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Of course, unpublished manuscripts (and even published ones) keep churning out dream-sequence openings just because they always have the potential to be so much fun.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

But.

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 K.M. WeilandPersonally, 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 iTunes).

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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. Elizabeth Parr says

    Starting with dreams is so fun XD

  2. 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.

  3. 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: https://books2read.com/u/4EMonM

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