Pitfalls of Using Dreams in Stories

How to Write About Dreams in Fiction

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.

 

 

14 Comments


  1. // Reply

    Very good points. I tend to avoid using dreams, unless I’m turning the dream into reality. My husband and I talk all the time about how many shows and books and movies will go deep into a story then, bam!, it’s all a dream. It just feels cheap and cheesy. And usually, as far as books go, when an author does it, it makes us avoid that author’s works thereafter.


    1. // Reply

      It’s true, and so amazing how quickly it can turn the reader or viewer against the story. It could have been really good up until that point and that small revelation that it was just a dream ruins the entire experience. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! 🙂


  2. // Reply

    Some very good points. I agree that it’s cheap way to wrap up a story by the author revealing that the story was a dream after all, but I don’t mind this dream technique in a short story. I also loved the dream sequence in Vanilla Sky, but the ending was straight forward. This movie is a beautiful example of how to use dreams in a story. One heck of a lucid dream, but it worked wonderfully.


    1. // Reply

      Thank you, EM! I enjoyed Vanilla Sky as well; although, my husband didn’t. The draw for me was the psychological element. For the character, it was his reality and based in a large part on events that actually happened in his life. Perhaps the reason it worked for me was that it wasn’t a simple “He woke up and discovered it was all a dream.” The viewers had to sort out what was real and what wasn’t along with the protagonist, and it was more complex.


      1. // Reply

        You’re utmost welcome, Mandie. Vanilla Sky is a masterpiece in my opinion, but it’s a movie that many people don’t understand because they were disappointed with the ending.


        1. // Reply

          It’s a risky type of storytelling for sure, but I personally love stories where you have to pay close attention and put the pieces together as the story unfolds. Or if you have to collect the pieces throughout the movie and then be told where a few pieces go and then the rest fall into place. It’s not everyone’s preference.


          1. //

            I absolutely agree! 👍


  3. // Reply

    This is pretty relevant to my horror story that I’m fishing to new beta readers. A large portion of the story revolves around sleep, the lack of it, manifestation of hallucination because of lack of sleep, paralysis, predictive ability, etc. The tormentor of the story blurs the line for the main character so I wanted the reader to feel that. I have another story where the dreams aren’t as important or predictive. I will have to give it another read and see if I overdid it. I like talking about existentialism, so I probably apply dream scenes more liberally than I should. Thanks.


    1. // Reply

      I love it when a post is relevant to something someone is currently working on. I find that because of my intrigue with dreams, I have to cut back on them too. With “Alger’s Dimension,” in one of the earlier drafts, the protagonist had a dream early in the story that held truth and reflected the creature he would encounter later. I ended up cutting almost all of it, instead providing only a hint of what he dreamed about not even mentioning the creature and focused on his reaction to the dream, which was the important part anyway. I liked parts of the dream so much though that I ended up using it later in the story as something that happens to the protagonist. It turned out to be scarier since it was real instead of a dream anyway.


  4. // Reply

    I like to use dreams as a way of manifesting the characters deepest fears in surreal ways. I usually try to put a “And he/she dreamed…” before launching into the dream.


    1. // Reply

      Dreams can be useful for that, and since the sections of your story are short, there’s not the risk of the reader getting too invested in the dream and losing track of the fact that it’s a dream.


  5. // Reply

    Great points, Mandie! Another thing I’ve learned is to not start your story with a dream. Thanks so much for posting this and for the advice =)


    1. // Reply

      Thank you, Aka! An excellent addition. In the beginning of a story, you want to ground your reader and start connecting them to your characters. By starting with a dream, you’re already delaying those two things. The reader may skip to the point where the character wakes up, or stop reading altogether. Either way, it’s not the right place to start a story. Thank you for contributing that point.

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