There’s a reason many agents cringe when they encounter dream sequences, unless done for the right reasons. They are usually a cheap way of expressing information. Writers often use dreams to help the reader understand what is lurking in the character’s mind, to untangle the protagonist’s quandary, or subconsciously reveal the next steps for the hero or villain. These are all quick and dirty ways to avoid using narration, action, and dynamic scenes, which will unearth the same information while engaging the reader and moving the story along. Dream sequences often disempower characters. They rob them of their own skill and intelligence to make decisions. Instead, answers are handed to them in a dream.
When you anticipate an upcoming dream scene, how do you feel? Do you look forward to it or skim it and discount its importance? What about when you’re gripped by a confrontation between lovers only to find out it was a dream?
As an editor, when I hit a dream sequence, I carefully note whether it works. Usually it doesn’t. And I feel particularly disappointed and cheated when I’m not told that a dream is coming. I might be reading about the antagonist crashing a wedding ceremony in an effort to kidnap the bride, only to find out he was dreaming this scenario. It’s like that author is saying, “Ha ha, gotcha.”
Dream sequences often interrupt the flow, delay the story, and bore the reader, even if well written, because the reader is aware that this is only in the character’s subconscious. And if for no other reason, agents and editors usually wince at dream sequences, especially when they open the story. They simply delay the action, the hook, and setting.
Writers sometimes use dreams to show off their flowery prose or their creative imagination … and readers see right through this. Writers would be better off writing the best prose they can rather than looking for ways to impress the reader. Before penning a dream sequence, ask yourself: Does this move the story along, and is it the best method for doing so? Is this dream necessary?
Here are a few scenarios where dream sequences could work:
The character is so stubborn, frightened, or immobilized that it is nearly impossible to act (as in Hamlet’s crippling inability to kill Claudius) that only a dream will prompt him to do so.
Dreams work when they are an important part of the story. For example, in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddie Krueger haunts his victims in their dreams, so even though we know what’s coming, dream sequences are essential to the plot, and are the only way to even encounter the boogieman. And of course this is a film, not a book, which relies on visuals.
Dreams can work well in non-fiction, especially if the book centers on the study of dreams or the inclusion of dreams. For example, a psychologist might write a book about the Freudian interpretations of dreams.
Dreams can work in fiction for the same reason. For example, Stephen Lawhead’s sci-fi novel, “The Dream Thief” contains dream sequences, and they are expected in a story like this. Books that explore drug use, fantasy, or otherworldy landscapes can also appropriately contain dream sequences.
Children’s stories can work beautifully with dream sequences, as long as they are necessary and well-written. Alice in Wonderland is a prime example.
If you want your character to have a dream, it works better to simply say, “Mrs. Parsons dreamt of her high school sweetheart, Roland. Guilt stabbed her as she awoke to fresh coffee and blueberry pancakes her husband had made for her.” It’s not necessary to detail the dream; it is enough to know that her subconscious gnawed at her. And in cases like this, it is okay to talk about the fact that a character had a dream. In fact, it can add nuance to a story.
So, sleep on it, and let me know your thoughts …