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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. 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.”

  2. 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.

  3. 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! 😉

  4. 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.

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. “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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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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