In the past several posts we have been unpacking the “flashback.” But, over the course of us talking about flashbacks and how to deliver backstory, a lot of people have asked about dream sequences. Before we continue, I will say this again “Anything can be done.” Writing rules are always being broken but to break them well we need to know why they exist in the first place.
Thus, today we are going to talk about dream sequences and why they don’t work and look at instances where the do (which are rare, btw).
Dream Sequences to Hook
Often new writers will begin with some cool fantastical scene to hook the reader then POOF! The character wakes up and “Ha, ha. It wasn’t real. It was a dream.” This backfires for a number of reasons. First of all, our first five pages are some of our most critical. They are the best selling tool we have for an agent, an editor and even a potential reader.
Think about your own book-buying adventures. When we browse a book store, what do we do? We read the first page or two to make a choice. If the first five pages don’t entice us, most likely we will move on.
As an editor for years, the first five pages are also a pretty good litmus for the overall writing. It’s like a cardiologist doesn’t need to crack open your chest to see if you have a bum ticker. Often the blood pressure, pale skin, sweats and dizziness are more than telling enough.
Same with the first five pages. I don’t need to read the entire book to tell every bad habit. I usually need five pages and almost never need over twenty.
Trick at Our Own Risk
This said, dream sequences that “trick” the reader will usually tick them off. Our job as authors is to manipulate the audience, but the audience should never “feel” manipulated. We have to be subtle.
Since the first five pages are telling about the rest of the work, if a writer has tricked me in the beginning, I realize that I can’t trust anything else that follows. Since I don’t trust, it can prevent me from being submerged into the fictive dream.
Reminds me of my dad trying to teach me to swim. He had a sadistic sense of humor and found dunking me when I didn’t know how to swim funny. Problem was, I needed to be able to trust so I could relax enough to learn. Since he dunked me the first time and left me choking for air? Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Aaaand that is why MOM ended up teaching me to swim.
We have to be very careful about breaking the reader’s trust if we hope to submerge them in our world.
Also, dream sequences are very jarring. The reader is in one place and one setting with one group of people. Just about the time the reader is oriented (hooked), POOF! The scene, setting, etc. all change and the reader needs to orient all over AGAIN. Any time we shift like this and a reader has to adjust, we’ve provided a great place for a bookmark (which is bad).
When we hook with a dream and then shift, we then have the job of hooking again. Hooking once is already tough. Why make more work?
Dreams in Movies
Dream sequences might work well in movies, but remember we are dealing with a very different medium. Movies often will employ dream sequences because movies are at an inherent disadvantage. Movies only can use two senses; sight and sound. Movies are not only lacking three other senses, they also can’t relay what is going on inside a character’s head. This means they need to do things differently than a novel and that’s why dream sequences in a movie are more acceptable than in books.
An example would be the movie Gladiator. In Gladiator there are a couple of visually stunning scenes where Maximus dreams of his family and seeing them in the Elysian Fields. In this instance, a movie can get away with this because this feeling/sensation can’t be relayed in narrative like a novel. Additionally, since movies are visual and passive, it is clear we are in a dream so we don’t get the same disruption.
But I will add that even in screenwriting, writers are strongly discouraged from relying on dreams.
Dreams as Training Wheels
Dreams are more often than not in the same category as a “training wheel flashback.” It is a ham-fisted way of dumping backstory. Or, it is deus ex machina intervening to bail the writer out of a major plot problem.
The protagonist is in a real spot but then she has a DREAM and POOF! the answer appears.
Remember that the protagonist must do the hard work. The protagonist begins with a “normal.” This “normal” is then shattered with the inciting incident that introduces the story problem and shifts the protagonist’s world out of balance. The entire plot is the protagonist working to restore a “new normal” but the protagonist must do the heavy lifting.
Thus dreams that passively supply answers count as cheating more often than not.
Killing Our Page-Turning Tension
Remember when we talked about backstory and how telling too much could actually ruin tension and conflict because it makes the reader comfortable? The same thing can also happen with dream sequences.
Readers turn pages because they crave answers. Tension creates momentum.
And the thing about dreams is that if we (the readers) know this is a true dream, we aren’t worried for the protagonist because we know dreams aren’t real. If it is only a dream, there are no consequences. Dreams are by definition passive. Passivity kills story tension.
Kills it. Dead.
Now that we have talked about all the reasons dreams can go sideways, we will discuss how they might be used well.
