tell a dream, lose a reader...but why?

The first time INTERN heard Henry James' pronouncement "Tell a dream, lose a reader," she was baffled. Why not "write a training montage, lose a reader" or "use Comic Sans, lose a reader" or any other writing peeve? What is it about a dream sequence that makes readers roll their eyes, yawn, or chuck the book onto the floor?

After a several years of having this question gnaw at her (and writing and discarding a few doomed dream sequences of her own), INTERN has a few theories about why, despite writers' ongoing love affair with writing them, readers tend to dislike dreams.

Dreams feels like cheating.

You'd cry foul if the very tool your protagonist needed dropped out of the sky on a silver parachute (unless your book is The Hunger Games, that is). All too often, writers use dreams to parachute information to the protagonist ("the key is hidden in the banana grove!") rather than having the protagonist do the hard work of figuring out those problems on her own.

As a result, these discoveries feel unearned: rather than marveling at the protagonist's skill and intelligence in solving the mystery, we roll our eyes at her ever-so-convenient subconscious. We may even start to actively dislike her: "Come on, guuyyys—I totally dreamed that! I swear!"

Suggestion: Never use a dream to hand your protagonist something she ought to have worked for.

They're repetitive.

Often, dream sequences do no more than rehash, in a slightly more surrealistic or jazz handsy way, emotional content or plot information we've already covered in other scenes. Real Life Scene A shows the protagonist having a heart-wrenching visit with his dying grandmother; Dream Sequence A shows the protagonist having a dream about his grandmother in which she repeats the same life lesson she delivered that afternoon, except now her wise old face is lined in silver etc etc. In other words, many dream sequences are redundant (for more on redundant scenes, see INTERN's post on the topic.)

Suggestion: When a dream scene and a lived scene replay the same event, ask yourself: Do both scenes bring something new to the table? Do both scenes have distinct and different functions? Or are they merely two versions of the exact same scene?

A dump is a dump is a dump.

Dream sequences are easy to write and dastardly difficult to cut. They sometimes contain the most beautiful writing in the entire manuscript—or it can feel that way to the writer, who poured every gorgeous image that wouldn't fit in other parts of the novel into the dream sequence.

Just as writers use "reading the newspaper" scenes as info-dumps, we tend to use dream sequences as poetry-dumps. And while a dump of poetry is arguably nicer than a dump of information, the fact remains that a dump is a dump is a dump.

Suggestion: If you feel like your writing isn't beautiful or literary enough, a dream sequence isn't going to make up for it. Put your energy into line edits.

**

Do you skim the dream sequences in other people's writing? Can you think of an example of dreams done effectively in a novel? Do dreams work better in some genres than others? Have you ever held on to a dream sequence that really ought to be cut? Do dream sequences get too much flak for being boring and self-indulgent? Do they deserve more respect? INTERN wants to know!

Comments

  1. I'm in the middle of reading AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman and there are plenty of dream sequences, none of which detract from the book. But he is a master. I guess it goes to show that they can be written splendidly. I bet he could even make Comic Sans come alive.

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  2. I totally get this, but once in awhile I find a book where they just *work.* Sally Gunning's THE WIDOW'S WAR uses dreams to very credible effect.

    But that doesn't mean I'll ever pull it off.

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  3. I'm not saying they can't be done well, but when I'm reading someone's manuscript and a dream sequence pops up (the italics are usually the first tip off) I'm immediately tempted to skip the scene entirely.

    Also, can we please avoid the "...and then he woke up and realized it was all a dream. Except, wait! He's holding some physical evidence that came from the dream, making this magical realism" twist endings? Granted, this worked really well for me in the regional Scholastic writing awards when I was in 7th grade, but not so much anymore. :)

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    1. "Granted, this worked really well for me in the regional Scholastic writing awards when I was in 7th grade, but not so much anymore. :)"

      ROFL!!!! Oh man, all the tricks that won me those awards are like the most amateur moves now.

      Great post, INTERN. Ironically, my writing partners and I were arguing (friendly-like) about this at our last meeting. I was dubbed a dream-hater. I'm not, but your points perfectly elucidate why I'm so skeptical.

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  4. Overall, I tend to agree about skimming dream sequences, especially when they're just weird versions of what happened in the characters' lives (actually, the weirder the dream, the less I like it). But I think Harry Potter is a pretty solid exception to this, where she used his dreams as a link to Voldemort to show what the bad guys were up to. In general, I think dreams can work when they show the reader what another character is doing, particularly in a 1st person or 3rd person limited story, as long as it stays within the context of your story (i.e. I don't think a defense lawyer is going to have dreams where he suddenly sees what the prosecution is doing).

    Dream flashbacks can sometimes work too (you know, a nightmare about that time the MC was attacked), IF it's something that wasn't already shown in the book. Sometimes.

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  5. I'm a dream-skimmer for all of the reasons above, plus two more:

    1) They are often full of terrible cliches and metaphors. Any given dream may not have rivers, wildlife, suns, moons, night, hot, cold, ancestors, or gardens... but I've been burned enough not to chance it.

