What the hell happened last night? There was a bus trip and some guy I haven’t seen in years, and a room with too many people in it, and I was getting my hair cut… I woke up exhausted and the day hadn’t even started yet.
Dreams can be powerful, memorable, and drenched with meaning. Or they can be basically junk: random images recycled through a sleeping brain. A lot probably lie somewhere in between. They also form a statistically significant portion of my, and probably your, daily life. (I have met people who swear they don’t dream at all. They make me very nervous).
For all that, dreams can be extremely tricky to handle in fiction. I will admit to a sinking feeling of dread when confronted by a dream sequence in a book – a sense of ‘oh dear, are they going to pull this off?’
Dreams in stories worry me.
Why is this?
Here are some thoughts
Dreams are too easy
Dreams provide a kind of emotional short-hand that writers sometimes use to give a speedy insight into their character and to set up motivation for later conflict. Oh, Daisy really has the hots for Milton, even though she acts like she hates his guts. Look, Michael has never gotten over the death of his brother.
On the one hand, this is valid. Dreams are a way for our subconscious mind to prod us with pieces of information about ourselves that we would otherwise choose to ignore. I know mine does this on a regular basis. But boy, it’s easy to write this poorly. I feel like I, as a reader, can sense when a dream doesn’t arise organically from the consciousness of the character but is plopped in as a device to help the writer move the story along. And I don’t like it!
Dreams can also be used to trick the reader. Hey look, you thought I was actually being chased by lions through the central business district, you were all, like, oh no, what’s going to happen now, but guess what, I’m not!
Please don’t do that. I won’t thank you for it
Dreams are too hard
Dream logic is not like the logic of the conscious mind. Attempts to render dream logic can too easily fall into cliché (being chased, public nudity, running late for an exam, falling etc.). Dreams can be poetic and mundane, strange and completely life-like all at once. And so much of the dream is not what happens but how it feels. This can all be really tricky to capture. And I’ve tried ‘cutting and pasting’ my own dreams into stories before and that doesn’t work, in the same way just writing down exactly what people say and using it for dialogue is generally not a good option.
Dreams are way too unedited
When you see a nature documentary, you know they’ve cut a lot of what actually happens in the edit. When a lion, say, catches an antelope, there’s a whole lot of stuff going on that could not actually get screened on the TV at any family-appropriate viewing time. Similarly, in the jungle – or on the wide savannahs – of the mind.
Some of my dreams are genuinely R rated. The strangeness, violence, and explicit sexual content make them uncomfortable. I do not feel compelled to share them with family and friends. Dreams are what our mind throws at us when we hand the reins over and relinquish control. There are some narratives in which that could be a really important part of developing a character. In a lot of stories, however, it would be an unnecessary distraction.
On the other hand, a dear friend who I used to work with in a very stressful job would regularly have the calmest and dullest dreams imaginable – she’d come in to work and tell me she dreamed about walking around the supermarket looking for peanut butter, or trying to find a tablecloth that matched her plate set. Dreams like this could play well in setting up a character, but again – handle with care. If it would be boring in real life, it may be boring in dream-life too.
Nothing is actually happening
I think this is one of the biggest problems I have with dreams in fiction.
So. When your character is dreaming, they are asleep. They are lying in their bed with their eyes closed. They’re not interacting in any real way with any other characters. They’re not taking any real risks. The emotional stakes may appear high in the dream but the reality is – they are going to wake up.
(This isn’t counting Nightmare on Elm Street scenarios where what happens in a dream world can directly affect what happens in the real world – a device also used very intriguingly and well in a book I reviewed recently: Skin Deep.)
Unless a dream is really compelling, beautifully written, adds something essential to the character and plot, I can’t help but kind of feel that reading it is a waste of my time. Because I know IT’S ONLY A DREAM. And I can’t help but care more about what happens to the character when they’re awake than when they’re asleep.
So, in short, dreams can add depth, tension, poetry, strangeness and atmosphere to a story. But if you’re writing them, handle with care!