There are sometimes moments in works of fiction where the author needs to convey something to the reader without ambiguity. Let's say the situations around the characters get so weird that the author starts to worry that the reader will think it is all a dream. The author needs to convey an absolute truth to the reader saying it is not, getting past that hangup and moving further.

The way I see this most commonly done in fiction is with the mentor character. Gandalf always tells the absolute truth about the universe. Even if Bilbo Baggins meets Gandalf in a weird situation if Gandalf says this is not a dream, the reader will believe it's not a dream.

Another such devices I commonly see is using small children. If a small child likes a character they are not evil. It's that simple.

Now in my work I don't have a mentor or a small child available. What is another way I can signal the reader that something is absolutely true, and they do not need to worry about it?

  • 12
    Mentor characters lie to protagonists all the time. Obi-Wan Kenobi being the classic example. Apr 26, 2018 at 14:00
  • Are you concerned about one moment, or throughout the book? It seems you could define the leading (non-mentor) character early on as someone who is 'too literal' or never dreams, or always takes things at face value ...
    – SFWriter
    Apr 26, 2018 at 14:05
  • 3
    @ArcanistLupus He didn't really lie, everything was true from a certain point of view. (/sarcasm)
    – Anoplexian
    Apr 26, 2018 at 17:33
  • 1
    If someone I completely trust tells me I'm not dreaming, that may just mean that I'm dreaming them telling me that I'm not dreaming . . .
    – ruakh
    Apr 26, 2018 at 20:32
  • 1
    @ruakh it's not about the character, it's about the reader
    – Andrey
    Apr 26, 2018 at 21:08

5 Answers 5


@MarkBaker and @Cloudchaser are correct, in most situations you can just tell the reader: "It seemed like a dream, but it wasn't." However, what if you have a first-person narrator? Or a close third-person perspective, such that the narrator could conceivably either fooled, or lying? What then?

You might not realize it, but you can whisper the "Word of Truth" (note: TV Tropes) right into the characters' ears. Just signal it with a phrase like "somehow I knew...":

Somehow I knew it was not a dream...

Somehow I knew I could trust him...

Just don't overuse it, or betray the reader's faith in it.

  • 1
    While I completely agree with your answer i don't think this is a "word of truth" trope. That one seems to imply to things written or spoken outside the canonical source
    – Andrey
    Apr 26, 2018 at 21:10
  • 1
    @Andrey That's a fair quibble. The point, however, is that you are an authoritative source of information for your characters if you choose to be... Apr 27, 2018 at 1:46

If you want to say something to the reader, just say it. You are writing a novel, not a movie. You are narrating the whole thing and everything in it is said by you to the reader.

In LOTR, Tolkien outright tells us all sorts of things. There are other things that we learn only when they are spoken by a character, usually because it is crucial to the development of a character that they learn about this thing at this time. The revelation is part of the moral development of the character arc, and so it is appropriate that we learn of it when the character does -- we are following their journey, after all and we learn as they learn.

But there is no absolute obligation to reveal all information in this way. There may be information that the character already knows that the reader does not, or information that the reader needs to know before the character or that the character never finds out. Thus there is all sorts of information about the Shire and the habits of hobbits that Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin would all be totally aware of. So Tolkien simply tells us that information directly.


You can tell the reader directly

and that is how it is commonly done.

The world wasn't as bad as Jamie thought, but he didn't know it at the time.

That's why you call it an "omniscient narrator".


Here are some that I would consider using, in addition to the two you mention:

Define the character as very literal. In stories like Extremely loud and incredibly close we learn that the boy is autistic and see the entire narrative through that lens. You can define your character as someone for whom experiences are to be taken at face value. I would probably choose this approach.

Or. Allow it to be a dream ... and work the actual truth to fit into the dream. In The Life of Pi, we don't know if the entire story is true or not, in fact we believe that it is, It is only at the end that we realize the true story was something completely different. Yet, through that, a greater truth was communicated. This is in some ways opposite to what you are saying, but I think it could be worked into a useful format.

