Are dream sequences in novels always taboo?

I’ve had a question from Mark Landen, host of the website Criticular:

‘I’ve had an idea for my book that I’m loving, but it involves a dream sequence. Is that taboo?’

Listen. Can you hear that seething noise? It’s writers, readers and other lit-minded folk sucking their teeth. When bloggers list the top 10 things they don’t want to see in a book, dream sequences are consistently there.

But smart writers know nothing’s forbidden. What those lists really mean is ‘handle with care’. So how should we handle dreams?

First of all, why are dreams so attractive to writers?

  • It’s the chance to be more creative with setting, language, reality, whimsy, imagery. A very tempting opportunity to luxuriate in prose.
  • You can explore issues the character may not want to face in real life, either to give the reader clues or to prod the character to a new realisation (or strengthen their denial)
  • You can dredge up forgotten memories or show flashbacks

Where do they go wrong?

  • On a practical level, the reader knows dream sequences are not ‘real’. They also know your book isn’t either, but you persuade the reader to go with you. But an extra level of fictionality can be a step too far.
  • Dreams often don’t change anything in the story (depending on your genre, of course). Scenes that don’t result in some kind of change or new understanding feel static – again the reader might feel like they’re wasting time. If the dream does cause a change, it might stretch credibility – when did any of us actually do something because we had a dream?
  • There’s usually a better storytelling solution. If you want a flashback, why not use a flashback? Or, better, find another way to show the information? Many novice writers have a particular intention with a scene but aim for it too literally. Instead of a flashback, could you use the elements in a more organic way? Have a character find an old photograph, or learn something from a friend in a way that deepens their relationship or causes more trouble? Or instead of dumping the revelation in one place, could you dissolve it more thoroughly through the story, tease the information into a mystery, perhaps?

The too-creative dream

Dreams in novels can get too creative. In real life dreams are so delicious – a jumble of memories from the day’s events, minutiae you never knew you’d noticed, wonky input from anything you’ve ever forgotten. Possibly brought to you by

What makes them involving is the vast, surprising sense they make to you – and they probably make no sense to anyone who doesn’t have your exact history. Certainly to create such an experience for the reader would be a creative tour de force. But the effect comes from context. Without that it is no more than an indulgent digression.

The truest representations of dreams are usually found in magic realism – where they are, in fact, part of the real action.

Should you use a dream sequence? A checklist

  • Be aware that the reader is thinking ‘do I need to pay attention to this’?
  • And ask yourself: ‘is there another way?’

But sometimes a dream is just perfect. Here are two of my favourites.

Two divine dream sequences

Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca starts with a long, languid dream. That’s two taboos in one, according to the list-makers. So why is it justified? Because it’s very relatable – a puzzled visit to the burned-out shell of the character’s old home, Manderley, which would be impossible for the character in reality. It’s a startling moonlit exploration of memories and feelings and the romanticism of it charms us. It also sets up a note of tragedy for the story to unfold. And the character tells you up front that it’s a dream – whereas a novice writer might make you wander through the moonlit house and then pull reality away.

My other divine second dream sequence is from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Scattered, absurd and vivid, it’s a real cheese dream. Characters fade into each other, a butler announces that the only way to get to the dining room is to ride the pony there, a discussion of buses turns into ‘mechanical green line rats’. It comes near the end of the book, so the figures are familiar and it serves as a poignant wrap-up, and also marks the disintegration of the character’s life. Better still, because all good storytellers find clever ways to reuse their material, it has an unexpected consequence in the real world (which I’m not going to tell you…)

Do you have a favourite dream sequence in fiction? Or do you want to nominate a stinker? Tell me in the comments

Thanks for the cheesy moon pic, Davedehetre on Flickr. And in case you don’t know Mark, you might be interested in his website Criticular – a writing and critiquing community for fiction writers. Thanks for a great question, Mark!   

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  1. #1 by Tony McFadden on July 22, 2012 - 10:02 am

    I am leery of dream sequences in books, although I’ve used them twice, briefly, to set the mental state of the protagonist. Coincidentally (maybe) its been the same character in two different novels, once in the middle, and once at the very end.

    I don’t have a favorite scene not authored by me because I can’t really recall reading one. I think if it’s used sparingly and not as a device to trick the reader, dream sequences are fine.

