material.

What is fiction - Daydream it, then write it.

Reading fiction can feel like entering a dream. But writing fiction is different from dreaming because you, as the writer, are in complete control. You can rearrange details from reality in the way that's most interesting or satisfying. In this sense, it is more like daydreaming than actually dreaming.

I told you earlier that there was a "magic trick" you could learn to make your fiction seem real, to create a dream experience for your reader. The trick, as I will explain, is essentially daydreaming. This may sound ridiculously simple, but it really works.

What is fiction - The Daydream Technique

  1. Before you write a scene, daydream it. Focus on making your daydream as vivid and detailed as possible. What exactly is there? What exactly happens? Pay attention to all of your senses, not only sight. What do things sound, smell, feel like? Important: right now focus your energy on improving the daydream. Don't worry about writing yet.

  2. Now start to write, describing the daydream as clearly as possible. Important: don't worry about choosing words that sound good. Don't worry about writing technique. Concentrate only on expressing the daydream as accurately and specifically as you can. I repeat: focus on the daydream and not on the writing. You can go back and improve the writing later.
If you do this, you may find that the words fall into place more smoothly than if you had been paying attention to them. The mind is odd that way -- sometimes too much effort can make us worse at something (like when we try too hard to fall asleep or try too hard to make friends). But if not, no problem. What you're creating now is only a first draft.

Although the words will change as you rewrite and develop the story, the more powerful the daydream you use as a starting point, the more powerful your reader's experience is likely to be.

What is fiction - Next steps

Where to?
  • If you're taking the CWN online writing course, click here to go back to the main courses page. (If you're not taking the course yet, consider yourself invited. It's free.).
  • If you want to try out the daydream technique right now, the CWN creative writing prompts might give you some short story ideas. Click here to go from What is Fiction to the Story Starters section.
  • If you'd like to read more about how to write short stories, click here to go to the main How to Write a Story page, where you'll find a complete list of CWN resources on this topic.


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