Getting Lost in the Dream: Why New Writers Should Steer Clear of Dream Sequences

Before I get into this week’s post, I thought I’d take a moment to make a little commitment. My “Worst Enemy” book says that they’re a good thing. Wishy washy statements are nothing more than loopholes that we leave so that we can back out of doing things. Therefore, from now on I’ll have a new post up every Friday. I figure Friday’s are good because you can look it over while at work and then put the ideas to work during your weekend writing. The Friday posts will be serious writer type stuff. Anything silly or anecdotal will come in the in-between spaces. So, if anyone catches me slipping, make sure you point it out.


I actually have a few different posts in various forms of completion that I was going to choose from, but decided to go with something altogether new for today’s post. The idea comes from the Fantasy Writing group that I am a part of on Yahoo. It’s a great place if you need some cheerleading and is very active. So if you are in need of differing viewpoints on a question, want to share your work with others, or just need a bunch of people to pat you on your back for a job well done, I highly suggest signing up. Again, someone wrote in with a question and it got me thinking. As usual, there were a few people who jumped forward with “do whatever your fuzzy wuzzy wittle writer’s heart tells you,” so I just had to take a stand for quality writing and say “NO.”


The question: “How long is too long for a dream sequence.”

My answer: “As soon as it starts.”


Now of course this isn’t a hard and fast rule, (like using ‘isn’t’ in a sentence) but it is a good rule for new writers to follow. I sure as heck do. What it is, is one of those rules that you don’t get to break until you can say definitively why you are breaking it and show how it is okay. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re not sure. So don’t use it.


Let’s talk about why.


To begin, we have to understand the nature of our relationship with the reader in this context. Samuel Taylor Coleridge put forth the notion of a willing suspension of disbelief with regards to literature. His assertion was that the reader enters the text with this suspension of disbelief. Basically the reader is willing to say, “Alright, I know this isn’t real, but I’m going to play along and pretend that it is.” It’s how we end up feeling empathy for characters that we know aren’t real.


While I think that it is easy enough to do this with characters in a believable primary world where the setting is either much like our own or one set in the past, I think that it grows even more difficult when you add the fantastic. Of course, the reader of the fantastic wants to be misled, they can’t pretend away the fact that they are firmly grounded in reality but they are willing to go a little further down the rabbit hole with you. So whereas I would say that the reader of fiction is once removed, I’d say that the reader of the fantastic is a little less than twice removed from reality (unless of course we are talking about D&Ders, they might be less than once removed). That’s a tenuous connection, so to keep it you have to be careful with what you put your reader through.


In the Journal of European Studies, David Mitchell talks about this very point in his article “What use are dreams in fiction?” (In the interest of full disclosure I’ll note that I haven’t read the entire article as I’m not willing to pay $20 to read beyond the first page provided in the link) Mitchell puts it this way, “We can care what happens to a character one level of reality down: going down two, to a dream within a story, is another tough act to pull off. ‘Oh no you don’t’, I tell Charles Maturin, author of Melmoth the Wanderer, ‘you’ve already said that this is a vision inside a recollection inside a manuscript, etc.” Imagine adding the further complication of ‘a vision inside a recollection inside a fantasy inside a manuscript.”


Another writer in the Yahoo group brought up an interesting point that had to do with the very nature of dreams themselves. A real dream is usually fragmented and rather surreal. They are not clear, organized settings. Often it’s something along the lines of, “Okay, so I was at your house, but it wasn’t your house it was Joe’s house, but Joe was a spaghetti monster and that didn’t really bother me, then the ceiling turned into cabbage and all of a sudden we weren’t at your house anymore, we were on the Battle Star Galactica, but it wasn’t the Galactica, it was the Millennium Falcon, and you were Chewy and Terry was Saul, and …” But when we come across these dreams in literature, unless we’re talking about something like “In Watermelon Sugar” by Richard Brautigan, the dream usually comes across as a very structured scene with a specific goal. Sometimes, as in the case of the person who posed the question on the message board, you can’t even tell that you are in a dream until you’ve reached the point where they wake up, or worse (more on that later). But dreams aren’t structured. And in the same way that even the fantastic has to be rooted in reality, so too do the dreams.  


By creating dreams that are nothing more than scenes that are not real, we are breaking the rules of reality. Unless you set up specific rules within your secondary world that say that dreams don’t work the way that our dreams do in the real world, you can’t break the rule of how dreams play themselves out.


So what’s the “or worse” that I was talking about? It’s not when we start out with the realization that we are in a dream, in my opinion that is the best case scenario, it’s when we wander down the road of the dream accepting it as just another scene in the story, until suddenly we get to a point where things become so outrageous, so unbelievable that we realize that it’s a dream before we are told that it’s one. In the same way that dreams seem to fall apart in real life once we figure out we’re dreaming, so too does that magical web of disbelief fall apart under the strains of the outrageous.


What you as the author have done is effectively betrayed the reader’s trust. You’ve played a joke at the expense of the reader all so that you could show how witty you are. From this point on, your reader is going to have to question scenes any time they start to feel even the slightest bit outrageous. This removes your reader from the world of your story. They stop and think, “Wait, is this another dream?”


And this post is getting rather long, so I’m going to stop it here, continue writing and post the next section in which we talk about some possibilities where dreams can work, and the most likely places a writer will try to use them. (here’s a hint, we use them when we are trying to take the easy way out). 


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