    But I’m biased.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 22, 2012 - 1:36 pm

      Sparingly seems to be the secret, Tony (reading people’s comments in reverse here….) A little dream goes a long way.

  2. #3 by jofurniss on July 22, 2012 - 10:05 am

    Interesting… I notice that TV dramas use lots of dream sequences (House and True Blood, come to mind), and it often seems to be a device to show the characters doing something that the viewer wants to see (getting into sex scenes, in particular!) without dispelling the will-they-won’t-they tension. Could dreams have a similar function in novels, do you think, or it is a matter of ‘what’s good for the goose is not so good for the gander’?

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 22, 2012 - 1:38 pm

      This is a lovely point – a dream can be wish fulfilment that would be impossible in real life or might destroy the tension. Not all TV/movie techniques work in prose, but I see no reason why this wouldn’t. In fact I think it’s more involving in prose because it looks less literal.

  3. #5 by cavalrytales on July 22, 2012 - 11:29 am

    I agree. I used a short one in my first book to help establish (I thought) the dreamer’s age – he was an old man, having a nap – and the strength of his religious beliefs. No-one’s grumbled about it so far, which is good because I want to refer to it obliquely further on in the series.

    So I’m biased, too!

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 22, 2012 - 1:39 pm

      If no one’s grumbled, you’re probably okay! (No one’s grumbled about my dream sequence in My Memories of a Future Life, so I must have got away with it…)

  4. #7 by katmagendie on July 22, 2012 - 11:34 am

    I use them sometimes because I have fun with them and they have to happen organically, natural – but I don’t go into great detail and don’t let them drag on – they’re very short to give the feel. Usually it’s when I have a character whose personality may be a bit chaotic or upheaved or whatever and the dreams are a part of their personality. But they do have to be very very short – if I read a book with a long dream-sequence, I become a little bored and distracted.

    Or, if I start the beginning of a book and it reads so exciting and curious and I’m all drawn in and then the writer has the person wake up – lawd! I’m not happy! But that’s the bigger ‘taboo’ isn’t it? starting things out with a dream? 😀

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 22, 2012 - 1:35 pm

      Kathryn, a short dream is probably harmless – and as you say, it allows you a little scope for fun with the character. Dreams are one of those areas where we learn to trust our gut. If we don’t like it in other people’s books that’s a sign we shouldn’t do it in our own.

      • #9 by katmagendie on July 22, 2012 - 8:56 pm

        Yeah – it’s one of those things where if the writer is using them as an obvious “device” – then “obvious” is the word here – or to try to do something or say something they aren’t sure how to do or say in the non-dream world- usually not a good idea.

  5. #10 by Dave Hitt on July 22, 2012 - 1:26 pm

    I recently stopped reading a book that was given to me. The prose was just a bit too purple for my taste, but it was still well done. The scene was a courtroom, and the drama built and built until the final paragraph of chapter one, where we are told it was all a dream. That was it – I was done. When a writer rips me off like that I don’t trust her enough to give her any more of my time.

    • #11 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 22, 2012 - 1:33 pm

      Dave, that’s a brilliant example of how dream sequences can betray the reader’s trust. I would do exactly as you did!

  6. #12 by tomburkhalter on July 22, 2012 - 1:35 pm

    I’m trying to think of dream sequences I’ve even read in a book. I’m sure I have, it’s just nothing comes to mind offhand.

    It strikes me that one way to use a dream in accordance with your checklist would be where there’s a great deal of the protagonist’s psychology in the story. One example would be a war veteran dealing with PTSD, which sometimes manifests itself with extraordinarily vivid dreams and flashbacks. This would have to be handled with care because so much is known about PTSD these days that avoiding anti-climax (the bad kind, as in “why did I bother to read that?”) would be difficult.

    What about a dream sequence where the character discovers he/she was mistaken in distinguishing dream from reality? You’d have to be careful in crafting the sequence of events to keep the reader guessing, and the first really critical event in the story would have to invite the reader to do just that: guess, and know they’re guessing. From a SciFi aspect, what if some dreams were actually real experiences, but in a parallel universe?

    But as a general rule dream sequences seem like more trouble than they’re worth unless you’ve got one of those absolutely priceless ideas that just won’t go away.

