successfully start a book with a dream

5 Ways to Successfully Start a Book With a Dream

5 ways to successfully start a book with a dreamDon’t start a book with a dream. 

This has become one of those bits of writing advice that has passed into legend, right along with “show, don’t tell” and “write what you know.” There are so many good reasons for this.

Dream openings are notorious for being boring, irrelevant, misleading, and cliched. As a “fake” opening, dreams share many of the same challenges and pitfalls as regular prologues—and have received the same amount of pushback from agents and editors weary of seeing the same problems over and over again.

Of course, unpublished manuscripts (and even published ones) keep churning out dream-sequence openings just because they always have the potential to be so much fun.

There’s a reason writers absolutely love them, and it’s usually because they first loved dream sequences as readers.

We all understand the inherent drama and symbolism of a good dream sequence. We all shiver with delight with the impactful foreshadowing handed down through these harrowing journeys into the subconscious. In fact, dreams have become a trope all their own: just as we know characters are death-bait if they start randomly coughing, we can also count on the delicious doom foreboded by characters who dream.

Right? I mean, seriously, I’d ask you to raise your digital hand if you’ve ever written a dream sequence, but then we’d all be raising our hands. I’m writing an entire series about dream sequences (which always makes me feel a little sheepish when I then proceed to adamantly recommend authors not start a book with a dream).

What this tells us is that there’s obviously a lot of good storytelling juice inherent in dreams. But as we also already know, adding a dream to a book (especially trying to start a book with a dream) isn’t an easy recipe for success. There are more ways to do it wrong than right.


It can be done.

Learning From Each Other: The First WIP Excerpt Analysis

This brings me to the first installment in our series of Work-in-Progress Excerpt Analyses. Last month, I prompted the idea of an intermittent series of blog posts, in which I would analyze short excerpts from your works-in-progress, with an eye toward identifying and discussing particular techniques we could all learn from.

You guys floored me with your enthusiastic response. I’m currently planning to do probably one analysis post per month, and considering that I now have an email folder filled with over two hundred submissions, it’s safe to say we’re not going to run out of material anytime soon.

Today’s post is inspired by Jennifer Sutherland’s submission of the opening to the second chapter of her fantasy novel The First Goddess. She wanted to know if she succeeded in her use of a dream sequence to introduce a character:

I have two protagonists in my story. I know that a dream sequence is a no-no for an opening scene, but is it always a bad idea? I’d like to introduce my female protagonist in chapter two with something like the following.

Jennifer’s submission immediately popped out at me as a great learning opportunity, both because this is a hot topic, and also because she demonstrates how to successfully start a book with a dream.

Her excerpt:

Snow was falling. The soft flakes cascaded all around us, catching on my eyelashes while I stared up at the tall man before me. Clad in a sleek, red suit, he was as stark against the snow as a drop of blood on white parchment. He considered me with murky, bloodshot eyes and I shuddered, glad for my mother’s firm grip on my hand.

“Janie, don’t let go,” she said, and pulled me closer to her side.

“Why,” I asked, only to realize that no sound emerged when I spoke. Were I to let go, there would be nowhere to run anyway. Nothing but snow covered terrain surrounded us for miles. A sudden touch, something colder than the snow, made me jump. I whipped around to find the man reaching for me with hands wrapped in a swirling pattern of delicate, black tattoos.

My mother yanked me away and said, angrily, “We had a deal.”

The man angled his bald head and smiled, displaying perfect, porcelain teeth. His reply whispered from his lips like moths rustling dry leaves. “A deal requires the participation of all parties involved. You,” he emphasized the word, “have not upheld your end of the bargain.”

He looked at me again. Those putrid orbs bore into me and the scraping, fluttering sound returned. It intensified to a roar, drowning out whatever he’d been about to say.

I awoke suddenly, the familiar noise still echoing in my ears. Cold, hard rain pelted me from above and I squinted as it struck my face. Grass encompassed me, looming so high that it obscured the sky and my view of the immediate area. A tangy scent of blood drifted in the air and I sat up cautiously, worried it might be my own.

Or my brother’s.

“Jason,” I called softly.

My body was unharmed, other than a few cuts and scrapes. My clothes, however, were torn in several places and soaked in frigid, muddy water. They clung to me as I stood, weighing heavily on my arms and legs. Height was not a gift my parents’ gene pool had bestowed upon me, so I could barely see over the colossal plants around me. Peering through the wispy ends of the blades, I could make out the edge of a forest less than a quarter mile away on my right.

Hugging myself for warmth, I turned full circle in my little patch of flattened grass, looking for the highway we had left earlier. But there was no road in sight, only the long line of the forest extending into the horizon. Any other landmarks that may have been present weren’t visible through the deluge of water and towering foliage. There wasn’t even a trail of broken stalks around to denote where I had come from. As though the sky had dropped me there with the rain.

What an excellent deduction Jane. The sky is raining people.

“Jason,” I said a little louder. There was still no response. Shivering, I continued to glance around, alarmed that there was no sign of him.

The plains were as isolated as the snowy hills of my dream.

5 Ways to Make Dream Openings Work

The major complaints against starting a book with a dream usually center around dreams that lack drama, structural integrity, or pertinence. Too often, authors will slap a dream onto their opening, believing the very nature of the trope makes it an insta-hook. The inevitable revelation, halfway through the scene, that “ta-da! she was dreaming” seems inherently gripping.

