Dreams have always fascinated me. The way they alter how you feel about something or someone. The way it’s sometimes difficult to remind yourself that the nightmare from which you just woke was in fact not real. They are powerful and mysterious. Perhaps as an added point of intrigue, some people never remember a single dream, even believing they never dream, while others can remember certain dreams with perfect clarity. I fall in the latter group. On any typical day, I remember two to three dreams I had the previous night. I’ve even had periods where I remember as many as six to eight dreams a night.
As a result of my fascination, dreams often make their way into my stories, which has taught me several lessons over time as dreams have worked well in some stories while ruining others.
Here are some of the pitfalls of using dreams in fiction that I’ve learned through practice and through reading other authors, and how to use dreams in fiction in an effective way.
- Don’t allow a story to turn out to be nothing but a dream. One of the biggest mistakes an author can make is to reveal at the end of the story that the entire piece was just a dream. When someone reads a story, they are investing their time. When you end a story with a line like “She woke up gasping and discovered it was just a dream,” you are telling the reader you just wasted their time. Every detail they’d invested in is no longer true. As a writer, you get to have a twist at the end, but the cost to the reader is too great.
- Fix: The easiest way to fix this error is to omit the part where it says it’s all a dream. Let the story stand on its own as really happening. Saying it was just a dream is just a cheap way to wrap up the story without finding a resolution anyway, so find another way to end it.
- Don’t mislead a reader to think part of the story is real when it’s a dream. This is a technique that is commonly used in books, movies, and TV shows. It’s commonly found at the beginning of a chapter or a scene, and usually is a short section. It’s a way to cause the reader or viewer a heightened sense of tension and dread without having to live with longterm consequences for the character. Honestly, it can be another cheap trick. Can it be done? Yes. Should it be done? In most cases, no. The danger of pretending a scene is real only to reveal it’s a dream is the same as the reason for the first item in this list. It’s on a smaller scale, so it’s not as big of an offense, but the reader can feel cheated.
- Fix: There are several ways to fix this, but let me offer a few. One way is to tone down the drama or threat of the situation and make it happen to the character. Don’t make it a dream, have your character go through the situation in a modified way so the story can progress with whatever consequences the character has as a result. If the dream is hinting at a real danger later, the best action may be to remove the part where it’s a dream and again have it actually happen to the character, but later in the story. Perhaps the reason it’s veiled as a dream is that your story isn’t to the point where you want that much action with the consequences that can come with it to happen to your character yet. Shifting the scene to a different part of the story and removing the part where it’s just a dream will fix that. If you want to leave the dream as a dream, a better way is to tell the reader going in that it’s a dream so they don’t feel cheated.
- Don’t let the dream continue for pages. Even if you start a dream by telling the reader that the character is dreaming, the mind of a reader will get invested in the story and soon forget that they were already told that it was just a dream. The result is that when you re-enter the current story, reminding the reader that it was just a dream, it has a way of being very jarring for the reader and will pull them out of the story. Further, they’ve again invested their time and attention into something that never happened, and that can be frustrating.
- Fix: Shorten the dream scene. A good guideline is to keep dreams between half a page to a page, any longer than that and the reader begins to become invested and forgets it’s just a dream. In general for dreams, the shorter the better.
- Know your genre. Different genres have different allowances for dreams. In a literary fiction piece, a dream is just a dream. They have no power to predict the future. The plainer, the shorter, the better. Supernatural horror, on the other hand, has more maneuverability. There can be more blurring of the line between the dream world and the real world and sometimes the dream world can alter the real world. The more closely the genre clings to reality, the fewer liberties the writer should take with dreams.
Dreams can be used for a multitude of reasons in a story from exposing the desire of a character to working through a problem, or tormenting a character when they are most vulnerable. The trick is to figure out what you are trying to show with the dream and then figure out if that is the best way to show it and if it is, be as concise as possible with it.
I push the boundaries of these rules all the time, I think writers are notorious for pushing against writing rules, but I’ve learned that by knowing the writing rules and why they work or usually don’t work, it will give you the ability to explain why you bent or broke it. Usually, when we stumble upon and break writing rules without realizing it, it’s done in a sloppy and unsuccessful way.