    • #13 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 22, 2012 - 6:39 pm

      Tom, the ‘why did I bother to read that’ reaction is exactly the problem. Readers need to know it’s worth them paying attention to a scene, especially if it gets disorientating or weird.

      As for your sci-fi example, that probably wouldn’t be a dream because effectively it’s real. Like The Matrix or Dark City (sort of…) I’m sure there must be a lot of SF or fantasy that explores dreams as a real plane of communication or consciousness – and the rules there are probably different.

  7. #14 by Dave Morris on July 22, 2012 - 1:51 pm

    I think Jo has hit the nail on the head. In many cases, a dream sequence allows the author to indulge a style or even genre that the “real-life” parts of the novel wouldn’t support. For example, in Frankenstein, Victor has a revealing dream about his fiancee (and cousin):

    “I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror.”

    The point about this is that it adds a supernatural flavour to a novel that otherwise is not supernatural and, as a work of literary science fiction, relies entirely for its Gothic mood on Victor’s psychological state. A similar trick was used in Hammer’s movie Plague of the Zombies. There is a classic sequence where the hero sees the bodies of the dead pushing their way out of the soil of the village graveyard. But that’s a dream. In the movie, these zombies are not undead; they’re people who have been drugged, declared dead, then disinterred and put to work as slaves in the local mines. The dream sequence could be called a cheat, but it lets us see the wildest imaginings of the hero before the rather more mundane (but more interesting) truth is revealed.

    • #15 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 22, 2012 - 6:43 pm

      Ah nice, or do I mean nasty? I think the power here is the revelation of Victor’s murky subconscious. The muddling of fiancee and mother is a startling taboo that couldn’t be explored elsewhere – or perhaps in any other way.

      In fact, that’s another function of the dream sequence. Jo has suggested wish fulfilment and perhaps longing. Here we have the unthinkable and repugnant.

  8. #16 by DRMarvello on July 22, 2012 - 2:31 pm

    I haven’t been tempted to use a dream sequence yet, but I have nothing against them. Many of the books I’ve read have included a dream sequence, but none stand out in my mind as stinkers. I personally think the prologue is far more problematic and overdone, having read bad examples of those more often lately.

    I don’t know if I’ll ever try using a dream sequence in my writing because I don’t personally have coherent dreams. I’ve read about authors who dream the entire plot of a novel and get up the next morning to jot it down. That has never happened to me. I rarely remember my dreams, and when I do, they are usually impressionistic sequences of unrelated events.

    My writing skills map puts dream sequences over in the “here there be dragons” zone, but one day I may travel there in my journey to explore different techniques.

    • #17 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 22, 2012 - 6:49 pm

      Hi Daniel – eminently restrained and sensible to avoid dreams if you’re wary of them. There indeed be dragons.

      As for those authors who dream an entire plot, I’d like a bite of that cheese. I’ve had ideas that started as dreams, but I’ve had to work very hard to make them usable. I’ve dreamed songs, with lyrics, music, arrangement – and even a TV performance by Kate Bush (darn it, she can write her own, she doesn’t need to steal mine). But songs are no use to me at all 😦

      When I had a full-time job I used to write my dreams down and leave them for Dave as a ‘dream report’. He’d read them with his first cup of tea. I’ve still got them. They’re curious reading.

    • #18 by DRMarvello on July 22, 2012 - 7:00 pm

      I love the idea of a “dream report” and that you shared it with Dave. That says a lot about both of you and your relationship. Congratulations on that.

      I saw your comment about fantasy that explores dreams as an alternate plane of consciousness, and I realized I have plans for exactly that in my book series. Practitioners access this alternate consciousness by going into a magical trance that could be compared to a kind of astral projection. So, the experience is dream-like, but it isn’t truly a dream.

  9. #20 by Jami Gold on July 22, 2012 - 2:38 pm

    Great post, Roz! I use several dream sequences in one of my stories. They start out short (a paragraph), so the reader knows they’re a dream and doesn’t get irritated. Toward the end of the book, they get longer and the reader realizes at the same time as they protagonist that they’re actually a different level of consciousness–and they’re very much part of the current story. So my use of it is probably similar to the magical realism you mentioned.

