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.
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.