Dream sequences in novels—when and how can they be effective?

Dream BubbleOn 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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

About authorphilpartington

Phil is a writing enthusiast of many years, having been published in numerous online and national print trade and sports publications over the past decade. He has spent the past five years delving back into the world of fiction writing, focussing on the fantasy, horror and suspense genres. Deshay of the Woods is his first novel.
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26 Responses to Dream sequences in novels—when and how can they be effective?

  1. Casey says:

    The best dream sequence I ever saw in a novel was in “The Amber Spyglass” (third book in the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman). The main character is being kept asleep forcibly and you’re given insight to her one, long continuous dream through INFURIATINGLY (in a good way) broken up snippets that are interspersed with the story as it’s continuing on outside of her unconsciousness. I liked that it wasn’t the typical “I’m disturbed by something, let me reinforce that through a dream sequence” insert that you come to expect.

  2. Ah Casey, I love stories that can pull off prolonged dream sequences like that, but I consider that type of character dream as falling in a completely different category, almost an alternate world/parallel universe sort of thing, where the greatest challenge is maintaining clarity between the two happenings (the ‘real world’ and the ‘dream world’). Also difficult to pull off but wonderful when it succeeds.

  3. I’m using short dream sequences thoughout my novel to allow the main character to get a feel for and glimpse at an artifact’s past. It’s working for me at the moment but when I finish the novel I’ll look back at your advice and check again. Great blog!

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  5. Great advice. In my current project, I am writing a very brutal dream sequence where the main character is finally proposed to by her love interest and indeed marries him and has children. Meanwhile, the audience knows that the love interest died before the dream took place. So when she awakens and finds out that the long life she has planned with her spouse and children can never happen, I can pick up the pieces of an emotionally shattered heroine. The dream is interspersed and none of the scenes are all that lengthy. But I loved this idea – as one of the themes of this novel is about overcoming tragic loss – and I am hoping it will be a success.

  6. Brittany says:

    Dreams are difficult to utilize in a story. In the project I’m working on (I’m about twenty-five thousand words in), the second dream is getting ready to come in. It’s a repeating dream, vague and dark, and also highlights a few vaguer comments made by some ‘static’ characters along the way. The MC can only go so far in the dream before waking up, but each time she dreams, she gets a bit closer. It’s kind of like trying to walk up a river with a hard, fast current.

    Difficult, and utterly dangerous.

    I’m hoping it’ll work out well. I’ve plotted a general ‘where dreams go’ in the book outline, so there is a place for each to be plotted at. Thanks for sharing your insight! And best of luck to everyone here, and everyone who comes here after me.

    • Best of luck, Brittany. The other hurdle you face is that, commercially, agents, pubbers and the likes all tend to (from what I’ve heard) come into dream sequences with a pre-conceived stigma that they’re probably not going to work well, and perhaps get a little gimmicky. I say, if it feels right, roll with it and see what happens. 🙂

  7. Indigo says:

    I have a novel that starts with a dream. However, the dream is of an event that really happened, a performance of sky dancers, which the MC wants to do when he grows up. Him seeing this at the summer festival is what kick-starts the flight-focused plotline later. I had a hard time figuring out how to start it with the sky dancing during the summer, and then jump to the rest of the book’s events weeks later when school restarts. Since the sky dancing was such a short scene, I decided to have it as a dream and not have to just jump that block of time to the start of the book. I know authors have done it before but it felt too jarring to me whenever I tried. The dream serves as reinforcement/reminder of the MC’s motivation to learn how to fly, and ties into the plot to follow. I couldn’t just get away with just a summary line here because the reader would have NO idea what the hell it even is, let alone why they should care about it. By showing it to the readers, I am able to bring them into that awe and wonder and have them experience it too alongside the MC.

    I do some changes between the dream scene and the actual scene, since it’s all in first person. The dream is in past tense and the rest of the book is in present tense (the story works better in present tense so I had to change the dream to past tense to differentiate it from the story) and it’s more poetic, focusing on sight (with sound coming in only after the MC realizes that the usual sky dancing is accompanied by sound. but there’s silence right now). It’s only two pages at most.

    As soon as the MC wakes up, there’s smell as well as sight and sound (since I rarely smell in dreams and that’s usually one of the things to tell me I’m awake again.) It transitions to him getting ready by grooming his wings, and daydreaming for one paragraph about all the other things people can do with flight and flying and how he wants to do them all one day. It is my intention to have him come off as passionate (maybe even obsessed) with flying and the dream serves as a good way to do that.

    So it basically sets the plot in motion, is a reminder of the inciting incident that kick-started the plot in the first place, reveals the character and motivations of the MC, his passion and life goal to fulfil, and also helps the reader to realize this is NOT set in Earth or anything close to it. Sort of a “not in Kansas anymore Dorothy” moment.