    However, I’ve read plenty of examples of the bad kind of dream sequences, along the lines of what Dave mentioned. Those are just annoying!

    • #21 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 22, 2012 - 6:52 pm

      Hi Jami! Starting short is a good move, then you can build on them and tantalise. I had similar concerns with the future sequences in my novel and handled it the same way – keeping them as short as possible.
      As for the way you develop the dreams in your book, I hope you haven’t just given something away about your story that you shouldn’t have…

      • #22 by Jami Gold on August 3, 2012 - 4:42 pm

        LOL! No, I was vague enough. 🙂

  10. #23 by Aldrea Alien on July 22, 2012 - 7:40 pm

    One novella I have has three dream sequences. All a chapter long and two are one after the other.
    Better yet, the whole idea for it came from a dream. No cheese involved. 😛

    I can’t recall any novel’s that have dreams, but I love the dream world in the Wheel of Time series where people can ‘pop’ in during normal dreams, but you can also die (there and in the real world) if you make a wrong move.

    • #24 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 22, 2012 - 7:51 pm

      Brave choice, Aldrea. How do you keep the reader invested in the dreams? Do the characters have something they need to find in them, perhaps? The dream world where a mistake has real consequences is more than a dream – was that what you liked about it?

      • #25 by Aldrea Alien on July 22, 2012 - 10:36 pm

        The first two dreams are, I suppose, slightly flashback-ish in that they are recollections of past events: one dream of how he got into this world from hell (yes, it’s paranormal); one nightmare of his brother’s death. Since the prisoner he’s guarding is capable of seeing another’s dreams, it sort of breaks the ice.
        The last dream is a drug-induced sex scene that the prisoner manages to wake the MC from and, I guess, it would have aided towards him being more protective of her than he otherwise would’ve been.

        As for the dream world. I think the death thing is a take on the old belief that if you don’t wake up before you hit the ground then you’ll die in real life. It’s a danger, but not for the trained.
        I liked the spying aspect of it more. Things in the real world were in the dream world, but for how long depended on the length of time it had been in the real world. Buildings, always. A bit of paper your enemy has written on where their troops are … well, you better be a quick reader. ^_^

  11. #26 by Dan Holloway on July 22, 2012 - 8:44 pm

    Surprised no one has mentioned the most famous and controversial dream sequence of them all (especially given the collective blog we’re both part of, Roz) – in the film version (or rather not in the film version but in the Director’s Cut) of Blade Runner, which shows that dreams will always be controversial.

    To my shame I’ve not read the novella Traumnovelle which was the basis for Eyes Wide Shut, but dreams are, obviously, central to it.

    For me dream sequences work best in first person narrative when they are a way to illustrate things without over-introspection – the alternate reality can simply be presented without having the author comment on it, which leaves the reader free to breathe as well as having the possibility of leaving the narrator’s feelings to what is being presented ambivalent

    • #27 by dirtywhitecandy on July 23, 2012 - 3:10 pm

      Hi Dan! And as you say, how COULD I have forgotten Blade Runner? Not just because of AE, but because I slip it into blog posts wherever possible.

      After all that, though, I have to say I don’t like the unicorn dream sequence in the Director’s Cut. I know one of the eternal arguments about Blade Runner is whether Deckard is a replicant, but I think the story is far stronger if he isn’t. Which means I have to give the unicorn Nil points.

      Traumnovelle… I actually interrupted this comment to go to Amazon and look that up. Definitely one to check out – although I found the film so far fetched I couldn’t watch very far. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad novel, though. I think some of these novels that tinker with reality are unfilmable but work beautifully in prose, which has a more hypnotic, dreaming quality.

      I like the idea of allowing the reader to breathe and be carried along by a dream. Again, to over-explain or get too literal can squash a delicate effect quite flat.

