Dreams For Your Mirror Moment

by James Scott Bell

Half my life’s in books, written pages.
Live and learn from fools and from sages.
You know it’s true, oh
All the things come back to you…
Dream on!
– Aerosmith, “Dream On”

We’ve had several discussions about dreams here at TKZ. I believe the consensus rule of thumb (or, in deference to Brother Gilstrap, guideline of thumb) is never open with a dream. As Les Edgerton states in his excellent book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One (Writer’s Digest Books):

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.

Ah, remember the days of SASEs and paper manuscripts?

The only exception is when you alert the reader in the first sentence that it’s a dream, as in Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier). Even so, I would counsel against the dream-sequence opening.

As for a dream later in the book, I recommend doing it only once and only for the specific purpose of revealing the character’s emotions at an intense time. Dean Koontz does this in Chapter 15 of The City:

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 … (etc.)

The exception to this advice is when dreaming is an integral part of the plot. See, for example, Spellbound (1945, dir. Alfred Hitchcock).

Recently, I discovered another way to use a dream. It’s a perfect device for a mirror moment. Those of you who’ve read the book know there are two types of mirror moments that can occur in the center of the novel.

One moment is when the character has to look at himself, as in a “mirror” (sometimes literally) and reflect on who he is, inside. Will he change for the better? The rest of the novel is about whether a fundamental transformation takes place (as it does in, e.g., Casablanca).

The other type of moment is when the character looks at her situation and realizes she’s probably going to die. The odds are just too great. For example, Katniss in The Hunger Games. In the exact middle she assesses her situation and says to herself, This is an okay place to die. The story question for such a moment becomes will the character gain the strength and smarts to fight and win against the odds?

Here’s today’s tip: Either of those moments can be given to us through a dream.

I was re-reading John D. MacDonald’s final Travis McGee book, The Lonely Silver Rain. In this one McGee is dispatched to find a stolen boat. When he does, he discovers a grisly scene—three horribly murdered bodies. A bit later someone tries to kill McGee. Then there’s another attempt on his life. Why? McGee has no idea, except that it must have something to do with what happened on that boat. He undertakes a laborious investigation to find the answer. But he keeps running into a wall. Thus, in the middle of the book:

The cold had awakened me from a dream. I had been in a poker game at an oval table, with the center green-shaded light hung so low I could not make out the faces of the men at the table. They all wore dark clothing. The game was five-card draw, jacks or better to open. They were red Bicycle cards. Every time I picked up my five cards, I found the faces absolutely blank. Just white paper. I wanted to complain about this, but for some reason I was reluctant. I threw each hand in, blank faces up, hoping they would notice. All the rest of the cards were normal. I could see that each time a winner exposed his hand. There was a lot of betting, all in silence. A lot of money. And then I picked up one hand and found they were real cards. I did not sort them. I never sort poker hands or bridge hands. The act gives too much away to an observant opponent. I had three kings of clubs and two jacks of diamonds. In the dream I did not think this odd. They were waiting for me to bet when the cold woke me up. In the dream I had been shivering with the tension of having a good hand. The shivering was real. 

Why did he dream this? McGee knows there are people out there to kill him, but cannot figure out who (he can’t see the faces of the other players). He has talked to many potential witnesses, to no avail (blank cards). The knowledge he does have may be misleading (like having three kings of clubs and two jacks of diamonds in a poker hand). The shivering in the dream is uncertainty, brought into the real world.

It seems to me a perfect way to show us “the odds are too great” type of mirror moment. A dream can easily be used to show the first kind, the “is this who I really am?” type.

To make it work, the dream should have those bizarre details we get in dreams—like blank playing cards which suddenly become cards of the same type. Of course, the symbols should relate somehow to what’s going on in the story.

A good dream sequence works emotionally on the reader. In some cases it may cause the reader to pause and ponder, trying to figure it out. Either outcome is a good one, as it gets the reader more deeply invested in the story—which is what every writer dreams of, yes?

33 thoughts on “Dreams For Your Mirror Moment

  1. Thank you, Sir, for another excellent post…

    Now, as with all of your advice, if I’ll only remember to “Write This Way…” (with apologies – but only to Steven Tyler and Joe Perry…)

  2. I love this, Jim. The boys in the basement serve up a literary feast in the middle of the night, not for the writer, but for the main character, complete with clues and confusion. The “literary mirror moment” grabs the reader and makes them think and become even more hooked by the book.

    Great idea, Jim!

  3. Thank you for the golden nuggets.

    What about an important memory that comes up as a recurring dream? It reveals a lot about the character and the plot itself so in the first draft I opened the story with it to create context. I mention no other place any dream again.

    • I’m a bit confused, Caelan, over “recurring” dream v. not mentioning it again. Regardless, my advice would be as in the post. If it’s an integral part of the plot, it’s fine to use the dream throughout. But if you open with it, clue the reader in that it’s a dream in the very first paragraph.

      • It’s a recurring dream for the MC. I show it only one time in the whole story and I tell the readers that it comes up in his dreams over and over again but I never write about it later.

        Anyway, thank you for your reply. I feel I really need to chew on this a little bit more.

  4. Wow, Jim. This hit home. Before I wrote the ending to my WIP I went back to review previous scenes to write a reverse chapter-by-chapter outline for my series bible. Anyway, I have one particular scene (written in the zone) that’s filled with symbolism. I kept it but wasn’t 100% certain what the symbolism meant…until now. 🙂 Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • Dreams speak to us in the symbols of the Guardienne. Most often, as in the poker dream, they take some study to understand. I’ve taken two courses in dream analysis and studied over 100 of them. One woman had dreams where she was in a coffin, buried alive. My analysis? Sleep apnea, a very physical meaning of the dream.