Dreams as a Device
Often in paranormal stories we are dealing with someone who might have psychic abilities. Yes, dreams can be used, but make sure the dreams are generating more questions than answers and are propelling the plot forward. In this instance, dreams become part of the story.
For instance a psychic who has a dream of a murdered girl and the dream is what puts her eventually into the investigation. But in this case, the dream is a literary device, not a prop.
In this case the dream should be used sparingly. No convenient dreams to give clues or offer clear direction. That’s cheating.
Dreams as Plot
In The Cell the entire story involves a therapist traveling into the dreams of a serial killer using advanced technology that can put her into that world. The dreams are part of the story and there is no story without the dream world.
In the beginning we get these fantastical scenes when social worker Catherine Deane is in the dreams of traumatized children. Eventually she enters the dream world of deranged killer Carl Stargher to locate a girl he abducted before he fell into a coma. The goal is to hunt for clues in the dream world to help the FBI find the girl in the real world before the victim dies.
Yet, I will say that from Act II on, this would not be a dream sequence because the actual STORY is taking place in the mind of the killer.
If I were to recreate such a story in a novel, I would not italicize but I might add a chapter heading that denotes real world from dream world and then structure accordingly. The reason this can work in a novel (and a story) is that there are life and death consequences for Deane in this dream world. If she falls too deeply into this twisted reality, fear can kill her.
Anyone else thinking about Freddy right now? And we wonder why every kid of the 80s suffered insomnia .
Dreams to Propel Plot
The movie Cake with Jennifer Aniston did a pretty good job of using dreams (and there is a tad of a spoiler so you were warned). Aniston plays Claire Bennett, a woman who is suffering from severe chronic pain. The movie opens with Claire in a support group for those who suffer chronic pain and they are trying to cope with the suicide of a fellow member of the group.
It is clear from the beginning that Claire is very bitter and extremely angry. She doesn’t handle death well at ALL.
Then she dreams of Nina Collins, the woman who committed suicide and left her husband and young son behind.
Nina actually serves as another character who propels Claire along the plot and character arc. Claire has never grieved her son who was killed in the accident that has left her crippled. Claire has pushed away everyone she loves and numbs the pain with drugs. She is a woman trapped. She is too angry and frightened to move forward which means she is neither living or dying.
Nina (dream/hallucination) doesn’t conveniently supply answers, but she does shove Claire out of her comfort zone. Claire is propelled to understand why she is dreaming/hallucinating about a woman she barely knew and the answer is that Nina is a manifestation of her own internal desire to end her own life. Nina challenges her to make a choice and get out of limbo.
Live or die.
But, if she is going to choose life, it will be painful emotionally (grieving her son, letting go of guilt, repairing her wrecked marriage) and physically (painful rehabilitation and drug withdrawal).
There is nothing “convenient” about Dream Nina and there is no story without her.
First of all, if you do have a dream sequence, make it clear it is a dream. Often dream sequences will be clearly sectioned off and in italics. Also, work to keep them SHORT.
If the dream world is part of a setting, make sure there are consequences. If I am just going through some harrowing adventure and I know the characters aren’t actually in any real danger? Snoozefest.
In the end, make sure the dreams are necessary because they are risky. Yes, we can envision these fantastical worlds because we built them. For someone who isn’t creating this dream world, it could just be jarring and confusing. Make sure the dream isn’t there to simply supply backstory and convenient plot clues. Make the characters work.
What are your thoughts? Can you think of books that used dream sequences well? I really couldn’t which was why I used movies. Most of the dream sequences I’ve seen that used dreams either were Eh writing or if the dream worked it was because it was another world with real consequences and thus not what I would call a “dream sequence” (since it is simply a shift in setting and bad things CAN happen).
Before we go, my log-line class will be Wednesday Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line . This class will include me gutting your log-line in class (or via e-mail if you’re shy) to make it agent ready. We should be able to tell others what our story is about in one sentence or odds are we have a big problem. Class is recorded and the recording and shredding are included.
Also, due to popular demand, I am rerunning my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of the month and I am doing something different. Gold Level includes me looking (and shredding your first five) but I have added in some higher levels and will look at up to 20 pages. This can be really useful if you’re stuck. I can help you diagnose the problems. It’s also a great deal if you have to submit to an agent and want to make your work the best it can be.
June’s Winner Christine Ardigo. Please submit your 5000 words via a WORD docx attachment to kristen at wana intl dot com and CONGRATULATIONS!
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