  12. #29 by courseofmirrors on July 22, 2012 - 9:53 pm

    Interesting subject. Some novels read like dreams to me, Hard-boiled-Wonderland by Haruki Murakami comes to mind. Given that we experience different realities, one person’s reality can be another person’s dream. A lot depends on how reality shifts are set and bridged-over, or it can be annoying. Love to see NEMO here 🙂

    • #30 by Dan Holloway on July 23, 2012 - 9:50 am

      Murakami is a great example. He uses reality in a very permeable way and like you say you can never be sure when you;ve slipped into an alternate reality (the Malta and Creta Kano hotel scenes in Wind-up Bird Chronicle?) and when you’re in a dream (the ferris wheel in Sputnik Sweetheart). Murakami uses these alternate worlds more deftly than anyone else I can think of, and he always uses them to convey a deep human truth – the fact we know it’s “not real” rather cleverly works to take our mind off the “details” of the scene and focus on what it’s actually saying.

      Then again, I think anyone who tries to emulate Murakami has a VERY hard task!

      • #31 by courseofmirrors on July 23, 2012 - 10:26 am

        Hi Dan, I remember you from authonomy. I’m always pleased to meet a connoisseur of Murakami. You’re right, emulation would be hard. Writers need to fish in the pond of their own unconscious, and value their dreams. Roz’s post inspires me to write something on how to catch dreams, on my blog, soon.

        • #32 by Dan Holloway on July 23, 2012 - 4:39 pm

          Hi! Yes, I remember you from Authonomy too – lovely to see you here and I’m delighted to have found and followed your blog

          • #33 by courseofmirrors on July 23, 2012 - 6:28 pm

            Oh thanks, Dan. An honour. I’m looking forward to exploring your projects.

      • #34 by dirtywhitecandy on July 23, 2012 - 3:18 pm

        I tried A Wild Sheep Chase but didn’t get on with it and it put me off trying another Murakami. Which is a pity, because every time I see you talk about him, Dan (and now Ashen), it sounds very tempting. Especially the idea of pulling us away from the literal and shining a light on the underlying truth.
        Which Murakami would you recommend for someone who’s had a less-than-felicitous experience? (Or is there no hope for me….)

        • #35 by Dan Holloway on July 23, 2012 - 4:42 pm

          If you didn’t gel with A Wild Sheep Chase (just too many strange ears!) I’d recommend After Dark, South of the Border West of the Sun, or Norwegian Wood – maybe if you’re feeling brave Wind-up Bird Chronicle

    • #37 by dirtywhitecandy on July 23, 2012 - 3:13 pm

      Ashen, you’re the first person to recognise Nemo. I have to credit Husband Dave for it – he’s a vintage comics enthusiast. But it makes a lovely illustration for the post.

      • #38 by courseofmirrors on July 23, 2012 - 6:32 pm

        I love anyone who loves Nemo. Shared his stories with my son 3 decades back 🙂

      • #39 by courseofmirrors on July 23, 2012 - 6:40 pm

        Love Nemo. Bet your husband has a great collection. McCay cartoons’ perspectives are amazing. I shared Nemo’s surreal fantasies with my son three decades back 🙂

        • #40 by dirtywhitecandy on July 23, 2012 - 6:58 pm

          Again, I don’t know much about comics art – especially not compared with Dave – but exaggerated perspective is one of the things I love comics for. At its best, you feel every frame is bursting with drama. (As indeed it does; you don’t have much space to tell the story.)

  13. #41 by Teddi Deppner on July 22, 2012 - 10:06 pm

    Now that I try to remember examples of dream sequences, I realize that either I haven’t seen that many OR they were so unremarkable that they did not stand out. That alone tells me something about the effectiveness of dream sequences in fiction!

    Gleaning helpful insights from this discussion, Roz, thanks for bringing this up. I like the idea of dream sequences in fiction. Probably half my novel-length story ideas involve characters who dream. I think it’s because I dream a lot, myself.

    My own dreams seem to fall into two categories:
    – providing insights to my own subconscious state of mind
    – acting as a conduit for supernatural communication (if you believe in that sort of thing, which I do)

    So naturally I tend to think a few of my characters might experience something similar.

    However, the cautions provided in this post and in the comments above are spot on. I’m taking three items in particular and searing them into my brain for future reference:

    1) Starting a story with a dream sequence (without the reader being told that it’s a dream) is such a rip-off. I hate that feeling, so I should never do that to my readers.

    2) If I’m communicating something to the reader via the dream sequence, and it can be communicated *any other way*, then nix the dream and do it another way. Better. Safer. Take the high road.

