Dream a Little Dream—But Not in Your Fiction

This week’s video digs into the reasons why dream sequences are almost always a bad choice for your fiction. Don’t forget that the Grand Prize Giveaway, celebrating the launch of Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, is still underway. Enter for a chance to win a Kindle, over $100 in writing craft books, and a book-themed poster from PosterText!

Video Transcription:

By now it’s common knowledge that agents and editors hate seeing stories that begin with dream sequences. A story opening that features a dream is a story opening that almost always fails to present a strong hook, character, setting, conflict, or frame. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, but your wisest move is generally to cut the dream and find a stronger opening. So what about including dreams later on in the story? Does the same aversion apply there as well? In a word—or two—that depends.

Occasionally, dreams can be used to set the tone, introduce symbolism, or offer a laugh. But successful dreams are rarely longer than a paragraph. In fact, a short sentence—such as, for example, “Andre woke from another dream of bats and rainbows”—is probably your safest bet. Otherwise, you risk confusing, boring, and distancing readers. I recently read a literary novel that included a dream sequence that spanned thirty pages. The author did a good job crafting the dream to feel like a dream, and for that he should be commended. But the downside of this is that real dreams are rambling, incoherent, and pointless—a combination few readers will appreciate.

Every now and then, my favorite television shows will include an episode that is entirely a dream sequence. These episodes are invariably some of my least favorites, not only because their bizarre tone doesn’t fit the rest of the show, but because their storylines add nothing that builds upon either the show’s general plot or the characters’ growth. If you feel you need to include a dream in your story, stop and ask yourself if this scene is absolutely necessary to the story, if it’s clear, if it contains conflict or tension, and if it advances character growth. If the answer to any of these is no, you’d probably be wise to trim the dream to a sentence or two—or delete it entirely.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever decided to include a dream sequence in one of your stories? Why or why not?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I recently read two books (Heartless and Veiled Rose by Anne Elisabeth Stengl) in which dream sequences play an important part. For a good portion of at least the latter book it is the only way to communicate with some of the key players. Stengl writes the dreams in present tense and italics, not only bringing them out of the rest of the text but giving them that sharp, in-the-now feel. Her dreams do not tend to be long, but they are certainly poignant, I looked forward to each one, and each was pertinent to the plot.

  2. My second novel relies heavily on dreams to give backstory on my MC who has been brainwashed and can’t remember her previous life. I already know this novel has issues, so now I’m extra-nervous. The dreams also provide a juxtaposition because the girl is in a very austere modern setting, but in her dreams she lives in nature and freedom. Eventually she heals enough to realize that the dreams are memories and her two worlds sort of meet. I hope this isn’t totally lame. Live and learn, right?

    One novel I LOVE is Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy. This is historical fiction about WWII and she uses dream sequences really well for one of the characters who is a twin. She has been sent to America to live with relatives, but her twin stays in France and the dreams are how Piercy shows us what is happening to the twin left behind. I think it works really well, builds tension for the reader, and it’s extra poignant from her sister’s point of view. Sometimes dreams can be done well.

  3. George R. R. Martin uses dreams for prophecy and communication (particularly the wolf dreams of the Stark children) to great effect. I agree that dreams are usually irrelevant to a story, but fantasy can sidestep that problem by making dreams be more than just dreams.

  4. Aaaaaahhhhh! I’m always so nervous about my story because it starts with a dream sequence. There are several through out the story, but they are prophetic dreams and “interactive” so I’m hoping to survive the cliche of dreams.

    I cut the first dream but found all my readers were confused about what was going on. The dreams fill in the plot holes. Sam’s comment made me feel a bit better since my story is fantasy. Man I hate all these rules that I know we shouldn’t break, but sometimes the story needs the dreams.

    Having said that, if you use dreams, you need to have at least 100 readers comment on it so you can get it just right. You don’t want the reader to feel tricked, cheated, or bored.

