What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Check out this first page from a brave author:

The house alarm is screaming out, not the early-warning beep but the piercing you’re-totally-screwed-if-you-don’t-move-now squeal. I don’t know how long it’s been going off, but it’s too late for me now. The searing oven-blast heat within the four corners of my bedroom. The putrid black smoke that singes my nostril hairs and pollutes my lungs. The orange flames rippling across the ceiling above me, dancing around my bed, almost in rhythm, a taunting staccato, popping and crackling, like it’s not a fire but a collection of flames working together; collectively, they want me to know, as they bob up and down and spit and cackle, as they slowly advance, This time it’s too late, Emmy—

The window. Still a chance to jump off the bed to the left and run for the window …

The author is Mr. James Patterson (along with his co-writer David Ellis). The novel is Invisible. Mr. Patterson is “brave” for choosing this opening gambit, for later on in the scene we learn the above is only a dream!

And that simply isn’t done.

At least you would think so if you’ve spent any significant amount of time around writers talking writing. Surely at least once a week, in some critique group somewhere, someone is uttering, as if citing stone tablets, that you must never begin a novel with a dream. Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One (Writer’s Digest Books), is unequivocal:

Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character’s merely dreaming it all. Not unless you’d like your manuscript hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses. Followed by the insertion of a form rejection letter into your SASE and delivered by the minions of our illustrious postal service.

Les brings up a practical matter. If you’re submitting to an editor (remember the old days of the SASE?) and you pull the dream-opening thing, it’s almost certain he or she will consider your manuscript amateur hour.

But what do readers think?

The aforementioned Mr. Patterson, it may be safely said, is unequaled in his ability to gauge the pulse of the reading public. He has at least one other novel, Maximum Ride, that opens with a dream. (And last time I checked, Mr. Patterson’s manuscripts are not being returned.)

So what’s the actual deal on opening with a dream?

I don’t like it. There! That settles it.

Okay, just my opinion, folks. But it always feels like a cheat to me to get me caught up in the action, only to have the character wake up.

In all fairness, however, I’m hyper aware of craft. Most readers are not.

Maybe they don’t care in the slightest.

Let me make a subtle yet critical distinction here. One of the most famous openings in literature is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.

Here we have the first-person narrator telling us about a dream. That’s not the same as the “dream fake-out”—beginning with intense action that turns out not to be real.

Practically speaking, then, if you’re a writer seeking a traditional book contract, I would counsel you not begin with a dream, for the reason Edgerton suggests. Most editors won’t go for it.

If you’re self-publishing, you have the choice.

I’d still advise against it.

Here is my further thought on dreams in fiction: Unless dreams are an integral part of the plot (e.g., a character has recurring, prophetic dreams), I would suggest limiting yourself to using a dream only once, if at all.

For what purpose? To show the emotional state of the character at some intense point in the book. Or to reveal backstory that is affecting the character’s psyche. I would also make sure the reader knows up front it’s a dream, as in the beginning of Chapter 15 of The City by Dean Koontz:

Eventually I returned to the sofa, too exhausted to stand an entire night watch. I dropped into a deep well of sleep and floated there until, after a while, the dream began in a pitch-black place with the sound of rushing water all around, as if I must be aboard a boat on a river in the rain …

Another option is to eschew a dream sequence altogether, and simply have the character describe the dream and how it is relevant. Thomas Harris does that in the aptly titled The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling is a young FBI trainee tasked with extracting clues from the notorious killer and creative chef, Hannibal Lecter. Lecter trades her clues for intimate details about her life. At one point Clarice tells Lecter about the haunting memory of being at her uncle’s ranch, when she was ten, and hearing the screaming lambs being led to slaughter. And how she still dreams about it.

Lecter tells her that’s why she’s obsessed with catching Buffalo Bill. She thinks it will stop the lambs from screaming. It leads to the moving last line of the book:

But the face on the pillow, rosy in the firelight, is certainly that of Clarice Starling, and she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs.

To summarize my take:

  1. Don’t open with a dream fake-out.
  2. Use dreams sparingly (like, once) unless it’s an integral plot element.
  3. Let the reader know up front it’s a dream.
  4. Consider characters talking about a dream rather than giving it to us as a scene. Just make sure the dialogue has conflict or tension. (For example, the character doesn’t want to talk about the dream, but the other character drags it out of her, as in The Silence of the Lambs.)

Now it’s your turn, O Writer and (especially) O Reader. What do you think about dreams in fiction?

 

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43 thoughts on “What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction?

  1. While I can’t think of any story I’ve written where I’ve opened with a dream, I can think of one that used a dream at some point in the story. That said, I’m not opposed to opening a book with a dream. Like any other technique, it rises and falls on how well it’s executed.