But it’s not. Readers don’t care that a character is dreaming—especially in the beginning when they don’t yet have any context. More than that, readers don’t want their time wasted in that first chapter, when what they’re really wanting is to get straight to the meat and discover whether or not this story is going to offer them something worth their time

>>More Here: Your Ultimate First Chapter Checklist

In short, authors must earn their dream openings. You can’t just slap a dream onto the beginning, believing it possesses some special power to hook readers, then blithely power on into the “real story.” Instead, you must carefully craft your dream—as Jennifer has—into the single best introduction of your plot and character.

Here are the five top signs you’ve chosen to start your book with a dream that works.

1. The Dream Isn’t Really a Dream

You know those fictional dreams that actually are exciting to you, as a viewer or reader?

I’m talking about scenes like Luke Skywalker facing down Darth Himself in the cave on Dagobah, or Jane Eyre watching a ghostly aberration rend her wedding veil in the middle of the night, or Jason Bourne jolting awake from another nightmare of assassinating someone.

They’re not dreams at all. They’re visions, premonitions, realities, and memories.

Real dreams are random and vague and largely meaningless to the conscious mind. Last night, I dreamed I was attending a chipper family reunion that was calmly dispersing because the meteorologists were predicting the descent of an apocalyptic windstorm.

Now, if it turned out, later in my life story, that I attended a family reunion under the threat of Hurricane Armageddon, then, yeah, that dream might be pertinent. But I’m betting not and filing it with all the rest of my crazy night ramblings.

That’s fine for me in real life. But it’s not okay for characters on the page whose every moment must contribute to the story’s larger structure and meaning. Dreams in a story are a promise to readers that this matters. That alone is why they offer the potential to be great hooks. They are power-packed foreshadowing.

But their foreshadowing only works when used with consciousness and purpose—as Jennifer has. Although I haven’t read the rest of her story, I trust that her sleek, red-suited man with the swirling tattoos is either a direct memory for the protagonist, a transferred memory or vision from her mother, or a premonition of something yet to come.

In short, it’s a clue to this character’s entire existence within this story. It’s not just a dream. It’s not just a random nightmare. It’s pertinent. It has given readers information they both need and crave.

2. The Dream Is a Great Hook

Just coming up with a foreboding or interesting dream that hints at good stuff to come is not, in itself, enough to hook readers.

You must also frame it as dramatically as possible. There are two specific elements to this.

1. Make the Dream Ask a Question

Hooks are questions. They introduce discordant elements that pique readers’ curiosity. The most interesting question in all of fiction is: Why? Why is this happening? Why does this matter? Get readers to ask these questions, and you’ll almost certainly hook them into the rest of your story.

2. Make the Dream Visually Arresting

In my post “Don’t Write Scenes–Write Images,” I quoted Pulitzer-winner Jane Smiley’s insightful observation that “ultimately … images are” what’s most “important and enduring” in written fiction. The principle of “show, don’t tell” is arguably nowhere more important than in your opening chapter and especially if you’re opening with something as visceral as a dream.

In her excerpt, Jennifer accomplished both of these challenges. She uses the dream sequence to raise several questions without answering any of them. Readers understand that if they want to find out what’s going on, they must keep reading.

Furthermore, Jennifer has created a evocatively visual scene. Her well-chosen descriptions of color and detail—the man’s swirling tattoos and the antagonistic snowfall—paint a picture that pops. Readers will remember this scene when finally they get to the payoff that fulfills their curiosity.

3. The Dream Is Followed By a Second Hook

The fundamental problem shared by dream openings and prologues is that they are essentially “false beginnings.” Because a dream’s events exist outside the story’s immediate plane of reality, whatever hook the dream provides is necessarily not the story’s “real” hook. That comes later when the dreamer wakes up in the real time of the main story.

What this means is that the story must essentially begin twice. And what that means is you’re going to have to write two hooks.

Transitioning from a dramatic dream sequence to the protagonist lying in bed thinking about the dream does not create a strong dramatic throughline for your opening chapter.

Again, Jennifer does a great job with this. She transitions smoothly from the eerie menace of her opening dream to the logical follow-up hook of the protagonist groping through her disorientation and fear. The character is not safe in bed with her family around her. Instead, she finds herself in another strange and curiosity-inducing environment, clearly on the run for unknown (but, we assume, related) reasons with her little brother, who may or may not have just disappeared on her.

4. The Dream Creates Plot

One of the major reasons dream sequences often fail is that they don’t move the immediate plot. Opening with a visceral dream that foreshadows delicious things to come isn’t enough if that same dream isn’t immediately pertinent to the character’s choices and reactions in that same scene.

Later on in a story, it’s possible to use dream sequences that influence their scenes tonally, rather than causally. But in your opening chapter, you’ve got to hit a lot harder. There needs to be an immediate causal link between the pertinence of the dream and whatever happens next in the real-time story to set up the plot to follow. Otherwise, the dream just isn’t pertinent enough at this moment to provide the strong opening hook you’re looking for.

By linking her two hooks—the dream itself and then the disorientation of waking up—Jennifer demonstrates one way to use dreams to move the plot. The character is directly influenced by her dream—it wakes her up and it motivates her to check on her brother. Assuming both of these actions are important to what follows in the rest of the chapter, this provides a solid structure to this opening.

Another way in which a dream might actively influence the “real” story is by providing information that turns the plot. Presumably, what Jennifer’s character learns in this dream will be a clue that factors into the story later. But had she wanted to, she could also have used it to provide her protagonist with a revelation that informs her immediate actions—which, again, would ground the dream’s pertinence in this scene.

