Thursday, May 24, 2007

Writing the Dream Sequence


Using a dream in a novel. Some say never do it. Some say never start a book with a dream. Some say dreams in novels are boring. I don’t think they’re boring if they’re written right. Out of 13 written novels, I’ve used a dream in five of them. And in one of those novels the dream was the opening scene.

Sometimes the better choice is simply to say in prose form (and in a few lines) that the character had a dream the night before about x,y,z. I’m talking here about actually showing the dream sequence. There are certain criteria/techniques I use when incorporating a dream. These are my guidelines--not firm rules. Always room for the exception.

1. Make sure the dream moves the plot forward. Even though a dream is not a real occurrence, it can still enhance the plot in numerous ways such as: (A) It may push the character, after he/she awakes, to make a decision. (B) It may instill further fear in a character, which down the road will hinder his/her ability to make a logical decision. (C) It may provide backstory for better understanding of the character. But beware—this one’s tricky, as it’s all too easy to stick in a dream to tell the reader past events. If a dream’s going to be used for this purpose, the dream itself has to be compelling both in content and in the way it’s written.

2. Be careful of the placement of the dream within the story. A dream is not going to go over well with the reader if it’s placed in the middle of an action sequence. Believe me, the reader will skip over it and get back to the real story. So I wouldn’t place a dream in the crisis/climax section of a novel, for example.

I’ve seen an agent or two rave about not using a dream as the opening. I imagine this “rule” has been applied because the agents in question have seen so many manuscripts misuse this device. You have to be very careful about opening a novel this way because it does delay real action. The one time I opened a book with a dream was in Color the Sidewalk for Me (contemporary genre). The dream is from the protagonist’s (Celia’s) real life and is one of numerous recurring, haunting dreams about her grief-stricken past. Because this book is a past/present story, with alternating parts of current events and events in Celia’s teenage years, the dream is a way of setting up that format by combining the two—as Celia dreams of her past, then awakes to face another difficult day in her present.

3. Make the dream short! This is an important one. I see no point in page after page of a dream sequence. And if it is long, it’s probably not written in true “dream format.” (See next point.)

4. The dream scene should have an “otherworldly” aura to it. You know how dreams go. They make sense while we’re having them, even though things that happen are totally far out. Things and people morph. You’re here, and suddenly—you’re there. One person turns into another. Emotions and actions don’t jive. That is, what might mortify you in real life is perhaps only a bit embarrassing in a dream. For a reader to “buy” the dream you’re writing, it needs to have this strange quality. Therefore, I suggest …

5. Write the dream in present tense. Doesn’t matter that the rest of your book is in past tense. Dreams always happen in the moment. They are present tense. Your reader instinctively knows this. He/she may not be thinking about it consciously, but I do believe you’ll evoke better emotion in the reader through the use of present tense, but unconsciously, the reader thinks, “Yeah, this really feels like a dream.”

6. Use italics for the dream. This is a visual way of setting it off from the rest of the text. If the dream is written well, the use of italics is the final brush stroke that completes the painting. You’ll then have a sequence that both visually and aura-wise makes it a little “world” unto itself. And isn’t that how dreams are? They are detours from our real world. They can seem very real as they’re happening, but the minute we awake, we’re jarred from that world to reality. For me, the movement from italics back to regular print provides a visual for that re-entry into the real world.

In one suspense novel I did not follow guidelines 5 & 6 for a dream sequence—but I had a specific reason. I didn’t want the reader to immediately know it was a dream—because the beginning of it could have been real. But then, in keeping with guideline 4, the sequence morphed into strangeness—to make the reader go, “Huh?” Through that strangeness the reader begins to realize it’s a dream—and right after that the dream ends as the protagonist awakes, scared out of her wits. In this way I wanted the reader to experience that sense of reality-turned-bizarre along with the protagonist. (In keeping with guidelines #1, this dream moved the plot forward by further scaring the protagonist, which ultimately affects the decisions she makes.)

