It Was Just A Dream

I’d like to welcome back to TKZ my friend and fellow ITW member, Meg Gardiner. If you’ve ever considered using a dream or dream sequence in your manuscript, Meg points out the perils of doing so. Read on and take note. – Joe Moore


unnamedWhen I teach writing workshops, I always warn students about what not to do. In particular, I strongly urge them not to open their stories in these ways:

  • With the protagonist staring out the window, thinking about his past.
  • With the detective squinting into the sunrise, hung over.
  • With the protagonist waking up.
  • With a dream sequence.

Why? Because these are clichés — they’ve been done ten thousand times. They’re tired. And because, if your story opens in one of these ways, nothing is happening.

In the case of dream sequences, there’s an additional reason. When readers reach the end of the scene and read, “And then she woke up,” they feel cheated.

As readers, we immerse ourselves in a story by suspending disbelief. That is, while we read, we willingly suspend our knowledge that a story is fiction and accept it as true.  (Thank Samuel Taylor Coleridge for the concept.) But readers generally give an author only one shot at this. If a story opens with an amazingly dramatic, action-packed, emotionally resonant scene that turns out to be a dream, readers are likely to feel that the author has pulled a bait and switch.

Oh. The hero didn’t REALLY save his wife from a mob shootout. He just fell asleep on the sofa.

Huh. The heroine didn’t REALLY leap into the ocean from the deck of a burning ship. She just ate too much pizza and had a nightmare.

Readers invest themselves in the story. When it turns out that the drama is all in a character’s sleeping mind, they’re likely to bail.

Inevitably, when I urge students to avoid dream sequences, one or two will tell me that’s how their novel opens. When I ask why, they say they want the story to open with a punch — but that nothing dramatic happens until chapter five, so the dream is the only way to get some action on the page. Or they tell me they want to show the characters’ fears, longings, or memories, and “there’s no other way.”

There’s always another way. And ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it will be better than opening with a character’s unconscious fantasies. If you want readers to come along for the entire ride, you need your characters to be awake and in action in the physical world from the word go.

How do you deal with dreams in your manuscript? Or do you avoid them altogether?

Meg Gardiner is the bestselling author of twelve thrillers. Her novels include the Edgar Award-winning CHINA LAKE and PHANTOM INSTINCT, which was chosen one of O, the Oprah magazine’s “Best Books of Summer.” She lives in Austin, Texas.

23 thoughts on “It Was Just A Dream

  1. Intend to avoid ’em… And I’m reminded of the worst examples foisted on the general public:

    Dallas – when an entire season was Pam’s nightmare about Bobby’s being killed

    St. Elsewhere -the final episode fading from a snow globe after revealing the entire six seasons were the dream of one of the character’s autistic son

    Roasnne – the entire last season around Dan’s running out on the Connor family when it was Roseanne’s denial that he’d died of a heart attack.

    Maybe the last two might be a bit “O. Henry-esque” – and might work in a short story (or Twilight Zone episode), but after the significant investment of time and caring about the characters, they were, as you say, big let downs.

    • I agree, George…with one exception.

      The last episode of “Newhart” ends with Bob’s character Dick, who has lost his New England inn to Japanese investors, getting hit in the head with a golf ball. He then wakes up in the bedroom of his OLD sitcom, saying, “Emily! Wake up. You won’t believe the dream I just had!”


  2. I think I found something even worse than the dreaded dream. I read a book once where halfway through it, everything came to a screeching halt and the author basically said, “That’s what could’ve happened, but…”

    I was literally stunned. Oh, the characters were all the same, but the second half of the book was different because the protagonist didn’t actually make the decision the writer claimed in the opening. Wow. Talk about wasting my time.

    Mind you, this was long before the days of self-publishing.

  3. Thanks for stopping by TKZ with some great reminders, Meg. Whether at the beginning, in the middle, or–worst of all–at the end, the “it was all a dream” move feels cheap. So unless dreams are part of the plot (e.g., a character having visions) I advise using them sparingly and only to reveal a character’s inner life at a crucial time in the story.

    And when you do, don’t hold back on letting the readers know it IS a dream sequence from the start.

    • Dreams worked well on Patricia Arquette’s series MEDIUM. We knew she had dreams and saw her wake up from bad dreams constantly.
      Nightmare on Elm Street is another example of dream sequences that work. I’m pretty sure they were integral.