5. The Dream Doesn’t Lie to Readers

This is the trickiest dream “rule” of all. Most of the time, dreams open with no hint that what the character (and the reader) is experiencing isn’t real. But this is a two-edged blade. On the one hand, it ups the ante of the dream’s events and can sometimes allow authors to create spectacularly fanciful hooks (there’s no gravity! the protagonist has magic powers! the protagonist’s dead parent is speaking to him!). But on the other hand, it also opens with a promise to readers that they’re getting a story about one thing—only to immediately break that promise.

I’ve been grabbed by many a great opening sequence, only to realize a few paragraphs later that the story wasn’t anything like what it had originally seemed to be about. “She woke with a start” is one of my least favorite lines to find in an opening chapter.

Dreamlander (Amazon affiliate link)

Personally, I find it much more advantageous to immediately tell readers that what they’re experiencing is a dream. Doing so kills almost none of the suspense, while helping shape readers’ expectations for the real story to follow. I opened my portal fantasy Dreamlander with the line:

Dreams weren’t supposed to be able to kill you.

I wanted readers to immediately understand that the events to follow weren’t literally happening to the protagonist (or… were they?).

Jennifer’s excerpt does break this “rule.” The consequences are not egregious since she clues readers in pretty quickly. Most readers will adjust easily, especially  since Jennifer follows up the dream’s hook with a credibly strong hook in the main part of the story. Still, were this story mine, I would find a way to hint within the first paragraph that this is a dream.


As with many of the “always/never” rules in writing, “don’t start a book with a dream,” is an oversimplification. It’s a reaction to the many, many, many poorly crafted dreams, most of which are written in the mistaken belief that dreams are always inherently interesting.

That said, it is a rule you can break, as long as you do it carefully—with respect for your readers’ reactions—and consciously—with a total understanding of your story’s needs and the effect you’re trying to create.

My thanks to Jennifer for sharing her excerpt and question, and my best wishes for her story’s success. We’ll do another analysis post in a couple weeks.

You can find further excerpt analyses linked below:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever tried to start a book with a dream? How did it go? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).


Love Helping Writers Become Authors? You can now become a patron. (Huge thanks to those of you who are already part of my Patreon family!)

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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.


  1. Robert Billing says

    I have two sorts of dream sequences in mine. In the mainline SF there is something called “psychothyresis”, brain to computer hookup, which can create illusions that are very real.

    Also there is a separate novel, which I’ve never been able to finish.

    This opens with a teenage boy having a nightmare in which he is in the body of an older woman who is shot and killed in the dream. He wonders if it is a real thing or he’s got a mental problem.

    Then a teenage girl has the complimentary dream, that she is an older man who is shot.

    They don’t know each other.

    What has happened is that about 16 years ago there was a real couple who were murdered by terrorists, but they have reappeared as the past lives of these two, but wrong way around.

    Now the new bodies are approaching maturity the two past lives want to find each other….

    He turned, heard a rustle, looked down and saw a long, green skirt.
    “Right, that does it,” he snapped. “Who are you, and what am I doing in your body?”
    “Oh gosh,” came the reply, “thank you ever so much. I’ve been waiting simply ages for you to ask.”
    The voice was warm, kind, full of champagne in the afternoon, ponies and designer clothes. It was the sort of voice that went with diamonds and supper at the Ritz.
    “I’m sorry,” said Neil. “But who are you?”
    “I’m Gwendolen, Gwendolen Palmer, please call me Gwen. Look, you must think I’m frightfully rude, borrowing your dream without asking, but I’ve been trying to get along without having a body for the last sixteen years, and it can be most trying.”
    “What happened to your body?”
    “That horrid little man outside shot me-”
    “Why?” interrupted Neil.
    “Because he’s in the IRA and I’ve upset him by finding his semtex. It’s rather difficult to explain.”
    “So you’re a sort of ghost?”
    The voice considered this for a while. “Yes, I suppose I am a ghost. I made it perfectly clear that I wasn’t going to heaven until I’d seen that man in prison for shooting my husband-“

  2. Excellent post Katie! When I saw the title of this blog post I knew you were the expert on the topic because of Dreamlander’s success.

    To respond to your question, I certainly have started stories with dreams (such as a roller coaster flying off from the rails and flinging children to some faraway island), but what came to mind first was an opening chapter of mine that began with a mind-shattering catastrophe that happens to the protagonist. Readers told me it made the protagonist unlikeable and that they know better than me what really happens to a child under intense trauma. It was about a girl who gets abducted to an institution and the chapter was on her parents being mercilessly killed while the helpless girl was taken further and further away from them.

    Since then I’ve discovered that the story was really about something else and I scrapped this chapter. But back to the catastrophe. How applicable are these dream rules to cataclysmic events in the beginning of a novel? I err on the side of “very much so” but I’d love your thoughts.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      All of the “rules” here would also apply to any semi-extraneous or prologue-like event in the beginning of story.

    • Thanks – great post! I get tired of hearing the so called “Rules” of writing – writers have an arsenal of
      options and dream sequences are one of them – I’m generally not a fan, but if done well, they are an effective tool to enhance and advance the story.

  3. I have never tried to start a book with a dream, but if you’re looking for a book that does it successfully, I’d add Ghost Ship by Clive Cussler and Graham Browne to the list.

    At first as the reader, you don’t realize it’s a dream until Kurt, the main character, wakes up and he’s trying to piece things together and it is revealed that the dream is more re-living something that he is still trying to recover from and he keeps getting two version of the dream/memories, and he isn’t sure which version is real. The plot unfolds from there as he tries to figure out what really happened and why his memories are messed up.

    So it hits all your points above. It isn’t really a dream because it is a messed up memory. It has a lot to do with the plot. It hooks the reader into the mystery of just which dream is real.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That does sound interesting!