7. Make sure the dreamer’s re-entry into reality is believable. For example, I’ve seen too many books in which a person, upon awaking from a bad dream, bolts upright in bed. This doesn’t ring true to me. Have you ever done that after a bad dream? I sure don’t think it’s common. A person might jerk awake—to a runaway heartbeat. May be sweaty or breathing hard. But I don’t know many people who can go from true dream stage to the amount of movement needed to suddenly bolt upright. (Sleepwalkers aside.) Neither do I think it’s common to scream from a dream and wake yourself up. Have you ever tried to scream during a dream? I have numerous times. In my dream I may be screaming. But in reality all I’m doing is pushing air through my throat in a hollow sort of sound. Or at most, moaning. That sound will awaken me, but it’s certainly far from a real scream that would bring others running. At any rate, even if these extreme reactions happen to you—what’s most likely to ring true with the majority of readers?

What do you think about dreams in novels? Like them? Dislike them? Ever used one in your own writing?



21 comments:

Rachelle said...

Brandilyn, I'm SO glad you wrote this post! It should be required reading for all fiction writers. You raise some great points and these are excellent guidelines.

Long before I was an editor, I hated dreams in novels because they seemed like a convenient (i.e. cheap) way to convey something about the character. I felt like an author could put whatever they wanted in a dream, without restrictions of it having to be realistic, and therefore it always felt false and I, as a reader, felt manipulated.

But sometimes I read a dream sequence that I don't object to -- and every single time, it surprises me! I know I've read a couple of them in your books, and they didn't bother me. I know it's because you understand these prinicples you've elucidated here, and I hope everyone who writes fiction will learn to understand them, too.

Anonymous said...

What a timely post! I need to send my ms out today. I don't have any actual dream sequences, but I have my protagonist wake up from a dream. With a red face I admit that she sat up with a scream dying in her throat. I fixed it.

The odd thing is that no critique parnter had ever mentioned it. I didn't think anything of it, either, until you pointed out that it just doesn't happen, at least not commomly. Thanks!

Tina Helmuth

Once Upon a Dream... said...

Hey Brandilyn! Interesting post. I don't mind dreams in novels. No, never used any in my own writing. why? b/c i dont' write. lol

I do have one little thing to say, though.

I have bolted upright from a dream and been screaming at the same time. This occurred as a teenager and a young adult while in college. I also sleep walk, cook in my sleep and speak in 3 different languages in my sleep. lol My mom has always told me that it was interesting to watch me do these things. lol

donna fleisher said...

Eden, what a crack-up! : )

I've never screamed to wake myself up from a dream, but when I was young and knew a dream was headed in a baaaad direction, I would stick out my tongue. It was reeeeally hard to do, but it worked every time!

I'm hoping the two dreams I used in Valiant Hope worked. They were some of the hardest writing I did for my series. The second one went on for pages, so we used a whole different font -- not italics.

Dineen A. Miller said...

Eww, good stuff. And so timely for me. Have a very brief dream/nightmare sequence because it has to do with a vision the heroine had in the first book. So reading this affirmed I'd handled it appropriately. Until I got to #7. LOL! Guess I'll do some editing tomorrow. :-)

San said...

My upcoming med thriller, Informed Consent (Cook), has a short dream sequence. Initially I had the dream set off in italics, but I wanted to avoid tipping off the reader so he/she would momentarily feel with the character his bewilderment. Two weeks ago during one of my edit sessions, I removed the italics. I felt like I was violating "the rules," but my gut said to go ahead anyway.

I love that you wrote not only the guidelines but also the exceptions. Sometimes I think the difference between a good and a great writer is knowing when and why to break rules. Cormac McCarthy broke tons of punctuation rules in "The Road," and he's done all right as a writer, huh?

Christina Berry said...

The first published author Mom and I sat down with said, "You cannot start your book with a dream." We went out to the book table and picked up a Patricia Rushford book--that started with a dream.

We did end up taking it out of the opening because the ominous nature was not a good forecast of the overall tone of the book and we didn't want to promise something to the reader we didn't deliver. However, because it was a recurring dream, we broke it into three sections that happen in each third of the book. Only one paragraph overlaps and it's italized.

Hope it worked as we know a couple of editors are meeting today to discuss us and that particular manuscript! I've been praying all day!

R. said...

I, too, have awakened shrieking bloody murder from nightmares, scaring the crap out of my poor S.O. Thankfully, it doesn't happen all that often. But you're right, that has been so overused in fiction and movies that it's become trite, and now fails to evoke reader sympathy -- and that's the best reason to not end the dream sequence 'bolt upright and screaming'. Ick -- *so* Hollywood.

