Writing Cliché #3 – Dream sequences
Oh shit how are we going to write ourselves out of this mess? It’s ok, let’s just have the character wake up and it was all a dream and everything is back to normal. Yay!
I cannot think of a lazier, more boring and unrealistic way of getting your characters out of a mess. Not only that but it derails the plot and all development that has take place to this point, and leaves readers and characters floating and confused (and pissed off, that’s a lot of time and energy we’ve just invested in a plot line you canned).
“But I’m just having a character describe a dream they are having, that’s ok, right?”
Maybe. It all depends on why. I’m not saying there are no good reasons and no good ways, but there are a lot more bad reasons and bad ways, so let’s look at a few. As always take these as guidelines and things to think about, not hard and fast rules. (Because I hate those).
Bad reason #1 – To impart important information
Our hero is unsure what to do next and is in need of guidance, and lo and behold here comes his dead mentor in a dream, despite the fact his mentor is dead and has no psychic link to him whatsoever. Of course magic can be trotted out to cover any number of holes, but it does beg the question, why would you want to?
If your hero is hanging around waiting for a dream cue, then he’s passive and dull and lacking a goal. If he has a goal and a plan to achieve it, then he doesn’t need a dream to tell him what to do next.
And if you do go ahead and write a scene in which a character has a dream containing important information via some magical connection, then please, PLEASE, PLEASE, don’t use it as way of creating some cheap tension by having the character wake up JUST BEFORE the most important piece of information is received. You would have to have a very good reason and do this extremely well or your manuscript may well be thrown across the room.
Bad reason #2 – To be prophetic
This is similar to reason #1, but instead of giving us information, we are given a view of the future (as it may or may not turn out) and again most writers use this as a form of cheap tension. “Oh no! Will Billy really fall out of the tree and break his neck landing on an oreo like in his dream? I had better read on and find out.”
Again there are ways you could use this to great effect if dreaming is a core part of your plot and your world (think ‘Inception’), but more often than not it is going to fall flat. Find another way to maintain or create tension.
And remember that dreams happen to one person, so unless you have mysticism at play no special knowledge comes to us in dreams. To quote Pyramids by Terry Pratchett:
“If you’re expecting a bit of helpful ancestral advice, forget it. This is a dream. I can’t tell you anything you don’t know yourself.”
Bad reason #3 – To be all artsy
This is the reason I wrote my first dream sequence when I was sixteen. I had a character wander into a magical cave and sleep there, giving him an excuse to have vivid, partly prophetic, but mostly artsy dreams that could only be connected to the plot/motivations/struggles via the most esoteric of contortions. It neither furthered the plot nor added to his character development, but because I was exploring fancy descriptions and themes and imagery I felt like a REAL writer. It’s a stage. Write your artsy dreams then delete them. Or save them in a folder somewhere deep and meaningful on your hard drive.
Good reason #1 – To show something your character has failed to deal with
Think Eddard Stark having the same dream over and over again. (Game of Thrones for those not in the know)
Is your character anxious? Were they abused as a child? Are they afraid of dying? Fear come to us in dreams more than joy does, which makes a dream the perfect place to explore a character’s subconscious, especially when they are not self-aware enough to know these things about themselves. This is a great use for dreams because we have all been there, we have all had dreams of things we are dreading or nightmares born from things we have never gotten over. Use this and you are using dreams not only realistically, but with purpose. You’re reader will also be able to relate to what is happening.
Good reason #2 – To reveal the subconscious
This overlaps a bit with reason one, but the previously quoted Pyramids by Terry Pratchett uses dreams this way. While new information is not imparted in the main character’s dream, suspicions his subconscious has been working on come to the fore leaving him with a realisation upon waking.
Another example here would be in the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling, where dreams show us (without having to tell us) that Harry and Voldemort have a lingering connection. It is a logical time for this to become obvious, as when we sleep we are the most vulnerable and the most open.
To dream or not to dream… That is the question…
It boils down to this. If you want to know whether it’s a good dream sequence or a bad one, think about why you are doing it. Remember that most people don’t have truly lucid dreams. They can’t control what they are dreaming about. Dreams themselves are odd things, fluid and ever changing, often not making sense and rarely well remembered. No one really knows what they are, whether they are formed by our memories neatly packing themselves away, or by our subconscious working on problems and anxieties. Mostly they leave feelings, sometimes peace, other times fear or uneasiness or sadness.
Dreams are safer used to tell us something about a character than to further a plot. Although as I always say these are merely guidelines, not rules. Break them if you can.