reading, writing technique

What a Day for a Dream Sequence

So what’s so bad about dream sequences anyway? That’s what I wanna know.

No. Wait. I already know. That most abhorred of all plot devices is abhorred for good reasons: they’re trite and obvious; they take us out of the story; they’re a cheap shortcut. Hack writers who can’t figure out how to advance their narrative or fix their gaping plotholes use dream sequences.

Weak stuff. And for a lot of writing teachers, editors and agents, they are simply a “don’t do.” As in never.

But Tolstoy used them. As did Emily Bronte, George Orwell, James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, JK Rowling. And they are, of course, even more common in television and movies, even by writers like Joss Whedon and Vince Gilligan, neither of whom can be called a hack.

Let us acknowledge a few obvious caveats: no one likes it when a whole story arc turns out to have been only a dream in the end (The Wizard of Oz not withstanding.) And those sloppy deus ex machina dreams where Janie Average is told she’s destined to wield the Sword of Destiny? Yeah, those are usually bad. But for the record, I love a good dream sequence (note the word good, please). Especially a dream that doesn’t immediately reveal itself as such, but only gradually bends the world, with everything becoming odder and odder, until reality finally cracks apart and the dream is revealed. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. (There’s a fantastic example of this device in Crime and Punishment, actually. Very chilling, and nicely indicative of the fact that Raskolnikov’s mental world is coming apart as guilt permeates his soul.)

And yes, I know I am not supposed to like these scenes, because they are NEVER strictly necessary to the narrative of the story. And what are writing gurus always maundering on about? Make every scene count! No unnecessary scenes! If you don’t need it, cut it! Most often, dream sequences are atmospheric set pieces that don’t move the plot at all. Since nothing is really happening, it can’t possibly be necessary, right? Dream over, hit the reset button. Continue with the real story, please. As a student of good writing and an admirer of disciplined storytelling, I ought to hate them.

But I still like them.

I could argue that a properly executed dream sequence can provide a fascinating platform for characters to interact in an entirely new, entirely other, context. They allow a deep dive into the subconscious motivations of the dreamer, unfettered by the constraints of the rational world.

Those things are true, and that’s great, but what I like about a really spectacular dream sequence is much simpler:  it’s fun. The chaos of dreams is a selective chaos with an uncanny logic of its own. It’s a tiny moment of world building, a way to reframe reality—temporarily, but with lasting impact. And since they are inherently risky, it’s also a chance to watch a good writer walk the high wire. In expert hands, a dream sequence can invert the narrative in a way few other devices can.

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Dreams don’t get much better than Laura Petrie sliding down a mountain of walnuts.

I know some folks are going to say they don’t like it when the writer messes with the reader. Play fair with your reader or they’ll never trust you, blah blah blah. But so what? I’m not looking for trust. Good writers mess with us all the time, and we eat it up. What is fiction if not messing with the reader?

All of this assumes, of course, that the thing works. As with so so much else in writing, if it doesn’t work, all bets are off. Which brings us to the first rule of good writing: get it right or go home (also know as the “don’t suck” rule.)  And if you’re going to use a much-maligned device like a dream sequence, that rule applies all the more, because you’ve got two strikes against you before you even step into the box.

And if you’re in writing class, and the instructor says: “No dream sequences! Ever!”—nod politely, smile, maybe even give an airy little laugh. And dream away.

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12 thoughts on “What a Day for a Dream Sequence

  1. I agree. Dream sequences can show depths we’d otherwise have to tell about. If my heroine is anxious about an upcoming exam who’s outcome will determine her career, I can describe her anxiety, or I can show her rushing to the testing room, late, breathless, clumsy, embarrassed, and still in her pajamas, to have her wake up in a nervous sweat, relieved to find it was a dream. A dream many of us have had. A dream that motivates us to make sure it doesn’t come true, but exposes our humanity. Plus, it’s fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The problem with most “How to Write Well” blog posts is that they too often end up being a list of writing no-no’s, usually with a bunch of obvious and over-the-top examples to show how bad adverbs and dream sequences are. The reason is pretty obvious. It’s easy to tell people what NOT to do. It’s far more difficult to try and explain HOW to do those things well.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    As always (and, good for him), Atthys has all bases covered. What can I add to this? Not much.

    Well, that doesn’t usually stop me. But he has done such a through job, to add my two cents would be like when I comment on YouTube, discussing Mark Knopfler, whom I adore, versus his lackluster brother, whose lyrics underwhelm me, and that is as kind as I can be. I tend to repackage my arguments, fun to do, but I’m mostly talking to the same people, and I’m surely not changing any minds.

    A dream segment can add to characterization mightily, and is a chance to get quirky, kookie, all that, and when have I ever passed that up?

    I’ve never written a dream scene, but I may, in my upcoming expansion of Buttercup and the Virgin Mary. That would certainly be the place for it. In the meantime, here’s a dream I had once, long ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. It has a nice touch of whimsy. Anyone who sees a use for it, feel free.

    At a job interview, I was ushered into an office. A man was seated behind a far desk. As I approached, I noticed that he was engrossed in something. Close up, I saw that he had his pants pulled down.

    I walked around the desk and observed that he had two penises, one normal, one coming out of the adjacent leg area, and dead white, like plaster. He had a set of watercolor paints open on his desk, and he was painting it pink. He said to me, I paint it pink every morning, to make it look normal. A secretary came up behind me. I said to her, Fool! He thinks that by painting it pink it will look normal. End of dream.