Excellent post, most helpful -- thanks!! :)

Anonymous said...

thank you so much, this really helped in my upcoming novel I am writng

Anonymous said...

OGM this helped me so much with my novel that i'm writing. I'm new to this whole novel writing thing and this really helped me with a dream scene in my novel. I really liked how you not only gave the rules but you also gave the exceptions.
Thanx

Anonymous said...

I am a first time novel writer and am starting my novel with a dream: It introduces a key supporting character who "emerges" from the dream. It sets the stage for understanding the main character's guilt and deep despair because it makes him realize what he has done in real life. The remainder of the book involves his quest for redemption.

Your suggestions have been very helpful, but I have a question about first person. Do you write as "stream of consciousness" or do you write in first person?

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

It's not full stream of consciousness, because that's very hard to follow. It's first person, but it has to have the feel of a dream. They're otherworldly. They morph from one scene to another.

Go to my web site and read the opening to Color the Sidewalk for Me. You'll get an idea of what I mean.

Anonymous said...

One of the things that irritated me to death in the Twilight series was the constant use of dreams. In each book I think at least three dream sequences were used, and in some, many more. A few of them were interesting and helpful to the plot, but the others, stuck in the middle of building suspense and such, were just horribly annoying and completely useless. But I admit that I hate reading all dream sequences, even the good kind.

Undecided said...

Thank you so much Brandilyn for writting this blog. I've been trying to figure out how to write my dream sequence the in a way the reader would understand.

I am still a young writter trying to find her way in but, i know i could be good at it. So again I thank you for helping me understand the right way to write a dream sequence.

Linda Adams said...

Thank you for posting this. Just about everywhere else I've seen starts with "Don't do it" or the writers tend to discourage people wanting to do one. No one seems to even want to try dreams out of fear of getting rejected.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this blog, Brandilyn. I am very new to writing and have been working on my first novel (which I wanted to begin with a dream sequence). I had never before heard of people speaking against it until this blog, and I was quite surprised. I have a question, though...I wanted my dream sequence to be in third person and I noticed that yours (in Color the Sidewalk for Me) was in first. Is it a bad idea to write a dream sequence in third person? The dream is the main character's muddled recollection of an event that happened in his childhood, so it does give back-story. Though, I didn't want the reader to know straight away that it was a dream.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Anonymous, because this is your first novel, I encourage you to not start with a dream. Really, most of the time editors dislike them. And most of the time dreams are used improperly. Better for you to play it safe and start another way.

Anonymous said...

Well, thanks for the tips BranDilyn. I'm 13 and I'm publishing a book, but, it starts with the sme dream sequence, but, my main protagonist woke up wide eyed to her Mom moping her forehead. I have tried really hard on this book and I particularly enjoy the dream sequence. I didn't write the dreams in italics though.

Bernard said...

Huh...so my (first) novel has a plot that involves a mesh of the (ancient) past and the present...There is a supernatural element to it all (especially when they all meet). There are continuous echoes of terrible events in the past--and some of these are communicated to the characters in the present via dreams (that generally serve as foreshadow). I'll have to look at these again when I'm done writing...

However, coming to part II, I've found an interesting new challenge...The point of view character in several of the chapters is a (Roman) slave who yearns for things beyond his reach; I imagined he should experience many of these things through dreams...His world is very isolated, and there is a big disconnect between his real life and what he "dreams" of (pardon the pun)...Anyway, challenging...

Mary Krefting said...

Hi Brandilynn,
This post has helped me so much as I am using a recurring dream and dream sequences in my book that are integral to the story but needed to know how to best implement them. Again thank you for such a helpful post. I just read on the rest of your site that you have been battling Lyme as well, I am doing the same and writing has definitely been a part of that healing process. Wishing you the best with your recovery and with your health! -Mary

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Mary, glad you found this helpful.

I'm so sorry to hear you're battling Lyme. Hope you have a good Lyme-literate doc. Have you read my book Over the Edge? It's my suspense about Lyme disease, laying out the challenges in diagnosing and treatment. Blessings, Mary.