Most editors will warn you against writing too many dream sequences. The problems in writing about dreams are multitudinous. Very often, a new author will write an opening to a story and feel that it is dull, so he or she will spice it up by putting in an action scene—and then have the character wake up at the end. The editor always feels cheated, and then has to wade through the tedious information that the author was trying to avoid. Editors are very aware of that, and so we get angry when we find that we’ve been suckered into a dream sequence. Usually, we get our vengeance: by gleefully rejecting the manuscript.
Now, the technique can work, but it’s hard to pull off. Your description has to be vivid; your characters need to come alive and become strong protagonists; and you need to be very imaginative. So you can open a tale with a dream sequence, but be forewarned.
The only cliché worse than opening with a dream is where the writer tells an entire story or novel and then ends with a character waking from his dream. Don’t do that one folks. If your editor reads it and then shoots you, it’s considered justifiable homicide.
Still, dream scenes have their merit in fiction. All of us dream. Some of us have vivid dreams at night, especially when stressed. Others spend a great deal of time daydreaming. So as writers, we probably ought to learn how to use dreams well.
I especially like to use daydreams. They’re great for revealing your character’s deepest hopes and desires, setting the reader up for future conflicts.
But problems occur when you try to set entire stories, or huge sequences, inside a dream.
The real problem with writing stories set in dreams is best stated as a series of questions: Really? So what? Who cares?
When you write a story set inside a dream sequence, you as an author have two choices. You can let the reader know that it’s a dream upfront, or you hide it. If you let the reader know that it’s a dream, then the reader isn’t likely to care. After all, you as the author are pointing out, “This is just a story.” On the other hand, if you’re hiding that you’re writing about a dream, then the reader will feel cheated when he or she finds out. In either case, you’ve got some real hurdles to overcome.
Since what happens physically in a dream isn’t important, life-and-death situations lose their appeal. Who cares what adventure your character has in a dream? He can get slowly eviscerated and then be boiled in oil, and it’s of no consequence. No damage is really done.
One way that authors try to get around this problem is to say, “If you die in a dream, you die in real life.” But that’s a cliché, and a dumb one. I’ve died in dreams on several occasions.
So you’re limited in the kinds of conflicts that you can deal with. You can really only deal with a few conflicts. The first that come to mind are: mysteries, haunting memories, and unfulfilled longings. Using dreams to convey such deep-character information can work well.
Dreams themselves can have their own valuable consequences. They can affect your character on an emotional level, putting them in jeopardy. So in my novel On My Way to Paradise, I deal with post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers who are training for war in dream monitors, along with a character whose dreams reveal that she is slowly going mad.
As an author, learn how to use dreams effectively.
Don’t just throw them into a slow story in order to add a little false tension.