  5. Nope. I know that can bug the reader, so I don’t. I’ll leave that to the more experienced writers. : )

  6. @Jenny: Pertinence to the plot is a major factor in making a dream work, as are unique aspects. From what you’ve said here, it sounds as if Stengl’s dreams were more focused and applicable to her story than real-life dreams are to most of our lives.

    @Shell: When dreams raise questions for both the character and the reader – particularly about something buried in the character’s psyche, as would be the case for an amnesiac or someone, like your character, who has been brainwashed – they fall into the “necessary” category, with the added bonus of offering intrigue. That said, I probably would be leery of going into too much depth with the dreams. Instead of fleshing them out as scenes in their own right, I would probably use them as teasers to make readers want to keep reading to discover the truth about the character’s past.

    @Sam: Great example. When a dream becomes *more* than a dream it gains extra credence and stability. However, it’s still important for the author not exhaust the reader by infusing too much hazy, rambling, “dream-speak” into his description of the dreams. Usually, it’s best to be straightforward, say what’s to be said, and the exit the dream with dignity (and the reader’s ability to understand what’s going on) in tact.

    @Charity: My fantasy Dreamlander (due out sometime next year) obviously centers quite a bit around dreams. But since the dreams are “real,” they escape most of the onuses generally applied to dreams. “Interactive” dreams would almost certainly fall under the same exception.

    @Beth: Good choice. Better safe than sorry!

  7. As a reader, I’d say the occasional few lines about a character’s dream are okay, but I don’t like it when every few chapters boasts another fully described dream. Flashbacks and visions are different than dreams. Any scene not pointed toward building the tension is questionable; strangling the sense of momentum could “kill” the desire to keep reading.

  8. You’ve summed it up nicely. Readers will forgive just about anything but boredom, and that’s what’s at the heart of the dream problem. So long as you’re *sure* you’re not boring the reader, you’re probably okay. But, when in doubt, cut the questionable material.

  9. The first book I wrote had a dream in chapter two…and then I went to a writers conference for the first time and learned what a no-no it was. I’m so glad you all fill us in on these important details. Thanks. 🙂

  10. The only time I’ve included a dream in my published works so far, it was relevant to the story. In Let Not Man Put Asunder, Lilian has to deal with a five-year guilt over her apparent failure to save her siblings in a fire. Eventually she deals with it, but guilty feelings can bring on nightmares, which is the whole purpose. I would not use them otherwise.

    By the way, most of The Wizard of Oz is a dream Dorothy has when a window frame hits her on the head. I wonder what you think of it.

    ~ VT

  11. So far, I have one dream scene. My MC is haunted by what he did, and it’s visiting him in his dreams. The Character Therapist said he might have nightmares, so I added it. I won’t go overboard with dreams, but because of everything he’s dealing with, if it were me, I would have bad dreams. I’m just not sure if I’m breaking copyright laws the way I wrote it, but that’s for another post. 😉

  12. @Michelle: It’s funny… dreams in fiction seem almost instinctual for many of us. And, yet, we’d also be the first to say we don’t often enjoy reading dreams. Go figure!

    @Victor: You know, despite the obvious frame I’ve never really considered Dorothy’s time in Oz as a dream. It’s my personal feeling that she really did travel over the rainbow.

    @Lorna: Indicating a dream, particularly when it has psychological import, is great. It’s only when we drag the reader through lengthy, unnecessary ramblings that the dream becomes a problem.

  13. I DO have a dream sequence in one of my stories, but it’s very short and it’s NOT in the opening. It’s toward the end of the first third, and it’s sort of a foreshadowing element… But I agree w/you a hundred percent. Use dreams w/caution~ Another good one! :o) <3

  14. Yikes! Meg MacAllister’s nightmares are a major part of the storyline in Scribbles…there wouldn’t be a story without them.

  15. @LTM: Dreams are often a perfect place to insert foreshadowing and symbolism. So long as it isn’t heavy-handed and, as you say, short, it often works well.

    @Tommie: Meg’s dreams were so inherent to the story (not to mention interesting in their own right) that they definitely didn’t fall into the category of the dreams I’m discussing here.