    I like it where it is but I wonder if you have any thoughts about it? I’d love to hear it and add that to my musings as I go back and forth a bit over whether to keep it like this. At least you don’t out-and-out say “DON’T USE DREAMS IN BOOKS” like so many others do. Thank you!

    • First, I would never say you could never, ever do something as a writer—at least, I wouldn’t say it and mean it completely . There are things I don’t think authors should do unless they’re masters—and so few are to that pedigree—and I might come out and say don’t do something because I know the people who won’t get the point of it are the ones most likely to do it. But no, I don’t believe that anything is completely off limits for writers. It’s not about right and wrong, after all, it’s about what’s most effective.
      Opening with a dream can work and work well, but it’s tough to pull off because it’s been done so many times. Sounds like your approach could work fine, though it’s hard to gauge without having read it. What I would strongly caution you about is opening with a dream, quickly panning to the present and immediately jumping into a daydream. Too much dreaming without introducing the reader to the now. It also seems like it may lend itself to info dumping. It seems you could get away with starting the reader off in the present and having him or her lapse right into reminiscing, but again that’s without me having read any of it.
      Be wary of the dream that poses as a show but really serves as a tell. Sure, you can make the character interact directly within a dream, but it’s still removing the reader from the reality of the moment. Therefore, even though it may show action of a character, it doesn’t necessarily drive the scene.
      “So basically that sets the plot in motion.” Does it, though? Sounds like that introduces the character’s interest, but the plot is set by the MC’s desires offset by the CONFLICT, and the dream you’re relaying doesn’t seem to introduce the conflict. Not that it should; I just mean to clarify.
      I’m not sure your “not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy” analogy really works there, or is even that relevant. In Dorothy’s case, it DID establish the plot and conflict—she’s in a strange, scary land and wants to find her way home. If I’m reading what you’re talking about correctly, it sounds like you’re just setting the scene for the reader, that the MC knows his/her world well. This isn’t plot setting. Any scene, even if familiar, requires this kind of development. My point is, don’t overlook the true driver of plot—conflict.
      So in short, I can’t really give any good, constructive feedback or what not without reading it (and honestly, not sure I could commit to that at the moment), but those are some general things to consider.
      Sounds very promising! Best of luck and thanks so much for sharing.

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  9. Greetings Pat. I just stumbled across your blog in googling how to effectively write my own dream sequence in my current W.I.P. One of the characters is in total disbelief of facts another character has related to him. He is in his hotel room, completely exhausted, falls into a ‘fitful’ sleep towards of the end of that particular chapter and although said character is not ‘prone’ to nightmares, he succumbs to a nightmarish hell. Next chapter begins with the ‘dream sequence’ in which he envisions horrific examples of what the other character related to him. It is not long or drawn out, but I wavered back and forth as to whether I should write it in italics or regular type, as there is a sentence or two where I insert his reaction during the sequence (i.e. tossing and turning, etc.). So I have decided to write the actual sequence in italics with his ‘reaction(s)’ in regular typeface. Does that make sense from your standpoint as an author/reader? Thanks a ton. 🙂

    • Hi Anastacia,
      I’ll chime in, since waiting for “Pat” might take a while ;).
      Without having read it, it seems you’re saying that the dream itself is in italics and the real-life, bodily reactions (spasms from the dream or rapid eye movement…or what not) are conveyed with normal type…correct? Make sense to me. I think no matter what format you decide upon, ultimately how you write in those transitions are going to be most key in a smooth read for your audience. Tightening your language in these passages will be what’s most important, I think.
      Hope that helps. Best of luck.

      • GOOD GRIEF! I’m not really as dumb as I look Phil :O I guess I can use the excuse that a) I’m old and senile; or b) I don’t operate too well on hardly any sleep. I did realize my booboo as soon as I hit the ‘publish’ key, but it was too late to edit my mistake, and for that I sincerely apologize. Anyway, that is exactly how I wrote the sequence. And the ultimate goal of it is to bring the ‘dreamer’ an FBI agent to the realization that what a secondary character has been telling him is at least remotely possible. I think I got the point across without being too long and drawn out in the sequence itself. I DO appreciate you responding to my query. Again, I apologize for ‘renaming’ you. Aargh . . . Thank you so much Phil Phil Phil Phil Phil. (Smacking self in the forehead for being a dolt) lol . 🙂

  10. 😀 Won’t let me reply directly to your message, Anastacia, but no worries. I was only teasing. I’ve done the same thing to people a million times. Yeah, I think the thing to remember is that it’s not about being right or wrong (a sentiment I repeat a lot: https://authorphilpartington.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/the-rules-of-grammar-and-novel-writing/). The key question is, is it most effective in that circumstance. I would get trusted readers/writers to read through it without explanation and ask them later if it was clear to them. Good luck!