    My chief reason for not being opposed to using a dream is that dreams to me show vulnerability in the character. Of course there may be times that you don’t want to show that vulnerability.

    • My only caution, BK, is that we don’t really care about a character’s vulnerability (or emotions) until we KNOW them a bit. That’s why I am also opposed to “characters alone, feeling” openings. Better to save that until after I see the character in motion through some sort of disturbance.

  2. One of the most famous movies of all time uses a dream sequence to tell the majority of the story, and finally tells the viewer at the end that it was all just a dream. But we don’t hold it against Dorothy or the Wizard.
    Having said that, unless you’re really, and I mean *really* good at it, it’s best to use dream sequences sparingly, if at all, and follow James’s guidelines.

    • Of course, Oz opens in “reality” which is conveniently rendered in black & white for us. Since it’s a fantasy, the “dream” aspect is integral, and obvious. But in other genres, we all know that an ending rendering the entire story “a dream” is going to be met with howls of derision!

  3. Great points on dreams. I like your list.

    But I am not opposed to opening with a dream if it reveals something about the psyche of the dreamer. Doesn’t that develop the character by showing what’s gnawing at him to the point it disrupts his sleep?

    Here’s one that should drive the critics crazy: How about a dream opening that is reality coming back to haunt the character…and is a prologue disguised in a dream.

    Just thought I would stir things up a bit.

  4. Jim, I have to disagree with you to a certain extent. Using a dream to show a character’s emotional state, even to reveal a bit of backstory so subsequent writing makes sense, is one tool in the writer’s toolbox–not one he or she will pull out regularly, but nestled in the bottom to be used when it’s appropriate. But thanks for sharing this bit of advice.

    • I’m flummoxed, Doc. I said the very same thing in the post, so I don’t see how we disagree. Unless it’s that reflexive reaction doctors have re: lawyers.

      • I’ll read it again, Jim. In one of my recent books, I opened with a dream sequence that did the things I referred to in my comment, and I suppose what I gathered from your post was, “Don’t do it.” Sorry if I misinterpreted your feelings. (And, yeah, my neck hairs bristle when you say “lawyer,” although I now consider you and John Grisham writers, not attorneys).

  5. I don’t like the dream fake-out. Didn’t like it even before I started writing. It cheats the reader in my opinion.

    Movies and TV can get away with it sometimes. I never watched “Dallas” but what about a whole season being just a dream? And like you said, the dream must have some relevance to the character.

    I can do you one better than the dream sequence though. I once read a book (not great, but okay) and halfway through the author basically says, “And that’s what could’ve happened if he’d made that decision in the opening chapter, but he didn’t, so here’s what really happened.” Huh? No wonder I don’t remember the book or author.

    • Tom, “cheats” is the right word. And as I recall, the infamous Dallas dream thing was a device used to get Patrick Duffy back on the show (after the ratings fell), but rendered the entire previous season inexplicable. Talk about howls!

  6. As a reader I get irritated when I read an opening that turns out to be a dream. It’s not that a character is dreaming, it’s the fake-out part. If I knew ahead of time (as you suggest in your third point), then it would be okay.

  7. I agree, Jim. Opening with a dream sequence cheats the reader. I have used a dream sequence (of sorts) later in a book, but mine was more paranormal in nature. A dead sister relates a warning to the MC (they’re spiritual connection fully established in a previous book), which increased the MC’s angst and hinted at the trouble to come (setup the midpoint). I think if we’re going to include a dream sequence, we better make sure there’s a valid reason to include it other than backstory. If it doesn’t propel the story forward, we shouldn’t waste our readers’ time.

    • Good points, Sue. And yes, if the genre is paranormal, it’s probably more acceptable to use dreams … but then again, I think the same cautions should apply.

  8. I totally agree with you. But, oh, to be at the level where we can defy the rules and get away with it—get praised for it—get in your face with it. That’s my goal.

  9. Since I don’t write fantasy, I think any dream sequence I started with would be so fantastical that readers would know they were in someone’s dream.

    “There I was, naked in front of the class I was supposed to teach. But what class? I realized I hadn’t prepared at all…”

    [For the record, I vehemently deny ever having had such a dream.]