Or. If you have multiple limited points of view, in a separate part of the story with separate characters, make it clear that the core item you are concerned about is communicated in a believable way. Then when it shows up 'in a dream' (or however it shows up), the reader will know that the important thread was already demonstrated as truth.

Maybe - Introduce dreams earlier with a defining characteristic (a rule of your world) and be certain that detail is clearly presented in the 'truth' moment as 'not dream.' This was the trick used in the movie Inception.

  • Re: "In stories like Extremely loud and incredibly close we learn that the boy is autistic": Wait, what? It's probably been seven or eight years since I read that book, so I'm not 100% sure, but I really don't remember the narrator saying he's autistic. Are you certain about that?
    – ruakh
    Apr 26, 2018 at 20:36
  • @ruakh It's my recollection (I could be wrong) but these definitions also change (I think there's no longer a spectrum, for example.) The story, when I read it, seemed clear - The subway scene with the rat was the scene that made me think it was a correct interpretation. No idea if the author states it. Subtext.
    – SFWriter
    Apr 26, 2018 at 21:13

There are several ways to address this, so I will try to list/explain all the ways I'm familiar with.

Just Have The Narrator Say So

This only really works if there is a narrator, and the reader has sufficient reason to believe they are reliable. But it is the simplest.

Provide an External Source of Truth

This has the flaw of not being inline (presented as soon as it's relevant). However if a book comes with a Map, or Codex (Encyclopedia); The reader will have no reason to doubt it as a source of absolute truth. Some readers might miss it, but it will be there for anyone to easily tell/prove that something is a fact.

Create an Aside

In a play, this normally takes the form of all the actors freezing while one of the characters, or the narrator, steps out to speak directly to the audience. In Literature, this is fairly rare, but there are two examples I can give.

  • A text box on the side of a page or between paragraphs.
  • A block of text formatted differently, and separated from the main text with plenty of white space.

The main idea remains the same. This text is visually very distinct from the main text, and often uses a very blunt-matter-of-fact tone; Usually also a different font. The reader should be able to tell this text is a type of Aside before they even read a single letter of it.

This is very format (display) dependent, so requires you to actually have control over the display of the text. Also requires to be used every so often so that it isn't jarring/out-of-place.

Very Heavily Imply It

While strictly not an "Absolute" truth, I feel it is worth mentioning because in real life, there is no such thing as absolute truths. We can't prove that ghosts don't exist, but the lack of randomly floating objects or photos makes a pretty compelling case. We also have no idea how or why gravity works, but it hasn't failed us yet in all of recorded history so why would it stop tomorrow? Rocket science is based on that trust! However, for all we know, gravity could have an expiration date.

Creating a long and consistent case that something is a fact will be good enough for most readers; and for those who aren't convinced? Do you really want to tell them "Santa isn't real"? Let them have their fun theory.

The down side of this is that it somewhat requires the entire story to act as the "source of truth", so doesn't really help in a short term to reassure the reader of a fact as they are reading.

Foreshadowing / Good Chapter Titles

This one is a little close to implied, but even if you have a first person narrative, the author still has ways to talk to the audience.

Even in a first person narrative, Chapter Titles are from the author, not the narrator. So even if the narrator is unreliable, chapter titles can provide strong clues or facts about the current situation. (In some cases, like the the game Dead Space, the First letter of each chapter is used to spell out a secret truth)

Foreshadowing that something is the case, if you are able to do so, can help reassure the reader that something is real. For example, in the story for Scrooge, the main character is told he will be visited by 3 ghosts. When exactly 3 ghosts appear to him, this tells him and the reader that this wasn't a fluke, and that everything was real/intended.

This is good for 1-off truths but can be a little too subtle for some readers. It also is limited for very short/simple facts. It also requires some creative thinking, so may be hard to implement in practice.

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