    3) Readers seem to object to dreams less when they know it’s a dream, and when it’s short.

    Great take-aways. Thanks, everyone, and especially Roz!

    • #42 by dirtywhitecandy on July 23, 2012 - 3:21 pm

      Thanks, Teddi, for the summary! The feeling of being cheated is a significant problem in a dream sequence – I wonder that no one has yet mentioned the infamous cop-out in Dallas…

  14. #43 by Mark Landen on July 22, 2012 - 10:30 pm

    What a delight to see this post! In my book-in-progress, the MC has dreams that are a recollection of a single event that happened to him as an infant; an event that is actually the first scene but from a different POV. Through the story, the MC dreams a little more each time during key points, quickly going past the first scene’s events to impart more information to the reader. This all sounds a bit more literary than I feel it really is, but it passes all of the tests you’ve taught us about dream sequences in this great post. It was really cool to see it, it’s definitely going in my resources for future reference. Thanks Roz

    • #44 by dirtywhitecandy on July 23, 2012 - 3:25 pm

      My pleasure, Mark – you suggested a great topic and have provoked a terrific discussion. And judging by the comments below, a few more bods have found their way to Criticular…
      Glad your dream plan pasts my tests. In some ways it reminds me of the Hitchcock film Spellbound – didn’t that have a buried traumatic event that emerged gradually in dreams? There were other ways it emerged too, and I think it didn’t run in full until the character was hypnotised (another favourite subject for some of us….) Or maybe dreams weren’t involved at all. But it’s peripherally relevant to your idea because it’s about a buried event coming to the surface.

      • #45 by Mark Landen on July 23, 2012 - 5:03 pm

        I really didn’t expect the article, so it was a great surprise to see. It turned out to be a lively discussion and there are more members at Criticular as a result, which is awesome, so thank you for that!
        Although the planned dream sequences are but a layer to my story (after selected major plot points happen), the last recollection directly results in a huge payoff that helps end the main story arc. That’s some great info about Spellbound, I hadn’t heard of it until now and I can’t wait to watch it.

  15. #46 by Zelah Meyer on July 22, 2012 - 10:35 pm

    I generally only object to dream sequences if the author pulls a bait & switch. It’s so annoying to discover – ‘it was only a dream’.

    So far, I think the only ones I’ve written are brief accounts of feverish nightmares suffered by the protagonist in the fantasy series I’m working on.

    I remember being surprised when someone once told me that their dreams were usually mundane affairs. Most of my dreams that I recall are spent escaping from the bad guys or fighting the forces of evil. I’ve had several story inspirations from dreams. The short story/novelette I published is basically a dream I had with a little bit of fleshing out and a few scenes added/tweaked. I also have another work in edits that was inspired by a dream.

    Most nights, I’m running through huge gothic mansions, wandering through mist-filled landscapes, flying over cities at night, fighting the bad guys/girls, being a hero, heroine, third person observer, or – in one case – a male hippo floating down the stream reading a newspaper! I’ve also walked through a copper forest like the one in the Twelve Dancing Princesses & joined in an annual tart baking competition in the palace that used to belong to the Queen of Hearts.

    So, when people tell me they dreamt that they went to the shop to buy milk but when they got home it had turned into a chicken – well, I struggle to relate!

    With dreams like mine, I pretty much had to wind up being a writer.

    And yes – I’m very, very, very grateful for them! I’d share that cheese if I could.

    The price I pay for my dreams though – is that I have to be really careful about avoiding exposure to even the most mildly scary stuff. I’ve had nightmares from children’s TV shows.

    My dreams are very vivid. Occasionally I even get other senses – such as feeling the texture of water I was swimming in but not the wetness & smelling scents that couldn’t have been around me while I was sleeping. You really don’t want that as a nightmare. For example, I’ve also felt the texture of a blade on my skin while fending off an invading Mongol/Aztec horde with a sword that turned to straw. Thankfully not the physical pain though, just the psychological discomfort. So yep – no scary stuff for me!