    • That’s similar to how my book starts. I wrote a dream sequence, yet it is a reflection of a freek accident Becca Martin witnessed sixteen years ago. She didn’t understand what happened then, but now she embarks upon a journey to find out why she has these dreams and memories that continue to haunt her and keep her from doing the one thing she loves most, mountain climbing.

  4. Thank you so much! The book I’m working on begins with a dream sequence. This post could not have come at a better time!

  5. That was an amazing post! I will not deny that I’ve begun books with a dream sequence before, or just with a character jolting awake… 😂 This was a great example of a good one, though!

    Do you think you could link to a blog that the writer has, if she has one? I would love to see where her writing goes from here 🙂

  6. This is a really random idea that occurred to me, but do you think that we can twist things around like this all the time? Like, you were explaining how dreams are usually a very big ‘no-no’ but then you showed us that you Can actually start with dreams IF…etc.
    So if we take something like, “You can’t start your book with a prologue because it’s not the ‘real’ beginning’ is it possible for you to instead say ‘You can start your book with a prologue if it’s the real beginning’?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      These kinds of things are never “rules” so much as “guidelines.” If you do anything well and with purpose, it’s always acceptable. There’s that joke about how the only rule in writing is “never break the rules–unless you can break them brilliantly, then break them.” But first, there needs to be a solid understanding of *why* certain things are prone to pitfalls.

  7. This is a dream sequence I opened my ‘Her Master’s Wedding’ with: to be precise, it is an emerging memory of previous events. Nonetheless, the protagonist is keen not to re-enter the dream.

    Blinding, shrieking, unholy agony….
    My Jade-Eyes screaming….
    My Jade weeping….
    With a gasp, I rear up, blinking into darkness.
    A nightmare….
    Just a nightmare….
    Beside me in the bed, my flame-haired mermaid, safe and sound, sleeps peacefully. Beyond her: Michael, his chest rising and falling in the steady rhythm of sleep.
    Everything is fine. Everything is perfectly normal.
    But I’m drenched in sweat, my heart hammers behind my ribs and my breathing snatches. And the wound in my thigh throbs a slow, heated beat.
    And for the first time, the memory surfaces, how I took the wound: Corby, his gun trained on Charlotte. Michael, flinging himself bodily at the gunman in a desperate bid to prevent the shot. And looking for refuge, finding none, I seize her, shielding her with my body….
    Shrieking unbearable agony….
    ….. And a fall into darkness….
    I check the time; it’s hours after midnight; getting late enough almost to be early.
    I have no desire to sleep, to risk being dragged back into that nightmare.
    Swinging out of bed, I snag a robe and pad downstairs to the kitchen. The renovations are all but complete now and the house is cosy and comfortable. We moved out of the annex we first occupied a couple of weeks ago, but I still haven’t grown used to the feeling of ‘home’ here.
    I understand why Charlotte so yearned for a home of her own. Dispossessed for most of her life, with nothing to call her own, this has been Michael’s gift to her, the most precious thing he knew how to give to her, and he has put heart and body and soul….
    …. Not to mention a thumping great mortgage….
    …. Which he can barely afford….
    …. into it.
    But for myself too, it has become home. Divorced so many years ago now, from a marriage which I never understood at the time was so unsuccessful. Only when I met my Jade, did I truly understand what it meant to be bonded with another.
    And I would do anything for her….
    In the kitchen, the homely activities of grinding beans, putting the coffee-maker on the hob, calm me….
    …. calm me enough that I begin to think clearly about the memory that has just re-emerged. Everyone has told me how I was injured, that I placed myself in the path of the bullet intended for Charlotte, but it felt like a story or a news report; something that happened to a stranger. A tale from the tv or social media perhaps.
    This feels visceral…
    And my stomach clenches at the memory of that searing moment before I lost consciousness.
    I squeeze my eyes tight-closed, trying to exorcise the thought, then the aroma of the coffee invades my nostrils and reality returns.
    I take a couple of large gulps of the brew I deliberately made abrasively strong, then mug in hand, I head outside, inhaling sweet steam as I walk.
    The night is an iced hush; early Spring, with the air cold enough to steal my breath to curling clouds and with the kiss of frost on the ground. But a golden wedge of moon casts over the lake far below and the water is full of stars.
    And slowly, my heart and breathing slow, and I grow still inside.

  8. First, I love the snow and red of this opening. Such an arresting image.

    Second: Yes (waves cyber hand) I have started a story with a dream sequence. I wanted to show that my MC was a seer. Unfortunately, I only made my main character a seer because I’d never written an entire book in one viewpoint before and I thought if I needed to show what was happening elsewhere I could just have her dream about it! Since -you know- she was a seer. The whole book suffered badly from kitchen sink syndrome. (Whren you throw in every cool-sounding idea whether it fits or not, including the kitchen sink.) But the experience did get me comfortable writing entire stories in a single (first person) viewpoint, so it was still a win.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Actually, it’s not a bad approach–as long as there’s a reason for her being a seer within the overall plot.

  9. I have not started a novel with a dream, but I often include dream sequences later on in my books. Like you, I prefer to know the character is dreaming from the start and make that clear in the sequences I write. I use the dreams as foreshadowing and to hint at disturbing information the character’s subconscious knows, but which she is denying in order to avoid confronting.

  10. I second Julia’s request for the author’s link/website info. I was really drawn into her writing style and am quite intrigued by the story. 🙂

    I teach creative writing to young writers, and that age group LOVES to read and write dream sequences. It’s hard to explain to kids why dream sequences *usually* don’t work (especially when MG novels are littered with them). Your post here will be really helpful to me as I talk to them about the do’s and don’ts of dream sequences. I think they’ll relate to this more. Thank you!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Intriguing that kids are naturally drawn to dreams. I’m sure that says something interesting psychologically, but I’m not sure what. :p Just that we’re more in tune with our intuitive selves at that age, perhaps?

