Dreams III

So let’s try to sum this up. Dreams fall under that Sacred Rule category. Anyone that has ever taken an art class knows this one, Know It Before You Break It. Of course, with nothing written on the topic, it’s hard to figure out just what, exactly, the rule on dreams is. I’m really tempted to pay the twenty bucks for that article that I mentioned in the first dream post … but not tempted enough. Instead, let’s go over what we know and set up some basic guidelines to help us navigate this Bermuda Triangle of writing.

Ground Rules:

  • As with all else in writing, your dream sequence must serve a purpose. That purpose must be big enough to justify using a dream. Because dreams are on the edge of what is considered allowable, the justification must be even stronger than for your typical scene.
  • The dream must take place in a way that does not halt the forward momentum of the story.
  • The dream should be easily identifiable from the outset as being a dream. To do otherwise is to play a cheap trick on your reader, allowing them to believe that one thing is real only to stop and say, “just kidding.” Besides, that goes against one of the cardinal rules of writing, “Don’t betray your reader’s trust.”
  • Because dreams are the dialogue of the subconscious mind, the dream (I feel) should deliver to the reader information that the character is not yet aware of. In a sense, the reader should be psycho analyzing the dream, trying to figure out what it is that makes your character tick.
  • If a dream is nothing more than a flashback, think about using a flashback (we’ll explore flashbacks in the next post); otherwise, the dream should appear to be a real dream, disjointed and making little obvious sense.
  • When in doubt, remember that in most cases dreams are considered cheats. It is often the writer trying to dump information without having to work hard.

When it works:

  • In Charles de Lint’s Onion Girl he uses dreams as the place where the main character escapes to. But in de Lint’s work, the dreamscape is an actual place where people remain conscious. It is a believable secondary world. So it makes sense for scenes to take place there.
  • I have been told that in James Lee Burke’s novels, specifically In the Electric Myst with Confederate Dead, dreams are strongly tied into the story. Without them clues would not be understood nor mysteries solved. But the dreams in this case are the main character’s subconscious reaching out to remind him of things from his past. This is a much more believable and realistic use of dreams.

And for now, this is where I am going to leave it. Remember, the last thing you want to do is push the reader too far from reality. In the realm of fantasy writing, we’re already an extra step removed from the real world, don’t compound that problem by asking the reader to take yet another. We’re reading a made up story (strike one) about a fantastical world unlike our own (strike two) and now you would like us to take a look at your imaginary character’s imagination. Whether you do this realistically enough, within the confines of the rules of your secondary world is what will dictate whether or not the umpire following along in the reader’s head calls strike three or not.


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