    2) Dreams, by definition, cannot advance plot. At most they can inform about the internal mental state of a character, but you know they're going to wake up and everything will be just like it was. Maybe the protagonist will decide or do something then, but at most you'll miss some of the reasoning (and nine times out of ten, the character still processes the painfully obvious dream metaphors on page once they wake).

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  6. I recently critiqued a story that used a lot of dream sequences. I didn't beat her up for them because they did the opposite of what you suggest in the first point. They didn't cheat. They were exactly what real dreams are, the protagonist putting together the pieces he/she already has to reach some new understanding. It's what OUR dreams do! Almost everything in the dream was directly related to something that happened in the previous chapter (or the one before) but in symbols and strange signs and the voice of a dead father. The only complaint I had about her dreams was that they were in italics! (Comic sans - god forbid)

    Just wanted to relate the possibility that dreams can be used properly, which we all knew. Of course the majority of dream sequences suffer from the problems you list. :p Yuck. My debut novel had ZERO dream sequences. I'm trying to think if I've ever written one... oh, in my very first novel (unpublished and written in pencil) the protag dreams of having a wedding night with her dead fiance. That's the only one I can remember. Heh. Not my crutch. I have others.

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  7. I skim long dream sequences ... but I put brief mentions of dreams in my own writing, and I have seen it used effectively in other books. My perspective is that dreams offer us another avenue into the psyche of the protagonist. They show us what s/he is focussing on deep down; what aspects of preceding scenes were secretly important to her even if they weren't overtly significant; and what understandings or emotions a protagonist will not allow herself to consciously accept. So long as they are kept brief, concise, I think dream sequences can play an important part in storytelling. Especially if the story is written in first person POV.

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  8. Like prologues and back story, dream sequences are easy to abuse. (The "poetry-dump" -- wicked clever, that -- is just one of those forms of abuse.) But like prologues and back story, there's nothing inherently evil about 'em. Did Elmore Leonard (?) say that every sentence in the book needs to drive either plot or character? Dream sequences can serve as just another tool in the box to accomplish the latter purpose.

    I don't know. All these arbitrary rules... EVERY technique in writing fiction is, at a certain level, stoopid. But dreams have impacts on real people. Why shouldn't they do so on fictional ones?

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  9. I don't like dreams as an info dump, but they bug me even more as a backstory tool. Which, actually, is an info dump. But the "relive the horrible memory" dream sequence bugs the snot out of me.

    I'm sure some people dream traumatic events a la flashback, but a lot of people don't. Nightmares turn into more of a mishmash of places and people that don't mix together with a few extras you never met or saw in real life. They can represent a specific fear or stress, but they usually come in disguise.

    So again, it feels like a cheat to me. I'd rather see a true flashback stimulated by a smell or a sound than the old reliable dream sequence.

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  10. I use a lot of dream sequences in my latest novel. Maybe cuz I'm a psychologist, and ya know, that's what we're supposed to do and stuff. Thus far, readers haven't complained, but I do agree that they could be a drag if abused. :-)

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  11. I think dreams work better in fantasy, where it's not unusual for characters to have dreams/visions of the future. They can also indicate, as they did in Harry Potter, that two characters share a unique, magical connection.

    Even in those situations however an author should be careful not to overuse dreams. I'm not even saying limit yourself to one per book, I'm saying 1 or 2 per series. Readers remember things from book to book, and if you use dreams too often, they'll get bored.

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  12. I think we skim dreams 'cause we know we're going to be hit over the head with a symbol.

    But the nightmare of Cathrine at the window at the beginning of Wuthering Heights works really well - a mystery, a haunting that sets up the rest of the novel.

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  13. Thank you!

    One great example of a dream sequence working well in a novel is in The Cancer Ward by A. Solzhenitsyn (which is a great book overall). In it, the antagonist sees the consequences of his past crimes and speaks to the only child of the man he once sent to a concentration camp. He is tortured by his conscience - something he just can't do in real life - which adds a great new dimension to the story.

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  14. I freaking LOVE dream sequences in both literature and TVs or movies. I'm very interested in psychology and I guess that's a big part of their allure. Of course, I HATE the "it was all just a dream" as much as the next gal, and the dream should have a point or introduce or maybe hint at something the character already knows but isn't ready to accept.

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  15. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, /When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, /Must give us pause.
    If they have none of the problems you mentioned and they are part of the plot they are really good. Imagine Nightmare on Elm St, with no dreams, It would be five minutes long and five minutes too long.

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  16. Another critique of dreams in general is that they're little pockets of non-plotted sequences in an otherwise (hopefully) plotted novel. In other words, there's no cause and effect in a dream, either in the long run (i.e. you wake up, so you can kill whoever you like or have sex with the guy that would otherwise lead to awkwardness at work) or in the short run (you can be cornered by a tiger and then that tiger is your friend and then that friend is a teapot).

