Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dreaming . . . Dreams, dreams, dreams . . .

Thinking about using dreams in a story.

First off -- if anybody wants to write dreams, they should go for it. There's the vast panoply of Western literature to back you up. It's full of dream sequences.

The downside of using a dream sequence is . . .

-- With a dream sequence, the reader 'sees' the technique. She gets a glimpse of the stagehands moving the props around, as it were.  It's an inherently intrusive technique -- like chaptering.  But, unlike chaptering, it's unusual enough that the reader notices.  It's heavy handed.  Or heavy footed.  Or something.

-- A dream interrupts the flow of action even more than an equal expanse of backstory or description. It stops the pacing more than a flashback. This is true for seven lines of dream sequence and for seven pages . . . though the interruption gets more profound with every line you add.

All the reasons for not inserting a flashback -- and they are myriad -- are valid for not inserting dreams.

-- A dream puts the character in a very passive state.
While a dream may lead to action, the dream is not a clever plot or a brave action the character has accomplished. The dream is something done to him. The consequences and actions that arise from the dream come from a deus ex machina rather than an active choice by the character.

In most stories, you want the characters to do stuff rather than have stuff happen to them.

-- If the dream is to affect more than one character, the dream has to be discussed and explicated. That's dialog -- and it's dialog about something abstract and distant. Any discussion or consideration of a dream takes the characters away from the here-and-now of the story.

The upside of using a dream sequence is . . .

-- There are things you can do with dreams you can't do any other way.

I used a half-page dream sequence, once.  This was in Spymaster's Lady where Annique dreamed about a horrible moment in her childhood.  Dreamed about her mother.

I did the dream sequence right there
mainly to foreshadow the coming revelation,
but also to show Grey as the man who would comfort Annique, not just for her current problems, but for her rather bleak and exploited past,
and to hint at some of the trauma that creeps in around Annique's reluctance to have casual sex,
and stufflikethatthere.
I also liked what it did to the pacing at that point.

But I used that dream sequence after a week's work and trying out three or four other ways to do the same thing and with the reluctance of a surgeon prescribing a chancey antibiotic, rather than tripping into the manuscript with a 'hey nonny nonny let's throw in a dream sequence.'

So I guess I am saying think twice and then twice more before adding a dream sequence and then when you're sure, go in and do the thing. 

As always -- just my take on this.

(The title of blog is the Everly Brother's Song, not to be confused with anybody else who sings about dreaming, ok?)


  1. I added two dream sequences to my manuscript on my most recent rewrite. There just wasn't a way around it. I had a character that desperately needed developing, but he couldn't be in the present story (yeah, it's complicated). I'm crossing my fingers they both work, but you're right. It's incredibly difficult to slide them in without slowing down the pace.

  2. I just read Starting Over by Sue Moorcroft, which is a book with an unusual prose style anyway, I think. She writes short scenes and skips between them without much warning, which sometimes works really well for her and other times I found a bit distracting. Anyway, she also includes within that a couple of dreams. Not classic dream sequences but something much more like the reality of dreaming with caught snippets of action and strong emotions but not much coherence. And yes, they slow the pace, but that works pretty well in the kind of story she writes which is not quickfire action at any point.

    But the main reason I wanted to mention it was because her heroine has several strong character traits that are precisely illustrated by the dream - she is a coward, she is often passive, she runs away, she prefers fantasy to reality. And so on. The book is about her overcoming this and taking responsibility for her life. The dreams come quite early in the book and theydo convey some information about the kinds of things that are on her mind, but I also think they do quite a lot of character development that is appropriate in this context. If you're writing a strong, active character like Annique or Jess, then focussing on their dreams is probably a bad idea, but for vulnerable, weak, passive Tess, it worked well. By the end of the book, she's not dreaming about the man she fancies, she's sleeping with him.

  3. Anonymous9:08 AM

    I'm trying to remember if you ever posted on flashbacks...
    If so, I'd love to read the post, but I can't seem to find it.

    Thanks for another stellar posting.

  4. @ Sandy --

    So you're choosing dream sequences instead of flashbacks?

    I did the same thing. Annique's dream sequence is precisely that -- information about the past put into the place it is needed to strike the emotional reaction exactly where I want it.

    If I could have done this with flashback, I would have, though.

  5. @ Ros --

    In one of those bits of synchronicity, I just saw 'Starting Over' reviewed on Dear Author and then, elsewhere on that site, brought up in a discussion of 'Second Chance at Romance'.

    (I followed that 'Second Chance' discussion with great interest because Maggie, in Forbidden Rose, has a first love before she comes to Doyle.)

    Anyhow, I will have to buy the Sue Moorcroft and see what she is doing with her scene skipping. I toy with serious time skips in the JUSTINE manuscript. This may be a mistake.

    Where was I? --

    Dreams are powerful instruments of writing. Good stuff, y'know.
    It's something I've done meeself.

    What it is though -- when the author uses dreams to transform the character, the medium becomes the message. The dream sequences are the action of the story, if you will.

    I like to see dreams doing their proper work in the story -- being active -- transforming, enlightening, resonating with theme, stopping the action and turning it in a new direction.

    I'm not so happy to see the powerful format of dreams tossed in lightly because the writer has some backstory to lay down.

  6. @ Anon --

    I don't think I've ever posted on flashbacks.

    I do keep using them. I have a two big flashbacks in Forbidden Rose -- one that comes in (shudder) Italics.

    Flashback is something I should do better. Oh yes. I'll have to think about the technique. Who knows, I might even do a posting someday if I ever come to any useful conclusions.

  7. Anonymous12:18 PM

    I like this post, because I get really tired of the "Thou shalt nevers" that we all hear, but that we all know _can_ work and have seen work.

    Dreams are like any other scene, really, well-written and somehow integral to the story, they'll pull us even deeper into the character's world. If they are info dumps, extraneous conceit (see how poooooetic I am as an author!), etc., they fail.

    I love your dreaming kitty. :)


  8. Hi Evbishop --

    The problem with dream sequences is that they are so durned appealing to the writer. It's not just that they seem so useful . . . they're kinda cool to write.

    That's the thing about all the 'Thou Shalt Nots.'
    Nobody ever tells us not to do the hard, boring, difficult stuff. Nobody ever says -- 'Thou shalt not doublecheck your historical facts.'

    They always want us not to do the fun stuff. Well, pooh, says I.

  9. @Jo, not so much random synchronicity. I read Starting Over because of the review on Dear Author...

  10. @ ros --

    Great Review on DA. I'm looking forward to the book.