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.
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!