It is far too often that writing advice dispensers will recommend that we skip out on dream sequences. There could be a great deal of reasons for this, many along the lines of chessiness, unoriginality, hamfistedness, or whatever else pops in your mind. And, as with all things, these complaints are valid to a certain extent.
Which brings to question why I ignore this nugget of advice.
Call me stubborn, call me artsy, call me pretentious, I really don’t care. I enjoy writing dream sequences if only for the fact that they can provide a break from the real-world action that’s taking place within the story. There are countless people who would disagree on this topic vehemently with me, and to them I say that they are free to do as they choose. If you want to listen to all those people who tell you to ignore dream sequences, then that’s fine with me. Hell, I even understand it. But as with many other cases, this is another situation of subjective preferences that have been transformed into “factual” advice.
And this is the kind of cancer that I feel has infested the writing community as of late. Be it the creation of one’s characters or settings, or the dictation of which scenes should be
written and which should not, there seems to be a crowd of individuals dedicated to slowly removing handy tools from the writer’s bag of tricks. But that’s another subject for another time.
Being the hipster that I am, I’ve decided to go against the current wave of mainstream writing advice and help you address the problems that could arise with a dream sequence. The people who would discourage you from writing these would claim that dream sequences are flawed by their inherent nature, and while I acknowledge the existence of these flaws, I believe that they can be fixed. So without further ado, let’s get on with the show.
1. Internalize that your dream sequence is a tool that you can use
This might seem obvious, but I intend to delve deeper into it. When I say that the use of a dream in a novel is that of a tool, much like many of the other things that you can write, that carries a few things that you should realize about them. Namely, that being the tools they are, one must ask themselves what their functions and purpose are.
But what do I mean by this?
Well, you need to understand that a dream sequence can’t just be something that pops out for no reason. But this is something that most people already know. If something’s going to be in your manuscript then it ought to have a reason for being there. But what I see in far too many dream scenes is that the writer doesn’t take the opportunity to
expound on new information with this new medium of storytelling. Often times, they do the exact opposite!
What many of them do is just restate information that they had covered earlier in a way that they feel is “deeper” or “philosophical”. And this can really kill a dream sequence. Consider the fact that you already had a tidbit of information related to you, or that you already read through an event occurring in the actual world of the book. When that information is relayed to you over the dream, it’s just a confusing version of the concise information you heard before. When the dream is an event that has already occurred but one that is placed in an artsier fashion, it’ll be boring unless you add new information. Because all you’ll be seeing is an abstract version of actions that were already performed concretely.
So when dreams are used as tools they need to add information to the story (This can be anything, from foreshadowing to a character’s emotions being put on display. What I consider as information can be rather loose.) and should they restate old events, they should bring new information along with them.
2. Bearing that in mind…be careful in how you present the message
This is another commons mistake that you’ll see rather often. When writers are given control of a dream sequence, they see an opportunity with it. In essence, they turn it into a cost-effective way of advancing the plot or an easy way to reveal a character’s psychological makeup. Both of which, are in essence, not bad things.
But the problem comes with how easy it is to make a dream sequence into a forced monologue that is blunt with the information that it hands out. Often you will see direct plot points and twists revealed within a dream sequence, killing some of the tension that we may have held for those events occurring in the future of the story. Ironically enough, a dream has the potential to become the most straightforward and uncreative way to expound on a plot.
So how can we fix this?
Well, remember how I said that we need to think of the dream sequence as a tool at our disposal? You have to keep in mind that all tools have unique features to them that justify their existence. In the case of dreams, it’s the potential to use vivid imagery that you might never be able to justify in any other part of your story. You can take advantage of symbolism (good symbolism, not obvious symbolism) and the emotions that your character is feeling to create a decent portrait with words.
It’s sad that when dreams have the potential to be the most subtle form of storytelling, they more often than not end up as the inverse. So make sure that you relay your message through subtle, not cryptic, means in your story. Rather than showing an event directly, you could show us only a part of it. Perhaps instead of showing us that a character is going to be murdered in a dream, you could say that the dreamer could perceive familiar cries for help in his dream. Or maybe that the dreamer could smell a rotting corpse in his dream. These are just a couple of ideas that might suit your fancy, but these can be turned into anything so long as they are subtle clues that don’t show the whole picture.
3. Don’t be afraid to summarize it, rather than show it in its entirety
This isn’t meant to say that all dream sequences are better off when they are summarized. I understand that many of them, including mine, tend to go on for just a bit longer than that. But there have been many occasions where just a brief summary of what occurred in the dream can have more of an effect on the reader.
You have to understand that summarizing a dream rather than just describing everything inside of it can occasionally yield to heightening the mystery behind its meaning. It gives the character the same impression that most people have when they wake up from their dreams. That they remember next to nothing about them.
This all really depends on what type of story you’re making or what type of message you are trying to convey, but don’t afraid to change up the way that you write your dreams. Hell, sometimes you might even get tired of writing dream sequences and you just want to summarize rather than describe them, which is also fine. The length of the dream should vary depending on the kind of effect that you want to achieve on the reader.
Unfortunately, there’s little in the way of concrete advice that I could give you in this regard. As this question is immensely case-sensitive. And there’s no way for me to scour through your mind until I can give you an individualized answer.
At the end of the day, a dream sequence can be equal parts cringy as it can be powerful. Dreams can serve to bring about emotions that are difficult to describe in any other way and they often grant insights to the deepest desires of your characters. We must not let the subjective opinions of others masquerade themselves as being legitimate advice, lest we wish to abandon the many tools that writers of ages past had acquired through hard work and creativity.
As always, this has been the QuestingAuthor. Keep Writing, my friends. And give a like if you enjoyed the content 😀