  11. Batmansbestfriend says:

    Effective use of Dream Sequences? Try Watching the original Twin Peaks. Enough said.

  12. Batmansbestfriend says:

    Oh, and when it comes to dream sequences…don’t ever, and I mean EVER…fake people out. Don’t have something happen then suddenly slap the reader in the face with “…aaaaaaand he wakes up.” People hate investing time/emotions in something only to find out it didn’t happen. People hate becoming emotional (happy, sad, etc.) then being told “just kidding.” Don’t believe me? Call any one of your siblings and tell them your mother was just killed in a car accident, wait for emotional response, then say “just kidding.” I guarantee they won’t talk to you for a while. Think about the show Dalas, uhg.

    Now, you can fake people out with a dream sequence if it developed the characters further. The reader will be a little peeved that the events never happened, however, they will have learned something about the character and will forgive you because their fake out wasn’t the only purpose for the dream.

    I usually put the writers who use dream sequences ONLY to fake out readers on the list of worst types of people…not just writers. Of all types of people they are one of the worst.

  13. Batmansbestfriend says:

    …and when I said “develops the character” above I don’t mean that you learn that the character likes baseball (unless that’s important to the plot) but it pushes the plot along with character information that will become integral at some point. Basically you want to feel like the character is advancing along in their journey (the plot) and you the reader simply chose to inform the reader through the use of a dream sequence because it made the most sense from a plot timeline or emotional standpoint. It should feel 100% motivated and shouldn’t make the reader feel like they were in any way cheated.

  14. Batmansbestfriend says:

    And also, just because the dream sequence may be odd and?or downright surreal does not necessarily mean it will be interesting. If the sequence is not based on some sort of logic (even if the reader does not understand the logic) then it’s just a bunch of random things happening for…and for what reason? Does the reader need to know the reason? At some point, yes. However, not necessarily right at the time of the dream. The point is, there should be purpose and logical structure for a dream sequence even if the reader doesn’t fully understand.

  15. Batmansbestfriend says:

    Oh, and if you think what you’re writing is completely odd, weird, bizarre, etc. then you’re doing it wrong. What you’re writing (as a dream sequence, for example) should make sense to you, the writer, and always feel less odd or weird then it will to the reader. You, the writer, get what’s going on so you should understand the logic. The reader will not pick up on everything so they will understand it less…thus enhancing the weirdness of it. How it should feel to you, the writer, in some way, is something normal being presented in a unique way and not weird, bizarre oddness. Yes, it can feel odd to you as you write it, but it should also make enough sense that you can defend it against claims of weird for the sake of weird.

    • Awesome stuff, Bat! Heh, seems I struck a chord with you: your responses spanned over a few months there!

      No, you’re completely right. I think of it as writing with purpose or being intentional with one’s writing. More often than not, though, I find dream sequences end up being a gimmick, or a tool of laziness for a writer. The ones that are done well are done well because the writer knows what he/she is doing. Most don’t. Not sure how successful I would be with that, but I also try to steer clear of dream sequences. There was one WIP I dabbled in that had a few of these, but only because they really weren’t dreams at all, but rather perceived to be dreams. I felt like it worked fine with what I was trying to do, though I never moved forward with the stories for other reasons.

      Great points. You basically wrote an excellent part two on the topic :).

  16. Nia Markos says:

    I’ve started my WIP with my character trying to fall asleep, wary of having a recurring dream which is really about her past. Once she falls asleep the dream starts, but I use the events to explain who she is, how she came to be immortal and being forced to face her solitary life. I’m hoping it works.

    • Hard to say, Nia (not sure you were looking for an assessment or not). At least not without reading its execution, but I will say that it’s not an original method and I’ve read many who simply haven’t pulled it off well, or at least not well enough to catch the eye of a pubber or agent with much clout. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t work, but if you were looking to go the mainstream route, I’ve read that many dismiss that sort of thing because it’s been done a lot before.

      Again, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work or you shouldn’t do it, all just depends on how effective it is in how well it is finessed into the overall story.

      I know that doesn’t answer your question lol. My suggestion would be to figure out who and what you’re writing this for. If your goal is to find an agent or pubber, try reaching out to agents or pubbers and ask them what they think about that kind of scenario — do they dismiss it outright or is there a place for it. I wouldn’t send your writing in this outreach effort unless they request it. You can find most of them on twitter and other social media, and I bet a great many of them would be willing to answer questions like that for you.

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