A Brief Thought On Dream Sequences In Books

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I generally don’t like dream sequences in books, because they’re often one of two dislikable things:
1)  A fake horror.  “Oh, let’s have you struggle to get invested in something weird you think is happening, and then tell you that it was all a dream!”  I know, I know, you think you’re delivering mood and information, but realistically since dreams are dense and bizarre and jarring, we’ve usually just wasted energy parsing something that turns out to be forgotten instantly upon awaking, “As dreams do.”  Which teaches the reader an unfortunate lesson: Don’t get too attached to anything, as portions of this book might turn out to not matter.
2)  A lazy plot device.  The protagonist falls asleep, and information is delivered to him via dream or psychic flash or mystical sending from the beyond or whatever.  Which is a deus ex machina, a way for the plot to hand your lead the next goal to find, as opposed to the protagonist seeking it.
I understand why you do it.  That’s usually the author’s excuse for “I can’t think of a way the character would otherwise run across this chunk of much-needed backstory, so she’ll dream about it, wandering to the misty realms of flashback!”  I’ve done that, when I had no choice.  But it’s far better to engineer some way that your lead character actively stumbles across this information, which teaches us that the character can do something more interesting than “falling asleep.”  Because, as Pixar said, “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”
Now, there’s a third style of dream in fiction, which I do like, which is dream as foreshadowing: think of Danny in The Shining, dreaming of Redrum and mallets and terrible things stalking him down halls, all of which turn out to be true.  But in that case, the information matters, and in fact becomes a reference point.  But in general, I find most fictiony dreams to be a misstep, and usually a waste of time.

1 Comment

  1. Megan
    Nov 23, 2013

    You know what else drives me crazy in fiction? Back and forth time changes. We start in the present, jump back to ten years ago, back to the present again, oh, here’s a flashback from fifteen years ago, now we’re back at present times, oh wait, something horrifying happened 5 years ago…
    I understand WHY they do it, but it doesn’t make it comfortable for me.

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