Dream sequences are a fairly common device in narrative works, and they can serve a number of useful purposes. For example, a dream can reveal a memory or flashback; it can share a character’s internal fears or struggles; and it can offer symbolism in unique ways that the rest of the narrative can’t.
However, dream sequences can also create a lot of problems. Sometimes than can come off as gimmicks or lazy ways to reveal information. They can also be cliché, especially when used as the opening sequence of a novel. So, if you want to write a dream sequence, how can you avoid these potential pitfalls and use them as a powerful tool instead?
Here are my tips for writing dreams:
- Advance the plot
This is one of the biggest issues with dream sequences: they often don’t advance the plot. If you’re stalling the action of the story in order to spend a lot of time on a dream that doesn’t affect anything, readers are going to get bored quickly. Dreams should advance the plot or growth of the character. Make sure the dream ties into the plot in some way—by revealing information the character needs, by affecting the character’s decision, by helping the character solve a problem, etc. Don’t leave readers feeling that the dream sequence is just a waste of time.
- Make it count
One of the best ways to make dreams matter is to focus on the effect they have on your character. Generally speaking, don’t have your protagonist dismiss it as “just a dream” and decide it isn’t important. Give them a reaction. Have the dream influence their thinking, their decisions, their choices. If the character’s interpretation of or reaction to the dream influences the story, it makes the dream important to your readers as well.
- Time it well
Where dreams are placed in the story is incredibly important. Placing a dream near the beginning of a story usually doesn’t work well—the reader doesn’t know this character or their world well yet, so why would they care about their dreams? I find dreams to be much more effective when they’re placed significantly later in the story, when the reader already knows this character and may find the dream more compelling. However, you also don’t want to interrupt important plot or narrative moments with dream sequences. The best placement for dreams is usually after a fast-paced or action-packed moment, when both the character and the reader take a moment to breathe.
- Differentiate it
This isn’t always true, but generally speaking, it’s best to indicate to readers that this is a dream before the sequence starts. Make it clear that it’s a dream and differentiate it from reality. Otherwise, readers might feel confused by what’s happening. Also, readers might feel frustrated when they get to the end of the sequence and discover that it was all a dream and didn’t really happen. The best way to avoid these issues is to indicate upfront that it isn’t real.
- Keep it short
This is probably one of the most important tips in this list. Regardless of how impactful or well-timed or significant a dream is, you’re probably going to lose readers if it goes on too long. Keep dream sequences as short as possible. Focus on what the dream absolutely needs to convey, and then convey that point as quickly as you can. A dream that’s described in a few paragraphs could be compelling; one that’s described in a few pages probably isn’t. It’s just difficult to sustain a dream sequence for a significant length and keep the reader engaged with it.
- Make it real
Keep in mind that in real life, dreams are often fragmentary and difficult to comprehend. A dream sequence usually shouldn’t read like a vision, where the character learns something important and has it clearly explained to them. (Characters can have visions, of course, if there’s magic involved, but I’m only talking about regular, non-magical dreams here). Dreams shouldn’t completely make sense. While they should be important and meaningful, they don’t have to be perfectly logical or straightforward. You can convey a lot of meaning with simple imagery and symbolism, so don’t feel that you need to over-explain everything in the dream to make sure the reader “gets it.” Try to keep your dreams to short, fragmented images and partial scenes, rather than lengthy conversations or explanations.
What do you think? Have you written dreams before? What are some tips I missed? Let me know in the comments!
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