  11. I started a novel with a dream since the entire story hinges on it. It is a recurring dream. As the story develops, the reader will learn that this dream is some type of reality.
    What I’d like to know is this: Is it wrong to begin my story with a quote? The quote is a fragment taken from Rene Descartes’s dream argument. I wanted to start the story in this manner so the reader will know that I am going to describe a dream. My story is a murder mystery with metaphysical overtones.
    Thank you for any insight you can give me!

  12. Casandra Merritt says

    I’ve never had the idea occur to me to start a book with a dream… very interesting. This post will be useful in the future. Lately I’ve been studying story structure and I just discovered the Dramatica theory. I think you have mentioned it before, and I was wondering which book you would recommend. Also, if you have learned this theory, how long did it take before you understood it enough to apply it to your own work?

  13. melanie m redler says

    My favorite dream opening to a novel, and maybe the best one ever?

    “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.” Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca

  14. From what I can remember, I’ve never opened a story with a dream, but I have used dream sequences in a later chapter of a book. If done correctly and purposefully, I see no problem starting a book with a dream. Whenever I use dream sequences it’s always to show character backstory or some kind of symbolic meaning to a character’s waking life.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “If done correctly and purposefully…”

      This is really what it comes down to with all writing techniques.

      • “If done correctly and purposefully” I was just thinking about that- though not about dream sequences. I was just working on an overheard conversation. That’s another type of scene that a lot of people feel to be overdone, or often done badly. And yet, as long as it`s not just lazy (a detective happens to be passing by when the murder suddenly decides to phone his confessor while standing beside a conveniently open window) I do think overhead conversations do have a place in fiction.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I agree. They can be very dramatic and engaging when done well.

          • Christina Diggles says

            Yes, Gracie. I am struggling with the possibility of an overhearing scene as well. I was going to switch POV to get the necessary information to the reader, but I realized it made a lot more sense to continue following the protagonist… and that it also potentially makes a lot of sense for him to be able to overhear the conversation, since he’s in the same small ranch house and is very attuned to sounds. So, I’ll just need to make sure it is done well so as not to look like I’m cheating! 🙂

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            It’s great when readers can discover things at the same time as the protagonist does anyway.

  15. My book doesn’t open with a dream sequence, but instead the eerie dream-hangover from one dream MC CAN’T control. Everyone says not to open with a dream or waking up, but I think it works well because of who MC is, what she can do, and how the nightmare guides her later.

  16. I don’t have a dream persay in my story but my character l has visions when she is asleep or awoke sometimes she has them. First sometimes she drops something on the floor then she has visions or second sight. Her eyes do widen when that happens then she can see something. Right now in my wip she sees a fire happening on an island and how to help them relocate if need.

  17. Christina Diggles says

    I haven’t ever started a book with a dream sequence, but I did start one with a young boy fighting desperately, with the reader shortly discovering that he is being trained. (That is one of my unfinished projects I’ll need to get back out after finishing my work in progress). My current work has a lot of potential for dream scenes, as a female character suffers from nightmares and flashbacks after a traumatic event, and my protagonist suffers a head injury and comes back from anesthesia a few times. One thing I am planning on doing is combining memories in a dream-like sequence as he is coming to. “Catherine held out her hand, but he couldn’t reach it. ‘Don’t worry. God will hold onto you.’ Her eyes spoke the words, yet he heard them clearly.” It was actually a very minor character who made the comment, but in his mind he associates it with his friend. What do you think about this kind of portrayal of his state of mind? Another thing I’m having fun with is how to stay in deep POV while he is only semi-conscious, and not comprehending what he is seeing. A lamppost becomes a haze of light, hanging from a pole. Grass becomes a hundred soft spines poking him. It’s better in my draft, but you get the picture. Everything is broken down into basic shapes and concepts, or the memories get muddled together. I’m thinking about increasing the POV time of the female lead, at which point I might be able to further explore the world of dreams. 🙂

  18. My current WIP opens with a dream, so I was excited to see this post. I think Jennifer did a great job with her dream opening!

    Your five points are helpful and I did great with three of them. I had a second hook but it didn’t happen immediately upon the character waking so I’ll definitely move it. And I’m not sure how well the dream moves the plot. I wanted to open with a dream to show the reader the truth about a matter the protagonist will spend much of the book lying about. I want the reader to know that regardless of what the protagonist says or how convincingly she says it she is lying.

  19. Casandra Merritt says

    Thanks for the information. And for those who haven’t used the Dramatica theory, it has helped me so much already!

  20. In my historical novel, I start a dream sequence with:

    “[H.] lay awake in the dimly lit room for a long time that night; how long he wasn’t sure, hovering between wakefulness and dozing. He turned over several times before finding a comfortable position. A little later, he heard whispering. Has someone entered the room? Or is that Zimms speaking? [H.] raised his head and saw the [guard]’s place was vacant…”

    The dream, never explicitly identified as such until H. wakes, becomes increasingly bizarre, including much blood (motif) and a skeleton that asks, ‘Why?’ (theme) The entire sequence is a second Call to Adventure, forcing “H” to invite the therapist to come.

  21. Cool!! I didn’t even know there was a way to make a dream sequence work as an opening. This was some very interesting information, thank you!

