On the issue of whether or not to include a dream sequence in your novel/story, I’ve gone back and forth many times. At a point, I was opposed, attributing them as nothing more than gimmicks or vessels to further move the plot. The inclusion of dreams in a novel was lazy and cliché. But I’ve since changed my viewpoint. While I still think they are often poorly written, they have their place when done correctly and can be an extremely powerful tool for authors.
With all that said, here are my tips for when and how to include a dream sequence.
Dream Sequence Shoulds (…or what factors can help make your character’s dream work):
- Most importantly, the dream sequence must advance the plot of the novel, the growth of a character or both, and it must do it in a way that doesn’t denigrate the story’s credibility. Dreams that don’t move the story can make it feel static and most often wastes the reader’s time.
- Remember to consider how your character reacts to the dream after he or she wakes up. The character dismissing the dream is a viable option, but is it the best option (It might be)? However, if you plan to build upon the character’s reaction or interpretation of the dream, it should be consistent with how the culture within the story views dreams and also consistent with how the character tends to look at the world (for instance, if the character is stanch about revenge, he or she would probably be blind to an interpretation contending that revenge is folly).
- Work out in your novel’s outline what your dream sequence represents in the novel. Effective dreams in novels often help a character solve problems, as they serve as a kind of window into his or her subconscious.
- The dream sequence should be flagged so the reader is clear that a dream is occurring. This can be accomplished many different ways. One method is to simply tell the reader the character is dreaming: Character X was visited by a strange dream. In the dream… Another method is to change the diction, tone, voice, or what not throughout the dream sequence. Some authors italicize the entire sequence, or change the tense from past to present.
Dream Sequence Should-Nevers (or perhaps only on the rarest occasions, as never is a bold word in fiction writing):
- A dream sequence should not be used to show a glimpse of the endgame of the novel without providing context of where the dream came from or what it means. I’ve seen this many a time, and it drives me nuts. For example, Author, John Booger-brains, plops a dream sequence right smack at the opening of his novel. In the dream, the female character is holding a man she has never met. He is badly beaten, but standing on his own feet and smiling at her, professing his love. She returns his sentiments with a kiss, and then he says something obviously deep, but which bears no context whatsoever to the reader. The dreamer awakens with a start and is confused by this dream. Dun-dun-dunnnnnn. Then, at the very end of the novel, the author reintroduces this exact scene, filling in the ambiguities and gaps of the chapter one version. While this is foreshadowing, it’s cheap, condescending and cheating and a reader will see right through it. This is lazy foreshadowing.
- A dream sequence should not be lengthy. Dreams work best as a hook or transitory passage. Real-life sleeping dreams are usually short, supplying only fragments of a scene. We remember full scenes because the mind fills in the blanks of what’s implied.
- Dreams in a novel shouldn’t disregard the nature of real-life dreams. For example, we often dream of symbols that are important to us (symbols in dreams don’t have to be universally understood, but they do have to be significant to the character who’s dreaming). Conversely, dreams rarely tell you exactly what to do in life; at best, the messages are cryptic, if not all out gibberish. Yet it’s not uncommon in movies for a character to have a dream where a deceased loved one appears to answer specific questions or supply a step-by-step guide of what to do next. This is not a dream; this is a vision…flashbacks are something else entirely. Authors intending to write dream sequences should know the difference between these things.
When considering the relevance of your dream sequence, think about what revelation or clue to a revelation the dreaming character is obtaining. If there are no clues or revelations, it may be that the dream is meant to haunt the character by bringing up a painful, or perhaps guilt-ridden, memory. If none of these factors apply, you may want to rethink whether to include the dream sequence at all. Oftentimes irrelevant dream sequences make their way into drafts of a novel because the authors like how they were written. Make sure you’re not shoehorning a dream sequence into the story just because.
Many readers will look at a dream sequence with the mindset of Oh no! Not ANOTHER one of these! That means if you’re going to include one (or more), you’ve got that hurdle to tackle, so your dream sequence had better be near-perfect and powerful. The bottom line is that you need to give your dream sequences a long, hard look. Ask yourself: is there another, better way? Dreams are not altogether off-limits in novel writing, but they are one of those things considered to be overused and often poorly executed.