  16. Thanks! It’s reassuring to know you thought they were interesting 8^)

  17. There ought to be a serious (ie, plot-related) reason for a dream, c.f. Harry Potter and the Game of Thrones series.

  18. I have used dream sequences in a couple of my lighter-hearted, humourous stories. There’s so much comedic potential in a character who takes his/her dreams seriously or literally and then proceeds to act on them. Otherwise, I would tend to steer clear–much in the same way that I tend to steer clear of people who insist on recounting their dreams in agonizing detail. 🙂

  19. @Gail: Even then, it’s important that the dream is told in just the right way. As a reader, I’ve been bored even by plot-necessary dreams, when the author drags them out in an inappropriate amount of detail.

    @Kern: Exactly! We’ve all run into people who bore us out of our socks recounting every detail of their dreams. Works just the same in fiction.

  20. I have one dream sequence in my novel. My MC is talking to her therapist about the sort of dreams she has about her dead twin, and I cut to one such dream, described briefly from her POV. IMHO, it works.

    I’ve written only one, out-of-sequence scene of the sequel to this novel — and guess what, it’s another dream…. I can’t describe it because it’d be a spoiler re the first novel, but it’s short, intense, and lays the groundwork for a major plot development.

    I actually like reading well-handled dream sequences. But they can easily drag on too long or be too confusing.

  21. Yes, the key to making dreams work is making them “well-handled.” The reason they get such a bad rap is because they’re so often abused.

  22. I am putting a few dreams in my current chapters of my memoir – they are in a short paragraph of description – telling a therapist about a dream and then we interpret it. Just a few dreams, though.

    Heather

  23. A few dreams described in brief paragraphs shouldn’t get you into any trouble. Brevity is the soul of good dreams!

  24. I think writers should be wary of cutting things out just because they’re afraid editors might not like them. Editors may be a formidable obstacle on the road to getting your book published, but they aren’t necessarily a good judge of merit or quality.

    I remember one editor moaning on Twitter that she was going to reject the manuscript she was reading because it was written in the first person, even though the narrator was already dead at the beginning. Only after I pointed out that this was a well established story-telling technique used in, for example, Citizen Kane and American Beauty, did she grudgingly add that the manuscript in question wasn’t well written either!

    The point is, if you think a dream or any other technique works for your story, then I believe you should use it (but write it well, obviously!) Trying to second guess the blinkered prejudices of someone else – whether reader or editor – will result in you writing their story rather than yours.

  25. On the one hand, I completely agree with you. Good art is defined by so many broader parameters than simply what any given editor – or collection of editors – may impose upon the books they select for publication. That said, authors who want to be traditionally published need to be aware of what turns editors off. Also, there’s often a good reason behind editors’ lists of no-nos (even if those lists are sometimes taken too far and made into irrefutable “rules”). In this instance, the dream no-no is based on the very sound principle that dreams are often tedious, self-indulgent, pointless, and gimmicky. If an author can avoid those pitfalls and if he believes his dream is brilliant enough to impress even the most jaded of editors, then there’s no reason he shouldn’t throw convention to the wind and give it a go. But those are two very important “ifs.”

  26. I generally agree with you. But in the story I’m working on now, I have included a couple paragraph-long-only nightmare sequences that illustrate both the protagonist’s disturbed emotional state and (indirectly) the development of a deep emotional bond with his love interest. I think it seems to be working. I’ll definitely call it out to my beta reader, though, to be sure.

  27. When in doubt, ask the beta. I’m definitely not saying all dreams should go. As always, it depends on the story. But the downside of dreams is a good thing to be aware of when you’re deciding whether or not to include a dream. In the end, ask yourself if you’d appreciate this dream in a story you were reading. If the answer is yes, keep it. If not, well, you know! 😉

  28. I’m leaving the two brief dream sequences in one of my books. 🙂 One involves a group of thugs carving a microchip out a businessman’s hand. It works because it is a very jarring and eerie sequence that symbolically ties in with the rest of the story and serves to provoke the main character into action.