  22. I started a book with a dream and then ditched it when I was informed about the ‘rule’. But I’ve always felt that it could work legitimately, I just didn’t know the how & why until I read this awesome post. Thank you for spelling it all out for us!
    Also, I love Jennifer’s excerpt, particularly the striking landscape and the efficiency of language, nothing superfluous, the content of the dream pulling focus and creating the right questions in the reader. Thanks for sharing!

  23. This post was awesome!! I read it and immediately knew that my first line was NOT about a lady making a grilled cheese sandwich (which WAS a pretty great hook, I promise! LOL) to that of her getting hit by a train…in a dream, of course! Thank you for this 🙂

  24. This was helpful 😀 Thanks a lot!

  25. Elizabeth Parr says

    Starting with dreams is so fun XD

  26. I have a dream sequence in my book. Your blog post gives me the reason to move it to the start of the book. I am looking forward to your future posts on dream sequences.

  27. When I first heard the admonition to never start a story with a dream, I thought, “Uh-oh, that’s exactly what I did in the novel I was working on, ‘When the Wood Is Dry: An Edgy Catholic Thriller’.” The story starts with the recurrence of a dream in which the main character, Lali, meets Jesus when she is a five-year-old girl. When she wakes, she asks, “Why that dream, again?”

    But, I soon realized that this dream was more of a vision and acted not just as a hook, but introduced the theme and the spiritual nature of the character. When Jesus tells a character in a dream, “Sometimes we must suffer if we are save souls…I will be with you when your time comes,” we know we are dealing with a special character, on a special mission, and the story will be about redemptive suffering. And, there is no a better way to reveal a spiritual calling then from a vision, most easily accomplished in a dream.

    So, I decided the “don’t start with a dream” rule was meant to be broken.

    When the Wood Is Dry will be published in three parts: I. Call of the Innocent; II. Crucifixion; and, III. Resurrection. The first part is available currently for free at a number of sites, including Amazon. Check out this link and get it from your favorite place:

    • Sounds intriguing! Just one thing: if I were to fill in the blank _________, Crucifixion,Reasurection, I dont think it would be what you used, it would be something about the Fall, or about Jesus’ childhood

  28. Ugh! I’ve been agonizing over my opening scene for months (and following your blog for years… how did I miss this one??) I am glad I finally stumbled across this post… better late than never I suppose. I feel much better about opening my WIP with a dream now. I’ve broken almost all of the “rules” with this story, but starting out with a dream sequence was the one I was most worried about.

  29. I want to start my WIP with a hypnopompic hallucination: the character hears a voice ask a question, and that question relates to the overall theme. In fact the voice might be the telepathically heard thoughts of the female lead. Or it might be a later alteration of his memory.

    Then he is awakened by the landing announcement of a plane…and he’s on the wrong plane.

  30. was going to start with a dream, then your blog made me hesitant…it’s not really a dream it’s another time period that eventually connects…so this post was really helpful, I’m going to try it..

  31. John Jackson says

    Thank you for going against the grain in this post and opening the door of possibility to a rich source of figurative language and metaphor to explore dreams as revelations and dramatizations of motivations and in my view a fabulous way in which to link visual images and symbols through myth which can’t be connected with any degree of believability in a conventional waking narrative. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison or Sawnn’s Way both begin with dream sequence at or near the very beginning of the books. And the second section of Sound of and the Fury begins with Quentin waking up. I guess the only way forward is to self publish my book when it is finished

  32. I’m writing a story in which my character keeps getting a recurring nightmare, and it’s been happening since she can remember. My fist line does state that it is a dream, so that it isn’t misleading, and it isn’t very long. I added it in there because I wanted to add not only some foreshadowing, but introduce the readers to my character *through* the dream. The nightmare’s a big part of her, so I feel that it is important to introduce as soon as possible. Do you think that would be alright to do without falling into the rabbit holes that are cliches? Thanks in advance.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It depends on execution. It sounds like you’re checking off all the technical boxes, so as long as this is a legitimately strong Hook that not only informs readers, but also interests them, you should be fine.

  33. Joseph W Singley says

    I was looking for a website that explains the challenges of starting a story with a dream. I enjoyed reading your article and thought it was helpful.
    I had an idea that it was a tired cliched way to start a story. My interest is due to a story idea I have. It starts with the main character running in terror away from an unknown danger. He hears a woman scream that sounds familiar. This time he is able to run farther. And then he wakes up.

    In my story his girlfriend has disappeared without a trace. He gets pulled into the dream world and he realizes that his girlfriend has been trapped there. He must find her and find a way to get them both out of the dream world.

    I know how important the hook is at the beginning of a story and I worry that starting with the dream will be too cliched.

  34. Here is a dream sequence opening from my next Richie Malone novel, Dead Brides. One of the purposes of opening with a dream scene is to introduce/reacquaint readers with the principle characters, particularly the MP, from the last book, Losing The Plot, and to ‘set the stage’ for what will follow. The reader is taken from the dream scene in Ch1 to a real life blackmail scene in Ch2.