    I skim dream sequences because they are literally moments of non-story in a story. Nothing happens that matters in the dream -- and it doesn't matter if you understand what's going on. Dreams don't engage you the way an actual story does. I skim them in the same way that I do overindulgent setting descriptions.

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  17. Great post, and great points in these comments. Another reason dreams seem like cheating is that the writer can already make anything they want happen in the story based on the world constraints they chose. A dream is like they decided it was necessary to avoid following the chosen constraints for a scene.

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  18. I'm not usually a fan of dream scenes, but I've written quite a few. They help me get into my character's head and realize how to tell the story from their POV. Those scenes are removed during revision bc they're not helpful to the reader. Just to me.

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  19. My last manuscript relied heavily on dreams to uncover the past in a brainwashed girl. This post is just another nail in that coffin and we should all hope that novel does not live on as a zombie.

    I will say that Marge Piercy uses dream sequences in Gone to Soldiers very effectively to show one twin who has been shipped off to America what her poor sister is enduring in a concentration camp. Partly it works because they are twins and it's believable in that sense, but it also provides a way for more glimpses at these characters without devoting entire chapters to them in an already VERY long book.

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  20. SO true. In one book I read, a girl discovered she liked one guy because she had a sexy dream about him. Why the hell this writer thought this counted as romantic development was beyond me.

    (I've had all manner of sexy/romantic dreams with various people/celebrities/objects, and I'm pretty sure none of them reveal anything about my actual romantic inclinations.)

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  21. I wrote a Fantasy where dreams are the way the world's magic works within the protag. It was only after I wrote the book I realized how common that is. Taking a break before I go back and see if I can replot without the dreams. Though mine are plotted and involve lots of blood.

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  22. One thing that bothers me about dreams in fiction is if I read through a long scene or even several scenes before finding out that it was all just a dream. Then I feel cheated, in a way, because none of it was real. I guess dream sequences could work if they're used sparingly without too much symbolism, because then they could get confusing. Most of my favorite books don't use dream sequences at all.

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  23. The worst bit about dream sequences, after muddling through them, is when the character promptly forgets all they just dreamed. WHY why such detail if it's only purpose is to create itches in dramatic irony?

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  24. As with anything else: it depends on how you use the dream sequence. Foreshadowing is a prime example - when used propperly. Personally I love dream sequences: I love writing them because they give me the opportunity to play around with my characters and settings, and make me EXPLORE parts of my own story telling in new ways that would otherwise have been possible (for me at least). I love reading dream sequences too, but only if they are done right and are not rehashing already known information or are compeltey pointless fillers.

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  25. I'll read dreams but I always skip song lyrics. Talk about poetry dumps. So many emo-boy love interests and their songwriting. Pure filler imho

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  26. I was never really big on dream sequences, either. To me, they seem like cheap excuses to slip in bits of exposition that didn't fit when everyone was awake. Same goes with visions. When I start writing, I'll never include dreams...or at least dream sequences.

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  27. In general, I agree. I'm not a huge fan of dream sequences in most narratives-- they do feel a lot like cheating, and don't generally contribute to the plot. I'm on the fence about the dream-visions in Harry Potter-- they are a kind of information-parachute, and I thought the one at the beginning of Goblet of Fire with the old man and the killing was a little hokey, but the ones in Order of the Phoenix were a terrific plot device. It's a nice (nasty) twist that Harry is "rewarded" for believing and acting on the one about Mr. Weasley, and punished severely for believing/acting on the one about Sirius. That made it clear that the information he was getting came with a potential price beyond bleeding and pain.

    I hope that readers will make an exception for the dream I'm writing right now. A lot of the action in this story takes place in the heroine's private dream-world, and things that happen in her dreams are as real and important as things that happen outside of them. I'm hoping I can make that clear enough that the dreams will retain as much immediacy and impact as the rest of the story, but only time (and audience) will tell.

    I'm with you on the points you bring up here, though. Great post!

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  28. Like Henry James's hackneyed pronouncement, this is (with all due respect) complete baloney.

    Read page 170 of Child of God (Cormac McCarthy), or, for that matter, read the entire novel The Crossing.

    (Re)watch the opening of Aliens.

    Watch American Werewolf In London.

    Reread Crime and Punishment and then criticize those febrile dream sequences which, for so many of us who love literature, still astound.

    Or Anna Karenin with her charged and symbolic recurring dream that is so poignant and beautiful.

    Or any one of thousands of other examples.

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    1. Duuuuuude, nobody's saying all dream sequences are bad! INTERN is just pointing out certain in ways in which SOME dream sequences fail to thrill. Take your baloney elsewhere, good sir!

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  29. I've got no problem with dream sequences, as long as they're short, don't, as you point out, cheat, and don't get too purple.

    BTW, new follower here, nice to meet you, INTERN!

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  30. I'm not a big fan of dream sequences usually. If authors were being genuine, the person would be doing weird things--eating a banana that never ended, trying to fit a rubberband on an object that would never get tight, get chased by someone who turned into someone else and then they'd do something that seemed normal at the time, and then the protagonist would fly.

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