  4. Hi, Meg. Good to see you at TKZ. I try to avoid dream sequences in my Dead-End Job mysteries, for all the good reasons you give. But there’s a dream sequence in my new hardboiled mystery, BRAIN STORM (which debuts at ThrillerFest), that’s a major part of the plot. My protagonist is such an unreliable narrator that she cannot tell the difference between reality and dreams.
    That would be my caveat about using dreams — if you make them part of the plot, then readers don’t feel cheated. They’re involved in solving the puzzle.

    • When an unreliable narrator comes from the pen of a master, a dream sequence can successfully advance the plot.

      But watch out, new writers — it takes Elaine’s level of skill to make it work.

      I look forward to BRAIN STORM!

  5. I think I’ve mentioned this before here on TKZ. I apologize if I have. As a reader I concur with avoiding dream sequences. I remember a book I read once and it was a very good book up until the end when I found out that much of the book was written from the protagonist’s alter ego. During that alter ego period I was trying to solve the crime, but could not because the writer was placing me, the reader, inside the protagonist’s alter ego. It was near impossible to deduce whodunit or even to make sense of what was going on. Wow, did I feel cheated!

    • Phil,
      I wonder if the book you are describing falls into the “unreliable narrator” catagory? It sounds like Lehane’s “Shutter Island” wherein Teddy Daniels (SPOILER ALERT!) is not a U.S. marshall investigator but an alter ego created by a mental ill man named Andrew Laeddis.

      Readers either love or hate that book.

      • I hesitate to name the book out of respect to the author, but I will say that it is not the one you mentioned. However it matches a similar scenario to the Teddy Daniels character.

        Just curious at what point in the Lehane book that the reader found out that Teddy Daniels had an alter ego? The book I mentioned the reader does not find out that the main character had an alter ego until the very end, in fact it was the final twist of the story.

        • Can’t recall to be honest, where it comes in the book. I think it is at the very end. And some readers still carp that they are confused about whether or not Teddy/Andrew was insane or the victim of a government-sanctioned mind-altering drug experiment.

          I know Lehane once said he intended the ending to be ambiguous.

  6. I have wild, vivid, cinematic dreams. But you know what? When you break them down, they don’t make sense. There are logic problems. Often dreams in movies and books make narrative sense within themselves, and/or have a specific relationship to the character/story. So when I encounter them I’m nearly always rolling my eyes because that’s not how dreams work. OTOH, as EV mentions above, making them a part of the plot changes the dynamic. I’m far more likely to accept the dream sequence in such a scenario.

  7. Hey Meg! Good to see you here.

    I like dream sequences (and have used them) but only if the writer plays fair. If the reader is cued in that what they are reading is a dream, it can shine a light into dark corners of the psyche. Dreams are powerful suppositories of our sub-conscious, supposedly, our brain’s way of trying to process and make some sense of what we experience while awake. I think that can interesting ground for writers to explore.

    But I really hate to read something that is being presented as a reality only to read “With a start, he woke up.”

    There’s a very fine line between artful misdirection and mind games. (The latter only leads to confusion and makes reader’s feeling had.) You have to really know what you’re doing to use this, I think.

  8. Welcome to the TKZ, Meg! I’m actually a sucker for surreal scenes but when a dream sequence enters a story it rarely works well. I think only when there is a supernatural element – a vision, premonition etc. – do they stand up to scrutiny. As you say, all too often they mask a lack of action in the real story so they serve no purpose except to irritate the reader:)

  9. With the protagonist staring out the window, thinking about his past.
    With the detective squinting into the sunrise, hung over.
    With the protagonist waking up.
    With a dream sequence.

    All of my books start with variations of these. That might explain things… 😉

    • Robert,
      You think YOU have problems. My latest starts out with an amnesiac waking up from a coma-dream.

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  11. Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a classic dead man dreaming story.
    Boxing Helena made me feel cheated, but at least he didn’t box Helena, just dreamt about it.
    There was a battle in the Twilight series with an old group of vampires fighting a different group of vampires and it turned out to be a vision of what the future could be. I would have liked to have known that it was a vision before I saw it. But it may have spoiled the story???

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