    Nothing lasts forever.
    But when I uttered the words ‘I do’, I’d held the belief that my marriage would last a little over thirty seconds.
    So, one minute I’m standing at what passes for an alter in a civil bun fight, big shit-eating grin on my face, and the next?
    The next … I’m staring at my bride who’s newly wed and newly dead at my feet.
    It took me marginally less time to establish that the bullet that killed her had been intended for me, than it did for me to draw my Glock, chamber a round and point it at the hombre behind me on the balcony holding the proverbial smoking gun.
    And with the realization that the bullet Sam had copped for me – as I bent forward her to pick up her purse – came the equally sobering realization the man who had dispatched my bride should not be here.
    In fact, he should not be anywhere, except serving a twenty-five year sentence in the Centro Penitenciario in Malaga for a list of offences that would take significantly longer to read out than my marriage had lasted. And a sentence that I – in no small way – had had a hand in. Either that, or dead, courtesy of the Colombian Medellín cartel whose cocaine he had unadvisedly helped himself to before he started his own cartel in Andalucía.
    ‘Pleased to see me, Senor—?‘
    Being an old-fashioned guy I could have let him finish his question before putting a bullet into his brain, but my forbearance for prolonged conversation was tempered by the awareness that there were two other hombres holding guns and, if I’m honest, I wasn’t sure how this was going to go down?
    ‘How the fuck—?’
    ‘Did Lopez get out?’
    Let me introduce you to Alexei Nikolaev, who had just finished the question I’d begun.
    Nikolaev is one of most evil bastards I have ever come across and also a good friend of mine. The reason that he’s at my wedding is down to the fact that he had sex with my wife around twenty-three years ago and the outcome was Natasha, the raven-haired beauty, responsible for the day-to-day running of his legitimate import-export business. Everything else … the drugs, the prostitution, the money laundering and, of course, the dispatching of local scumbags who try to diminish his market share, he handles himself. He brought Natasha up while Sam sorted out her alcohol addiction problems and worked her way through Oxford and then law school to become one of the UK’s top defense and defamation barristers. He’s a magnanimous guy, Nikolaev, if you don’t press the wrong buttons. And if you go looking for him – which I would personally advise against – you’ll either find him at El Real Club de Golf Las Brisas with a caddy who does a more that passable impression of Oddjob, or entertaining fellow – but generally subordinate – Russian hoodlums and their molls on the poop deck of his one hundred and twenty foot super yacht in Puerto Banus marina.
    So that accounts for Nikolaev.
    He was invited.
    As bizarrely was the other hombre holding a gun.
    His name is Tom Dempsey and he was – and probably still is – the Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA.
    Dempsey and I go way back. I am the reason he walks with a pronounced limp, and he is the reason I still sleep with a loaded gun beneath my pillow.
    Back in the ‘90s I worked undercover in South Armagh for an outfit called the SRU. It was so secret that the Home Secretary didn’t even know it existed. So one joyful summer’s day I was tasked with the rescue of an associate who had infiltrated Dempsey’s senior council and had gone missing. Everyone knew he would be decomposing in some Monaghan bog, but I was the poor sap sent to track him down. Of course what my orders omitted – the established protocol, if extraction proved impossible – was to ensure he would not become an intelligence liability.
    The net result was that I was rumbled – due to my own stupidity – and spent an indeterminate but excruciatingly painful period of time being interrogated in Dempsey’s inner sanctum before I managed to stick a six-inch nail into the back of his knee, put a bullet into each of his three assistants and make my escape.
    But that’s not the real reason Dempsey hates me. I’ll get to that later. Let’s just say that – unlike Nikolaev – we’re a very long way from being buddies; the only reason he’s at my wedding is because Sam managed to free him from Mountjoy prison, where he was facing a ten-year stretch for tax evasion, and as an expression of his eternal gratitude, he offered her a job managing his legitimate business interests.
    So that’s why he’s standing, pointing a gun at no one in particular from the bride’s side of the ceremony room, whereas Nikolaev is standing, pointing a gun at no one in particular, from the side of the hall designated for guests of the groom.
    So allow me to run you through the scene again, amigo.
    My wife is lying dead at my feet.
    And how do I know she’d dead, you may be wondering?
    Oh, she’s dead all right. Four tours of mostly undercover shit in Northern Ireland, a walk-on part in the Iraq War and five years spent as what you would probably class as a mercenary teaches you precisely what a bullet entering the skull five millimetres from the temple will do.
    There’s a lake of blood that’s now making rapid progress towards the registrar, stood on the other side of whatever you call the thing that’s not an alter, a look of abject horror on her face. But before it reaches her she passes out, taking the tablecloth and the expensive floral assembly with her en route to the floor.
    The man I just shot … you know, the dude who’d shot my bride, was dead before he took a final swallow dive from the minstrels’ balcony narrowly missing three random women, before turning several Chiavari chairs into kindling.
    Women are screaming, and who can blame them? Most of the female guests are total randomers – many of whom I have a vague recollection of having slept with – who’d managed to blag an invite simply to see if the ‘Great Richie Malone’ would actually go through with it.
    But this is very far from what they’d expected.
    And from my brief appraisal of what’s unfolding in front of us, I can deduce that for many of the assembled females, this isn’t an entirely negative outcome. Richie Malone would be available again – possibly not right away – but if form is anything to judge by, there wouldn’t be too much of a lag.
    The men are looking … I don’t know … probably confused? I’d say most were wondering one of two things. Firstly, if any more bullets are going to fly, and if so would this be a good or a bad thing? And secondly, if the post ceremony piss-up would still be on.
    And this brought me to my more pressing business with the two hombres holding the guns.
    So … one of three things is going to happen, amigo.
    One of them is going to shoot me. The question I have to answer – and answer quickly – is which one? I’m thinking Dempsey because he’s an old school opportunist and here is a golden opportunity to level the scores. Besides, in the melee, when the feds show up no one’s going to be exactly sure as to who shot whom first. And, of course – at Nikolaev’s insistence – there are no cameras in the ceremony hall. Besides which, as I’ve already said, the Russian and I are not currently on shooting-each-other terms.
    The second outcome is for Nikolaev to shoot Dempsey because that would leave him sitting pretty as the only significant bad guy on the block. But while Dempsey and Nikolaev aren’t bessies either, they co-exist under the terms of a business arrangement I helped to broker that provides a more than equitable market share for them both.
    So I’ve just arrived at the third and most probable permutation when something I really didn’t see coming happened.


