Avoiding the Dream Tumble – how to write fantasy without putting your readers to sleep

I see a lot of lists posted on twitter. Since I follow a lot of writers and people who provide resources for authors, a lot of these lists have titles like, “Eights Techniques to Overcome Writer’s Block,” “Five Ways to Craft a Reluctant Protagonist.”

Sometimes I click the links, sometimes not. If I read one of the articles, it is usually well-done. It might add a little to my arsenal of knowledge.

A few days ago I saw one called “Ten Rules for Writing Science Fiction.” I clicked.

The article talked about the importance of world building and rules. All good stuff, and important to have in mind.

But I have to admit I’m starting to get tired of these lists. When I was in art school, no one gave me a list called “Ten Rules to Master Figure Drawing.” If they had, it would have gone something like this:

  1. Make sure you include the eyes, hands, and the feet. This makes your subject human.
  2. Pay as much attention to shadow as to light.
  3. Sketch in the basics first, come back to add detail later.
  4. Use your eraser. A lot.
  5. Walk away from your easel frequently. Look at your work, and the model, from a distance.
  6. The model will move. A muscle that started relaxed will end up taut. Deal with it.
  7. Don’t be afraid to make a mess. A pastel wash can add a lot of life to a bland pose.
  8. Relax while you’re drawing. Try not to think about the time limit, but don’t dwell too long on any one body part.
  9. Don’t waste time on the pillow. Just don’t.
  10. Remember that everyone around you is also looking at a naked person.

These are good rules – all of them quite important if you’re going to draw successfully.

But you could follow them all to the letter and still end up with an awful drawing.

The truth is, figure drawing is ridiculously difficult to master. You have to draw and draw and draw. Rules or no rules, there’s no other way to get good at it.

So while it is true there are certain things one should keep in mind while writing fantasy, I try to think of it a bit more organically. I have the rules in the back of my mind, sure, but the measuring stick I use all the time, every day, is making sure I avoid something I call the dream tumble.

The fun thing about writing fantasy is you can make anything happen. Your world can be anything you want, your characters can have wings or hooves or horns. It doesn’t matter as long as you make it work.

The problem is, some authors let their imaginations run a little too wild. They abandon reality, don’t give us anything with which to ground the plot and characters, and all of sudden their work has tumbled into the realm of dreams.

When was the last time you were out to lunch with your best friend and she said, “Oh, I had the strangest dream last night.” Probably not that long ago, right? And when she said this, did you set your sandwich down, lean forward with real eagerness and curiosity and say, “Really? What did you dream?”

No, you didn’t, did you? You probably heaved an internal sigh and either countered with, “Oh, me too,” hoping to untrack her with the implication that if she told her dream, you’d tell yours. Or you prepared yourself to tune out and said (like a good friend), “What happened?”

The truth is, other people’s dreams aren’t interesting. They just aren’t. As your friend talks about running through a hurricane with her brother who turned into her old friend from high school who then led her up a lighthouse that got knocked over by a giant turtle, your eyes glaze over. Dreams are boring because they are grounded in nothing, they pertain to nothing. Sure, it’s all fascinating when you’re dreaming, but when you try to turn that dream into a story, it’s a colossal bore.

Last week I picked up a book. It was YA Fantasy, and had a promising premise. But within the first two chapters I had met a boy and his sister, they’d fallen through a vent in a laundry mat and suddenly they were hanging out with giant talking cockroaches and transparent people riding bats.

For me, it didn’t work. It felt like a dream. The author hadn’t earned the bats and cockroaches, hadn’t grounded me in the world before things got a little crazy, hadn’t gotten me to feel invested in the characters. I had thought I was going to get a good story, and there I was in a yawn-worthy dream-sequence instead.

I put the book down, and I haven’t picked it up again.

So when I am in the draft stage of fantasy writing, I don’t worry about rules. I just ask myself constantly, “Does this sound like someone’s dream?”

If the answer is yes, I know it’s time for a few less talking unicorns.

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