Along with flashbacks, dream sequences are one of the most controversial writing techniques out there. Done well, they can add an extra layer of depth to your writing and provide amazing insight into your character’s motivations and fears. Done badly, they can make your story feel like Dallas fan fiction.
Here are a few tips and tricks on getting it right and pitfalls to avoid.
Use dreams to explore character motivation
A dream sequence can tell us a lot about a character and their motivations, including desires that the character may not be aware of themselves or that they would never say or think during their waking hours. For example, a prim and proper Victorian lady having raunchy dreams about the rough-handed stable lad.
They can also show your reader hidden depths and nuances. The monstrous Caliban references his dreams in The Tempest, talking of beautiful things:
“…sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments… that when I waked I cried to dream again.”
In a couple of lines, Shakespeare changes Caliban from a degenerate beast into a pitiable, tragic character who yearns for beauty.
Dreams can also motivate and inspire action in protagonists (think Agamemnon in the Iliad) or explain a character’s actions after the case. A harsh father who chastises his son might then dream of his own father’s strict parenting, for example.
Dream symbolism is the definition of the “show, don’t tell” mantra
As Freud would tell you, dreams are chock full of symbolism. Striking a balance between clumsy, overt symbols and being confusingly cryptic is a tricky skill to master but, used properly, symbols can make a dream sequence stand out and get important information over to the reader.
A good rule of thumb is this: don’t try to be too clever. Resist the urge to be too trippy – the symbology of your dream sequence needs to be decipherable. And, like a line in a murder mystery, your readers will assume everything is relevant, no matter how random things may seem on the face of it. Dreams in real life are full of weird stuff that doesn’t make sense, but in a dream sequence you can’t afford to risk confusing your reader with red herrings.
Foreshadowing: tricky to get right, but great when you pull it off
Foreshadowing can be one of the hardest things to do as a writer, but a dream sequence can be the perfect place to showcase this technique. Planting hints about something that may crop up in a future chapter will prepare your reader and make events feel satisfyingly cohesive when they come to be realised later in the story.
However, used too obviously, foreshadowing can feel rather deterministic. We know what will happen because it was in a dream. This foregone conclusion is the exact opposite of the excitement and tension you should be looking to create with your writing, so beware: subtle is best.
Common questions about writing dreams
Should a dream sequence have its own chapter or be contained within a chapter?
There is no hard and fast rule on this one. But, as you generally begin a new chapter when the story requires a shift, dream sequences can work well at the start of the chapter, with the rest of the chapter exploring the consequences of the dream. Alternatively, a dream sequence can be used as a dramatic end to a chapter, tying together and explaining what has happened.
If your dream sequence is going to stand alone in its own chapter or scene, it needs to be important enough to the plot to justify this special treatment. And a word of warning: if you are writing a long dream, keep it coherent enough to maintain a reader’s interest.
How should a dream sequence begin and end?
Think of a dream sequence like a very short story, or even flash fiction. It needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Establish what is going on. This might take two or three sentences at most. The middle bit is self-explanatory – what happens in the dream? Don’t waste any words here – say what you need to say and crack on. Finally, the ending. Here you have quite a lot of freedom. You could end a dream abruptly or on a cliff-hanger (“The wolf’s jaws closed around my neck”), implying a sudden and unpleasant awakening. Or you could have it simply fade out (“Laughing, we danced and danced as the candles flickered across the ballroom”), giving the sensation of a pleasant dream which blends into a restful sleep.
How can you reveal that it’s a dream?
I’m a big believer in not trying to be too clever. In the preceding paragraphs, you could simply have your protagonist go to bed. From there, any reasonable reader will assume that a sudden shift in the location would be a dream. Fantastic elements or things that wouldn’t make sense in real life will also quickly let your reader know that they are reading a dream.
If your protagonist is a lucid dreamer or has repeating dreams, there is no reason why they cannot be aware that they are dreaming during the sequence (“It was always like this. I’d see their faces, covered in blood”).
How should the dream be formatted? Italics? Different tense? Or just the same as ordinary scenes?
Of course, there is no right or wrong way of doing it, but I personally am a big fan of using italics to denote a dream sequence. Look at the above questions. Because they’re formatted differently, straight away you’re able to see a shift in tone from the rest of the text.
Dreams can seem more “real” than reality at times. Consequently, I prefer to write dream sequences in the present tense to give the reader a more immersive experience, as if they are dreaming along with the protagonist. But however you do it, the important thing is that your reader should easily be able to tell that it’s a dream.
Clichés to avoid
Earlier, I mentioned Dallas. Don’t do a Dallas. Here are some hackneyed approaches you would do well to avoid:
“I awoke with a scream” – Most people don’t wake with a scream. If you are going to have someone scream over a dream, then your writing needs to be pretty damn terrifying.
“I awoke covered in a cold sweat” – This phrase is so overused that it no longer packs a punch. It’s the sort of reassuring cliché you might reach for in a first draft, but you can probably do better. Talk about clammy sheets, a horrible taste in the mouth – anything but cold sweat.
“I woke with a start” – It should be obvious how your protagonist wakes up based on how the dream ended. Find a more original way of depicting what comes next.
“And then it turned out it was all a dream” – At best, this will insult your reader’s intelligence; at worst, it’ll read as though you’re trying to compensate for writing yourself into a corner. Don’t do it.
Consider your genre
Finally, it’s worth bearing in mind that certain flavours of book naturally lend themselves to different types of dreams.
If you’re writing a Regency romance about a bunch of buttoned-down aristocrats, then having a passionate dream about Totally-Not-Mr-Darcy can help to explore your character’s passions.
A pagan setting, such as with the Vikings or ancient Rome, is crying out for omens and portents. Read up on the religions of the settings to make full use of symbolism. It is also worth considering how deeply religious much of the past was. A dream peppered with religious iconography will likely have a much greater impact on a historical protagonist than it would a modern-day dreamer.
Jack Shannon is a regular guest contributor to The History Quill. He is the author of Brigandine – a dark, bloody fantasy where unfortunately for Ulf (and everyone else), magic is returning to the land of Ashenfell. It has quite a few sword fights and a healthy dose of Lovecraft. Why not give him a follow on Twitter? @Jack_Shannon.