    I woke up.
    I’m shaking, I’m sweating and my phone is ringing.
    I decide to ignore it until the last vapours of my dream have evaporated.
    But before that happens an alarming array of stimuli confounds my consciousness, and all at about the same time.
    The first thing that strikes me is that I am alone. Let me amplify that, amigo … there is no one other than me in my bed. My housekeeper Isabella, is downstairs. I can hear her clattering cutlery, breaking crockery, cursing … singly badly, but I am alone. No wife, no random woman, no hooker with enough of a narrative to interest me sufficient to cook her breakfast in the interest of tax-deductible research. I’ll get to that in a moment.
    The second is the realization that I have a splitting headache, which is hardly at odds with the vague recollection that I had a large amount to drink last night.
    Bright sunlight floods my bedroom but even the blue of the Mediterranean, lapping resonantly onto the beach beyond the entrance to my villa, does little to dispel the unexplained gloom of my waking mood.
    Hangover and nightmare are the most likely candidates, but there’s something else hovering on the periphery of my consciousness.
    I’m about to boot myself into action when I notice two things: first, as I roll over to grab my phone, I see that the left hand side of my bed’s been slept on. Maybe that’s not entirely accurate, but there’s been some sort of action of the far side of my king size; action of which I have absolutely no memory.
    Perhaps, you may be thinking, I may just have rolled over in my sleep?
    Never going to happen. Due to certain war wounds – details of which I won’t bore you with – I am very particular about how I sleep. I always sleep on my right side and never venture far beyond the edge without good reason.
    The explanation soon becomes apparent.
    There’s an envelope on the pillow. It has my name, handwritten in a style I don’t recognise on it.
    I rip it open and a collection Polaroid photos spill onto the duvet. There’s a handwritten card in the envelope; put the two together and this can mean only one thing: blackmail.
    I look at the photos. The first is a picture of me in a fairly intimate embrace with a young woman I don’t recognise. And this is largely due to the fact that the photo is slightly out of focus and also doesn’t show much of her face. I can’t decide whether this is deliberate or attributable to poor photography. Probably the latter, I decide, which would suggest that this was new territory for whoever took the photos, and that they don’t feel entirely comfortable about what they’re doing.
    But what I can see is that she is blonde, and has clearly invested well enhancing her physical attributes. The contours of her body are there to be seen. And … I hate to say it, but there is an unmistakeable aura of hooker about her. We’re in a bar, and one I don’t recognise either. It’s not one of my regular haunts.
    I glance through the other five photos with an air of resigned certainty as to where this is going. Each picture records evidence – and I do really hate this word, but I know it’s appropriate in this circumstance – of the progression of our intimacy. But the quality of photography does not improve, and I have to conclude that even if I know this woman, these photos are not going to reveal her identity. But that’s not what’s important – what’s important is that there is absolutely no doubt as to my identity.
    The final photo shows us in bed and I won’t bore you with the details because it’s not my style, amigo, you know that. So let’s say that I’m giving her … what I would refer to as a jolly good seeing to.
    I pick up the card. There’s nothing subtle about the message.
    “Do this again Malone and your wife will receive the evidence. I promise, I will destroy you. Have a nice day.”

  35. We don’t make a fantasy to get away from the real world. We make it to have the option to remain.

  36. Ahhhh, I love the proverbial rules pertaining to the written word, NOT! Academia has slowly been chipping away at writers, specifying what, when and how to write over the last quarter century. Sadly even to the point that a lowly uneducated serf from medieval times must speak like a Harvard professor.
    Granted, legal papers, academic thesis and the such, sure, but fiction, fantasy, NO!
    Even the lowly comma, which historically was used to instill the briefest hesitation in a sentence, now must only be utilized by academic rules.
    Certainly, some rules apply for F/Fantasy, but, we are the outlaws. We write not in the stereo-classic sense demonstrated in other genres, we make our own rules and write them. Think i’m wrong, tell that to S. King!
    Ahhhh, but that brings up another pertinent point academia is quick to respond too. Famous, rich, well followed writers, can write what they want, break any rule they desire. Why, you ask?
    Because their name sells!
    Stories, throughout history have been told about flawed people, by flawed people, in a flawed world, there is no perfect. Write for the people, not academia.
    Why am i writing here, the concept of starting a novel, series with a dream, which by the way are the same. Although, throughout history, dreams have been associated with sleep, whereas visions while awake.
    The main point here is this: write your story. It’s your story, not an agents nor a publishers, it’s yours. If you want a little pink elephant with wings, who flies around whispering sweet nothings into the ear of your protagonist, go for it, it’s your story. Or what if that same little pink elephant has visions of what your antagonist is planning and wants to warn your protagonist, WOW, academia will really have a hard time wrapping their heads around that one. If your story begins with your protagonist, or how about your antagonist, waking from a disturbing dream, not vision since they were asleep, go for it.
    Academia makes the rules, they are not writing your novel and cannot tell it like you would!
    Forget money, fame and all that mess, it is the story that matters. If the story is good, the rest will follow.
    Opps, I’ve broken so many academia rules in this post i should be ashamed of myself… Not!

    Okay, i’m off my soapbox, deep breath, exhales and relaxes, have a great day writers….


  37. Andie Herrera says

    Mine starts with a very obvious dream sequence because as it turns out she fell asleep in the tub and is drowning. The story starts with her gasping for air, and contemplating that she nearly died. Which illustrates how exhausted she is following a traumatic event.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.