  10. Planning to fake the reader out on the first page is, first of all, cheap and lowdown. But in order to do it with a dream, the author has to make the dream sound like it’s really happening. Otherwise what’s the point? But dreams don’t work that way (mine don’t, anyway). Dreams normally have weird aspects that the dreamer doesn’t question at the time. If I were unlucky enough to have Emmy’s dream, for example, my dad would probably show up at the bedroom door, naked, and tell me to put the fire out before coming down to supper. Then I would notice a teacup by my bed with a single pathetic spoonful of water in it. There would be no chance of putting out the fire with that, but I would have to try anyway and of course I would fail. On minimal reflection, my version of the dream would really be about my guilt at never living up to Dad’s expectations.

    So what do we make of a character, like Emmy, who is apparently so literal-minded that her dream about a fire in her bedroom is just a dream about a fire in her bedroom, and her thoughts are purely practical thoughts about getting to the window in time and avoiding inhaling the smoke and toxic fumes?

    We don’t trust her, is my answer. Giving her a lifelike dream perversely has made her look fake.

    • Doug, that is a GREAT point. Dreams have elements that don’t make sense, or do but in some weird way. That’s what makes the fake-out extra cheaty indeed. It seems like reality until we are told it is not. I hadn’t thought of that, but is apt. Thanks!

  11. Ugh, dreams. I think they fall into the same category as prologues. Don’t fake out the reader. I read a book recently that started out with a terrified girl in a knife fight. She’s going to have to stab the guy in the face to save herself. SURPRISE it was only a dummy and she’s only training. As a reader, I almost threw the book across the room right there, except it was an ebook and I didn’t want to hurt my device. :-p

  12. Nailed it! Rarely do I read a dream in any context in a book. A dream takes the reader out of the story – an annoying aside – and breaks up the tension, the emotion, the action, the narrative, the……

  13. I am 100% opposed to dream sequences not only in books, but especially in movies and TV. I always have the feeling they’re thrown in because the writer was too lazy to initiate any “real” action.

  14. “It felt like a dentist was drilling through his skull — with an old-fashioned low-speed drill. Norm Vander Wall, P. I., hadn’t suffered from a low-speed drill in fifty years. Then he realized the dentist had made a mistake and injected the novocaine into his hands. He tried to signal the problem to the dentist. The hands refused to respond.

    “As reality impinged on his consciousness, he realized his hands were tied behind the back of his chair, in the middle of what appeared to be an old log cabin.” (https://theweeklyknob.com/old-fashioned-3471d3a5c352)

    People often open a story or scene with someone gradually regaining consciousness. Do the same strictures apply to this kind of literary device?

  15. I’ve used dreams in books but never the fake action scene that turns out to be a dream ruse. Hate that. Cheap, dumb, lazy…

    But sometimes, a well-rendered short dream (identified as such) can really illuminate character. We’ve used it in the new book as a device wherein a character, who has deeply submerged childhood memories of abuse, gradually comes to grips with them through recurring dreams. Our original first chapter featured this dream, but I knew it was wrong to open with it — it was a fake out, bad misdirection. So I cut it out and found a better, more linear, way to begin.

    But big caveat, as you all say — you have to really be careful with this. It has to have an organic purpose unto itself, not just a cheap plot device.

  16. Add me to the “it’s a cheat” side. When I open a book, I want to know where I am, when I am, and who I’m going to be spending time with. If I go to all that trouble and find out I have to rewind and start over when the ‘real’ story begins, I’m not going to be a happy reader. Mr. Patterson can do whatever he wants, but (sorry) that doesn’t mean it’s “good.” It means his name sells the book (even if someone else did the writing.).

    As an author, I’ve used dreams–usually nightmares experienced by a character reliving a trauma. Or, another character hears him/her having the nightmare, and they can talk about it as a way to handle back story and character insight. But NEVER to open a book.

  17. You can add another “no” vote. I also think it’s a cheat. I remember the opening dream scene in Dallas. I was not happy. I watched that show faithfully and loved Patrick Duffy in the show, but this was a cheap, uncreative way to accomplish it. I’m a newbie to writing but I do know what works for me as a reader. Dreams do not unless it is made clear that it is a dream and there is a way to introduce it, as you and others have pointed out.

  18. I speed-read most of the comments, so I’m not absolutely sure no one has mentioned another reason for not opening with a dream sequence: you’re forcing the reader to start the story twice.

    It’s a challenge to grab them once, and then double the challenge to grab them again.

    I am so glad you mentioned that it’s okay to use a dream sequence as long as the reader knows it’s a dream. I have a paragraph (only one paragraph) in one of my stories where the scene (well into the novel) opening clearly identifies that it’s a dream–you know, one of those dreams where you actually know you’re dreaming, but you can choose to stay in the dream or to wake up. (I worded it better in the novel!) The dream itself and the opening sentence are only one paragraph and quite tense.

    As a writer, I think they are a cheap trick, and as a reader, I simply don’t like them.

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