  29. Yowch! I don’t even want to know how that chip got *into* the guy’s hand! :p

  30. I’m working on a book at the moment, and it begins with a couple of short sentences where the protagonist is yelling for someone named Samuel (the readers realize shortly later that he is her run-away brother) to come back. Then she wakes up. I liked my beginning, but after reading this I’m not so sure. I never knew that dreams could be a huge stumbling block in writing.

  31. If you’re hoping to be traditionally published, you need to realize that opening Chapter One with a dream is sometimes all it takes to get an agent to toss your manuscript aside. A short dream of a few sentences or so probably isn’t a major storytelling problem, but you’ll want to seriously evaluate its effectiveness and necessity to the story. If you’re confident in it, you may want to take a chance and keep it. Otherwise, you’re probably safer without it.

  32. I found this post SO useful as I threw in a dream sequence about 1000 words in. Everything was flowing smoothly and I think I got in flow and got carried away in a dream of a character that is all too real to me. I read over the first few chapters and felt the dream dropped some very tasty breadcrumbs but I was able to change the scene into something real and coherent which I think made it better. Dreams I have noticed (I have read amazing books where dream sequences are a necessity) that dream sequences can be an easy way out and can avoid character development because the character has some prophetic vision of what’s to come. In reality I feel that dream sequences should reveal thoughts that exist rather than things to come.

  33. “An easy way out” is a good way to describe the problem. If a dream, for whatever reason, offers more worth than just an easy way to dump info or convey character fears, then that’s a different matter, of course.

  34. I guess it can be overused but I don’t think it is should be a rule that you starting with a dream sequence is a bad idea. I don’t do it often, but I do have one particular story that begins with a dream/nightmare sequence. This sequence is key to the entire story as the main character (who has the nightmare) is actually receiving a warning that he must first realize then decipher and then save the day. And since this is inspirational/Christian style fiction, it works that he is basically receiving a message from God that he has to realize. Anyway, I think it works. I realize it can be overused and overdone but so can any other writing element.

  35. The primary reason for the “rule” against dreams is simply the fact that it’s often an instantaneous trigger to set agents flipping the manuscript into the rejection pile. It’s much tougher to make a dream work well than not. That said, there are absolutely instances in which a dream *can* work successfully. It’s just a matter of figuring out whether those instances apply to our stories.

  36. I’ve been writing a memoir for sometime now that depicts the journey my wife and I embarked on together and moves through losing her tragically in a very short time at a young age. I began with a vivid dream I had of her on our two year wedding anniversary and there are two other dreams throughout the manuscript. Do you feel, in your opinion, that dream sequences do not work in memoir writing as well?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t consider myself an expert in memoir, although many of the same fictional techniques apply. I would be more inclined to give dreams a little more leeway in nonfiction, but I would still want to make sure the dreams are punchy, have a hook, and don’t unnecessarily fool readers into thinking their events are actually happening.

  37. I am currently writing a children’s book in which the main character goes back in time in a dream. I wanted to handle it that way instead of writing it as historical fiction.

    The whole story is a dream except the beginning when the character has gone to sleep thinking about the place he wants to go and then goes there in his dream. The rest of the story takes place as a dream. In the story, the characters realize they are in a dream but know they can’t wake themselves up and must complete their mission.

    In the end, the main character wakes up, thinking about his dream, but clearly realizes it was only a dream.

    How do you think that will work?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One of the biggest problems with dreams is that they lack meaning in the “real world.” In short, as soon as your character wakes up at the end, everything that’s occurred to him up to that point no longer has any stakes or ramifications. Unless the events of the dream affect the real world in some significant way, I would recommend against its being “just” a dream.

  38. Hi K.M.,

    Thank you for your excellent comment! I can see what you mean, and I hadn’t thought about that aspect of it. I think what I can do is add an epilogue at the end and have Jeff’s dream affect his real life in some way, even if it’s in a small way. From what you’ve said, the dream needs to be significant enough so that it’s carried over into his real life in some way.

    Thanks!
    Jerrye

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