    I have an ongoing series of dreams about being a bag lady after an apocalyptic event. That I understand. Until I bought my house, I rarely had a stable living situation. What this odd penis dream has to do with, I haven’t a clue.

    Let’s see. Should I post this or not? Oh, what the hell. This is why you love me, right?

    At least GD loves me. I think.

    GD! This bit for Old Spice! How’s about it?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. atthysgage says:

    Hmm. I really don’t have anything to say about that dream, but I’m chiming in here to tell you so, just in case you thought I was too aghast to reply. And yes, you are well loved.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. mimispeike says:

    I’ve had my fun. Here’s my straight-faced reply.

    I try to achieve a rhythm, of action, of reflection, of serious, of whacky, of long, graceful, groomed sentences and short, blunt, exclamatory ones. Of extravagant, meandering prose and to-the-point/get-on-with-it. Dreams fit into that somewhere. I can definitely find a place for a dream. I’ll believe I’ll do it, just to try my hand at it.

    Hold on! Hold the phone! Hold the presses! It comes to me. I have played with the idea of Buttercup declaring an intention to take the veil, as leverage, it’s not a genuine vocation. She has a dream and, bang!, all bets are off. I’ll make no more predictions. She’ll reveal her plan to me as I write her.

    When I find the perfect place to insert – it may not be a dream, it may be a discussion of a dream (my guys do a lot of discussing, kind of like in the soap operas), I’ll know it. It will feel right to me. That’s my advice on dreams. If it feels right, logically, and emotionally, go for it.

    Thanks for the idea, Atthys.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Pingback: Voyage of the Ballyhoo (Part Four) – Speak More Light

  7. mimispeike says:

    By the way, that rigid-minded comment that dreams pull you out of a story, I don’t buy it. I’ve heard that about my structural hijinks, again and again. From folks who’ve read too many books on writing and not enough worthwhile stuff.

    By which I mean the greats. That does not include Robin Cook or John Gresham. Oops. I guess I mean John Grisham. John Gresham worked for Henry VIII. Grisham, Gresham, an easy mistake. Except for one who’s been reading sixteenth century history for thirty years. Girl, get your Greshams straight.

    Intrusion, dreams, footnotes! I come at my story from a dozen angles, kind of like a cubist painting is the way I think of it. If I get a nose where you expect an eye to be, I do it on purpose. My tale is complex, my world is complex. To those who have advised, nobody needs to know all this: I need to know it. As I write, I have questions, and I want them answered. For my own enjoyment, and insatiable need to understand. And, I am a pantser, I do not plot except for a rough schematic in my head. This tale is as much of a mystery to me as it is to you.

    My choices serve me well, far better than a by-the-books method of telling. My story is what I say it is, any reader who can’t deal with it, he/she ain’t my audience.

    Ponder on this: where would James Joyce be if he’d let people tell him how to write? “This here ain’t gonna fly, Jimbo. Try a mystery. Us Irish love our cozy mysteries. Add a recipe at the end. The Cupcake Murders, starring Agatha Plum, a good recipe at the end, that’s the ticket to a real success.”

    Have I made enough of an ass of myself yet? I sure hope so.

    Now I grab another glass of vino and go back into the garden, where I’m obsessing over weeds. As I go through the kitchen, I’ll throw a can of black olives into the Italian sausage. I love black olives, my husband does not, he told me only yesterday. Well, I grate the cucumbers the way he likes them, he can deal with black olives. I’m in that kind of a mood.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. GD Deckard says:

    Carrying off a dream sequence may require an extremely tight PoV, as in the TV show Mr. Robot. That was insanity, not dream, but the difference escapes me so far as the effect goes. I loved James Woods in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome precisely because it was hard to detect what was real and what he only imagined. Writers creative enough to make the unreal necessary to their story impress me. ‘Course, they probably spend too many nights dreaming they’re wide awake.

    @Mimi; Yes I love you and sorry, but Old Spice has one of each sex organ, not two of the same. That would limit his fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. mimispeike says:

    I can’t think of a dream sequence that I have read, nothing comes to mind at the moment. Maybe I should read one, but maybe not. I recall a piece in Mad magazine fifty years ago, a character was writing a musical. He had never seen a musical, and refused to do so, lest ‘his originality be sullied’. That thought sticks with me after all these years. Strange, huh?

    This is how little I read books on writing: Explain to me what a tight PoV is. Point of view, sure, but tight? Would that be like Henry James, knowing only what the character knows?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. GD Deckard says:

    Exactly, Mimi. By tight PoV I merely meant that the reader knows only what the character knows, even when the character is delusional. The trick seems to be to make the delusion (or dream) apparent to the reader without breaking PoV.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. mimispeike says:

    I see. You write the dream straight, as if it were really happening. The problem comes when you try to migrate back to reality. I find that a nice spot of obsessing connects many a shift. My character obsessing is another of my tricks, when I don’t know what to do next. It’s the literary equivalent of treading water, staying afloat while you wait for help (an idea) to arrive.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. atthysgage says:

    There can be different approaches, Mimi, but I’m partial to the stealth dream myself. In Spark you might remember, Francy talks about having a dream as if she woke up from it, but she’s actually still dreaming, so what seems like reality morphs into dreamstuff again. There wasn’t, actually, a lot of point to it plot wise, but I still like it. Amazingly, no editor ever suggested getting rid of it, so it must have worked on some level.

    Liked by 2 people

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