If you’ve taken writing courses at the university level, more often than not, your instructors have fervently cried:
“Never, ever, ever, ever start a story with a dream sequence.”
And if you Google “dreams in novels,” you will find a huge range of opinions on the matter. For every post scorning the use of dreams, there is one saying that when done well, dream sequences can move your plot forward.
Why You Shouldn’t Use Dreams
In the real world, our dreams rarely make sense. They’re rambling, incoherent, and pointless; you definitely wouldn’t want prose in your novel that reads like a real dream.
Think about your favorite television show that used a dream sequence. Usually, they’re bizarre and don’t fit in with the rest of the show or series. In fact, in most cases you could skip the dream and not lose any sense of the story or where the series is headed.
And on the flip side, when a novel uses a dream sequence to try to move the plot forward, the reader doesn’t know whether or not to trust the dream because they’re notorious for leading us down the wrong path. Rarely do dreams impart true wisdom.
Those Who Have Used Dreams Successfully
But, as usual, there are a ton of wonderful exceptions where an author has used a dream sequence with great purpose and flair. Take, for example, A Prayer for Owen Meany. Key plot elements are based around a dream that Owen has. We don’t find out the true measure of the dream’s validity until the end of the book. John Irving skillfully leads us along with hints about the dream throughout so that at the end, the dream’s realization is fully expected. There’s no doubt of the dream’s meaning and intent.
Another successful novel using dreams is the obvious Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. You can argue though that a children’s book can get away with the weirdness inherent in a dream, but then again, so does A Christmas Carol. By suspending our disbelief, Dickens creates a dream situation that we believe truly changes Scrooge.
Other famous works that include dream sequences are:
And A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Very classic use by Shakespeare to sidetrack the audience. But with the statement at the end that it’s nothing more than a dream, you wonder if Shakespeare is throwing barbs at the falsity of dreams.
Dreams and Character Development
Some authors use dreams to give insight into a character’s subconscious feelings. If your main character is known as a happily married, professional woman, but she keeps having inappropriate dreams about her male co-worker, then that tells the reader something important about her inner world. Perhaps everything is not as wonderful as it seems.
You should also consider the moment after the dream ends, when the character is returned to consciousness. How do they react to their dream experience? Are they shocked? Afraid? Compelled to act? Their reaction tells you a lot about their mindset.
Dreams and Foreshadowing
Many authors, particularly in fantasy or magic realism novels, use dreams to foreshadow future events. The idea that a prophesy can be received from a dream is found in hundreds of stories. If your reader is given information about the future that may or may not be true, it can be an excellent way to increase tension.
How to Tell If You Should Use Dreams
Ask yourself the following questions before you add a dream sequence to your novel:
- Is the dream absolutely essential to the story?
- Is it clear?
- Does it contain conflict and tension?
- Does it advance character growth?
- Does it offer information that your reader couldn’t gain in another way?
If you answer no to any of these, you may want to cut the scene.
Finally, dreams can be used successfully to introduce symbolism or just to insert a good laugh. The key is to keep your dream to a couple of sentences or a paragraph at most.
What’s Your Opinion on Dreams?
Let us know in the comments below whether you think dreams belong in stories or not.
And if you’ve used a dream sequence successfully in your novel, tell us how you accomplished it so the rest of us can learn, too.
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If you enjoyed this post about writing a novel, you might also enjoy these articles from our archive:
- How to Foreshadow Like Hitchcock
- How to Construct a 3D Main Character
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Story Arc?
- How to Create Your Story’s World
- How to Create a Compelling Character Arc
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Plot?
- 4 Plot Pitfalls You Need to Avoid
- The Four Drafts Your Novel Needs (and Why You Probably Won't Use a Single Word of Your First Draft!)