    • #47 by Aldrea Alien on July 22, 2012 - 10:41 pm

      Sounds like me. Whenever I tell the family “I had the strangest dream” the reply is: “don’t you always?” ^_^

    • #48 by Teddi Deppner on July 22, 2012 - 11:04 pm

      That’s so cool, Zelah! Your account of feeling the blade on your skin reminded me of several vivid dream experiences I’ve had that were completely outside my personal experience. Strangling someone to death with my bare hands, plunging a huge knife into a giant dinner-plate-sized spider, smoking cigarettes, and (yes, we’re descending into the mundane) driving a school bus on an icy mountain road at night (I had that dream when I was a teen, before I learned to drive at all).

      Dream experiences are fascinating. I was especially fascinated to find that driving a car in real life was exactly what I dreamed it to be like.

    • #49 by dirtywhitecandy on July 23, 2012 - 3:27 pm

      Hi Zelah! Your dreams sound amazing. I now understand why you write fantasy – you’re being fed it every night by the slumber channel!

      I love that point about the other senses. In so many descriptive scenes, writers forget there are details other than those you can see. I agree with Teddi about the feeling of the blade – chilling, vivid and strange. And no need for actual blood – it’s eerie by itself.

      And Teddi, that is really peculiar about the driving dream. But writers are often uncannily good at imagining ourselves into situations we’ve never been in. Take that, all those folks who say we should only write what we know.

  16. #50 by kevinonpaper on July 23, 2012 - 12:46 am

    I think dream-like sequences are a good option. Some type of other-worldly interference or interjection. A scene that’s a bit more ethereal. Still, use with care…

    • #51 by dirtywhitecandy on July 23, 2012 - 3:31 pm

      Hi Kevin! You mean the moon calling to young heroes, by any chance….? I’m a big fan of ethereality. Very stylish if you can justify it.

      • #52 by kevinonpaper on July 24, 2012 - 1:34 pm

        Hah! No. 🙂 But i did have in mind the scene where Nik is transported away to the Lady of the Lake so she can help him. It happens while he’s asleep, but it wasn’t a dream persay. More of an out-of-body experience.

  17. #53 by Jennie Coughlin on July 23, 2012 - 12:23 pm

    I used a nightmare in one of the short stories in my first book, but it was only a paragraph – just enough to show the trauma the character still carried around. And I critiqued a short story today that was 90 percent dream. That particular one didn’t work for me, but I could easily see how it could have with some work on the ending.
    BTW, thanks for the Critcular tip. My work schedule’s made my local critique group not an option, so I’m hoping Criticular helps fill in the gap. Already joined and done one critique.

    • #54 by dirtywhitecandy on July 23, 2012 - 3:32 pm

      Hi Jennie! Keeping the dream short seems to be a good rule. Glad to have introduced you to Criticular.

    • #55 by Mark Landen on July 23, 2012 - 5:06 pm

      Thanks Jennie for signing up, I hope you’re enjoying it over at Criticular. And thanks to Roz for the introduction!

  18. #56 by Pavement Fireworks on July 23, 2012 - 12:31 pm

    I’d really like to see what the text in the first picture says- any way I can access a full-sized version? =]

  19. #59 by DRMarvello on July 23, 2012 - 4:41 pm

    I just thought of another dream sequence from film. I think the movie “An American Werewolf in London” was originally written as a screenplay, but it is possible a novelization was done at some point. In any case, the movie includes a horrific triple dream sequence. By the time he wakes up from the third terrifying dream-within-a-dream, you are exhausted. I thought the effect was well done, as it played on the surreal transformation the lead character David was going through.

    • #60 by dirtywhitecandy on July 26, 2012 - 8:50 am

      Dreams nested like Russian dolls. That takes some doing.

      It makes me think of the movie Inception, which is nested – but of course they are more than dreams. Hmm, must watch that again. I thought some parts were a little rough but I liked the moment when they all woke up and were processing this bizarre, breathtaking journey they had shared. That moment was genius because it went to the core of the experience.

  20. #61 by Deb Atwood on July 25, 2012 - 11:00 pm

    I’m halfway through Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. Her dreams work on several levels (what we always want to do as writers, yes?). The character must take Lariam to travel to the Amazon, which gives her hallucinatory dreams (plot element). These dreams torture the narrator and set the mood for unpleasantness to come (foreshadowing). Because she suffered with Lariam as a child when traveling to India, the dreams generally dredge up her unresolved relationship with her late father (character development). Dreams form an integral part of this novel. And so far, I really like the book.

