Dream Sequences

30 July 2012

From bestselling author and former writing professor Dave Farland:

Most editors will warn you against writing too many dream sequences. The problems in writing about dreams are multitudinous. Very often, a new author will write an opening to a story and feel that it is dull, so he or she will spice it up by putting in an action scene—and then have the character wake up at the end. The editor always feels cheated, and then has to wade through the tedious information that the author was trying to avoid. Editors are very aware of that, and so we get angry when we find that we’ve been suckered into a dream sequence. Usually, we get our vengeance: by gleefully rejecting your manuscript.

Now, the technique can work, but it’s hard to pull off. Your description has to be vivid; your characters need to come alive and become strong protagonists; and you need to be very imaginative. So you can open a tale with a dream sequence, but be forewarned.

The only cliché worse than opening with a dream is where the writer tells an entire story or novel and then ends with a character waking from his dream. Don’t do that one folks. If your editor reads it and then shoots you, it’s considered justifiable homicide.

. . . .

The real problem with writing stories set in dreams is best stated as a series of questions: Really? So what? Who cares?

When you write a story set inside a dream sequence, you as an author have two choices. You can let the reader know that it’s a dream, or you hide it. If you let the reader know that it’s a dream, then the reader isn’t likely to care. After all, you as the author are pointing out, “This is just a story.” On the other hand, if you’re hiding that you’re writing about a dream, then the reader will feel cheated when he or she finds out. In either case, you’ve got some real hurdles to overcome.

Link to the rest at David Farland

David Farland, Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

13 Comments to “Dream Sequences”

  1. Although if you have a dream warrior (psionic or magical), where a dream isn’t just a dream… There may be some wiggle-room.

    • This! Or where your character has visions that foretell the future in dreams. I love dream sequences in books, myself, but I like to know beforehand.

      Or drug-induced hallucinations like the opening to Zelazny’s Sign of Chaos where Merlin and Luke are in an LSD induced bar populated with Alice in Wonderland characters. It was wonderful.

  2. Editors may shoot you. The jury is still out on whether the reader cares. It’s not about the editors anymore, it’s about the customers. Dream on!

  3. I agree with ABeth. In storylines where the Dreamtime is just as important or an integral part of the story, leaving it out would leave the story untold. When the dream and the waking world collide, it can make for a very powerful story.

  4. When the Dreamscape is important, of course, dream away! Using a dream as a crutch for bad story-telling, though, will get you flogged by the person trying to help you make your story better (editor, first reader, best friend, etc.).

  5. There are times it’s appropriate and advances storytelling. The rare times I’ve done it, I make sure the reader knows it’s a dream.

  6. Seems to have worked rather well for Lewis Carroll…

    • That’s because the Alice books were about dream-logic. They depend for their effect on the intellectual appeal of their puzzles, parodies, and paradoxes, where most stories depend on the emotional appeal of the central character’s struggle to overcome the central problem.

      If Alice had a real problem to overcome, we would be furious with Carroll for solving it by just letting her wake up. But we don’t mind when she is there primarily as a tourist encountering the grotesque denizens of Wonderland and the Looking-Glass world. It is the journey that holds our interest, not the destination.

      • And also, Carroll was pretty much cuing us all along that Wonderland was operating on dream-logic. We were being told, again and again, that this was a dream. Not flat-out, but really, the foreshadowing was being laid on really thick.

  7. any time you say never, and that you are an editor who will reject out of hand, cant say this fosters the creative spirit. Some of the best of the writings of magic realism and other forms of alternative realities including dreams, are worthy beginnings, middles or ends. The writing is the issue. Not that a dream is used. Not even the reveal that ‘this is a dream.’ Just the writing. While I agree with the ‘leading on’ of the reader perhaps not being understood as wonderful, I’d say all erotica and all novels are not real either, and definitely ‘lead the reader on.’. The idea that a dream sequence or entire book as dream is somehow less real than made up stuff which composes all literary and pulp works, makes me laugh at the absurdist point of view.

    • any time you say never, and that you are an editor who will reject out of hand, cant say this fosters the creative spirit.

      Sometimes it fosters the contrary spirit, though. Marion Zimmer Bradley said “No more ‘in this town we don’t send a girl to do a man’s work’ stories” — so I sent in one last twist on that which I hadn’t seen printed, in 200 words. And it got bought. (And earned me small royalties for aaaaaages. May yet earn more.)

  8. I open a scene, not the book, with a short dream in which the dreamer has a very brief sequence in one of the horse-drawn carriages in NYC around Central Park. The trigger for the bit of dream, with its rhythmic clacking of horse’s hooves, is someone knocking on a hotel door.

    Since I’ve had this kind of trigger – something outside being connected with something inside the dream – happen to me (usually when in very light sleep), it seemed reasonable. The content of the dream is an emotional connection to the character which exposes a bit of backstory and foreshadows something that hits in a later chapter.

    I like the way it works in the story. I think the key is keeping something like this quite short, almost like a thought the character has which is triggered by something happening.

  9. Those of us who don’t usually remember our dreams find dream sequences very conventional and unconvincing. Sort of like the obligatory pastorals with a shepherdess — it’s not anything like animal husbandry, there’s all these crazy ruffles, and at the end it’s just an excuse for convention.

    For us non-rememberers, dream sequences should be about three sentences long, and usually end with some kind of sudden shock to explain why you remember anything at all. Also, they should only happen if something is very wrong with the character’s life or health.

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