Posts Tagged A Handful of Dust

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 TooMuchCheeseBeforeBedtime.com.

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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