    In my forthcoming novel, I used Vicodin-induced dreams to prime my narrator to receive a ghost and to nudge another toward an epiphany. I guess I would say I’m open to dreams in fiction as long as they are neither cheesy nor disingenuous, as in the it-was-all-a-dream trick.

    • #62 by dirtywhitecandy on July 26, 2012 - 8:58 am

      Hi Deb! I have State of Wonder on my shelf – and I didn’t know it plays with dreams. Your analysis makes a good case for the dreams being used well – dredging up old wounds is a useful device.
      I loved Patchett’s ‘Bel Canto’, and though I didn’t get on with ‘The Magician’s Assistant’ I love the precision and warmth of her prose.

      Your use of Vicodin (fictional, I mean!) raises an interesting point. Sometimes we have to push a character into a different mental state so that they are less inhibited, maybe less cautious, maybe less common-sensical. I like your idea of introducing this state with a drug, because not only does it give a factual reason for the dream, it presumably corresponds to a difficult time in the character’s life. The dreams will be more than just random stuff tripping through a sleeping brain, they will be a new phase of adjustment to life. Is that what you’re aiming for?

      • #63 by Deb Atwood on July 26, 2012 - 3:03 pm

        Yes, yay! I am aiming for “a new phase of adjustment to life.” Let’s hope I pull it off.

        I also loved Bel Canto (though some in my reading group didn’t care for the ending). I found Magician’s Assistant uneven but still worthwhile. Though State of Wonder lacks the lyrically beautiful writing of Bel Canto, it features compelling characters and a stunning setting.

  21. #64 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg on July 26, 2012 - 8:36 pm

    Dream sequences are just like sex scenes or action sequences, or for that matter a visit to the therapist for an “encounter group” session scene.

    A “dream sequence” destroys a reader’s enjoyment only when it does not advance the plot AND the story (plot being what happens; story being what that means to the characters).

    The reader has to see the dream-sequence coming (foreshadowing), wait with baited breath for it to happen, find it SATISFYING of that need to have it happen, understand it’s significance better than the character dreaming, and experience the dream-sequence as more foreshadowing of the character’s future actions making the novel replete with suspense.

    For an example of how I do this, see my first award winning novel, UNTO ZEOR, FOREVER, or a Vampire Romance, DREAMSPY (which inspired the name of a rock band), currently being made available in e-book by Wildside Books.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

    • #65 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 28, 2012 - 8:49 am

      ‘The reader has to understand its significance…’ that’s so important Jacqueline. I always think that with a dream you have to have sought your reader’s permission to include it, made them interested enough to want to see it.

  22. #66 by David C. Cassidy on July 28, 2012 - 10:20 pm

    For me, nothing is taboo in writing. The minute we start second-guessing ourselves of what is “acceptable” or “correct” in form is when we might as well pack it in. Some of the best movies or books are the ones that turn established ways on their ear. If something works–dream sequence or otherwise–you bet I’ll use it. If it doesn’t work, I’ll kill it. As writers, we need to be able to stretch our creative legs without fear. You won’t break if it doesn’t work. The trick is recognizing that it doesn’t work, and reworking it another way. That’s my humble philosophy, anyway. 🙂

    • #67 by dirtywhitecandy on July 29, 2012 - 8:57 am

      Absolutely, David. It’s interesting to look at some of these no-go areas and examine why they’re generally disapproved of. Just that exercise alone can help us understand more about what works. But as you say, we have to experiment and push the boundaries of our artform.

  23. #68 by Teddi Deppner on August 21, 2012 - 11:40 pm

    I am reading “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and ran into a couple of “stinker” dream sequences. There’s one at the beginning of chapter 7 and another one later on. In the sequences, people close to the protagonist are killed… only to find out a few paragraphs later that it was only a nightmare.

    I didn’t feel like it helped the story or enriched the experience. It didn’t feel like foreshadowing or add to the tension. It just made me wonder each time I started a scene after that whether it was real events or whether the author would “take it back”. There might be a place for “keeping the reader guessing” or trying to instill a “dreamlike” feeling, but I don’t think that applies in this case. It was just annoying.

    (But I’m enjoying the story overall, just didn’t care for the dream sequences!)

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