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?