  5. Even before I got to your McGee example (a very good one), I had already decided I wouldn’t rule out using a dream in a story if used well. I totally get that a dream, like any device, can be poorly handled or used at an inopportune moment, but to me, the very nature of dreams makes them good for fiction.

    How much time has been spent analyzing dreams? There are books on it. Dreams are our brain’s chance to mash up & ponder events. It’s a revealing of the person and their character. I would certainly not deprive myself of use of a dream in a story if it served the story, as does the McGree example you shared.

    And under the right circumstances, dreams would also be great puzzle pieces to add to a story. Often dreams are bizarre and don’t make sense at the time–but some revelation or event later on reminds us of them and gives us new understanding. And gaining human understanding is often why people read. So it makes sense to use a dream if it can be done well in a strong story.

    • Great thoughts, BK. As I said, a dream in the right place can truly deepen the reading experience. Of course, as you mention, it must be “done well.” The effort forces the author to get more in touch with the character. Thus, it’s a good exercise to write a dream sequence even if you don’t use it in the book!

  6. Thanks, JSB, timely advice for me at the moment.

    I’ve only once dreamed a story.

    I was walking down a street late one evening and say my brother ahead, walking away from me.
    “Paul! Paul!”
    Just at that moment two men in dark suits (natch!) grabbed hold of him and forced him into a car. He turned his head around, staring at me out of the read window, and mouthed “Help.”
    I went racing towards him, but the car sped off. Convinced he’d been picked up by the police (why? Why the police and why was I convinced? Dunno.) I headed straight for the nearest police station.
    Inside, I hammered on the desk with my fist and demanded of the hapless constable, “What have you done with my brother?”
    Bam. There was my title.
    The police denied they had anything against him, so I repeated the process at MI5 – yeah, right, so you can just walk off the streets and into an Intelligence office. They also said they had no knowledge. I would have to find him on my own.

    That’s about when I woke up, amazed at the gift I’d just been given. I tried to think of ways to develop this beginning into a full-blown story, but gave up. To me thinks smacks of a thriller, or a suspense novel, and I write neither. I’m throwing out now in case anyone can make use of it.

    Oh, and my real brother’s name isn’t Paul.
    And, if you got this far, thanks for reading.

    • Lynda, I was intrigued the whole way, but then your last line really hit me. What a great hook for a thriller. Not as a dream, but as a plot. Coben-esque. Come on! You can write a thriller. Hang out here at TKZ and you’ll be inspired.

    • My dream: I’ve been recruited by the CIA. The man gives me my cyanide pill and a tiny camera. Next, I’m on a train, going to Eastern Europe. Nothing to read, so I take out the camera instructions: pages of text, no illustrations, & all in Japanese. The train stops. I get off and am met by six Russian agents. They accuse me of being a U.S. spy. I tell them I work for Red China and, as proof, show them my Chinese identity papers: the camera instructions.

  7. My covert ops or former military characters often have recurring nightmares, but I haven’t shown them in any detail. Because these books are romantic suspense, the nightmares sometimes shift to include the heroine as a “Hmmm… guess I like her …” revelation.

    Example: For the first time in years, his sleep was disrupted by dreams of Ashlyn, but she’d been replaced by Kiera, who’d been riding a horse, not in a mine-resistant MRAP.

    Not a mirror moment, but now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ll think about using them that way

  8. I used a dream in my first book when the MC dreams about her parents who had recently died. After their deaths, she learned of a secret they had kept from her all her life. In her dream they appear to her and symbolically tell her there’s more to learn.

    I liked the dream sequence in “Spellbound” because it shows the sequence of events that led to the protagonist (Gregory Peck) losing control of his identity. But the dream is so cryptic, the viewer doesn’t understand what it means until the end of the movie. It’s a great device, though, to put the solution to the mystery in a dream, but only reveal the meaning at the end. Hmmm. I think you just gave me an idea. Thanks!

  9. Hi, Jim. I agree with the observation that you can use a dream, once, in a novel. I’m usually very sparing with them. After all, we novelists are already spinning a fictive dream, and creating a “dream within a dream” is very tricky. I’d never thought of using a dream in the mirror moment, but it’s a terrific approach, if the story warrants it, like McGee in Lonely Silver Rain.

    Extra points for quoting Aerosmith 🙂

    Have a wonderful Sunday!

  10. My own dreams have been very good about providing story ideas, but I only rarely use dreams within a novel unless it’s a paranormal. My romantic suspense, THE GAME WE PLAY, starts with the heroine waking from a drug-induced dream to find someone lurking over her, and the events from that moment and her reaction later prove to be clues later to who has kidnapped the hero’s kids. But almost all of those first paragraphs are more in the here and now and not the dream.

    Those of us who write paranormal and fantasy have an incredible toolbox of images, dreams, metaphors, and straight-up Karl Yung mental landscapes that would make most authors clutch their chest in envy. Throw a group of characters into a paranormally-induced metaphorical landscape to face their own mirror worst selves and see if they will break emotionally or beat that monster self. Or go to the astral plane’s version of their mental hell to die or man up.

  11. I’ve only used one dream sequence, IIRR:

    Hitler lay awake in the dimly lit room for a long time that night, hovering between wakefulness and dozing. He turned over several times before finding a comfortable position. A little later, he heard whispering. Has someone entered the room? Or is that Zimms speaking? Hitler raised his head and saw the SS man’s place was vacant. Where is he? Has he gone into the bathroom? No, the bathroom was dark. The sight of the empty chair angered and terrified Hitler. Where is Zimms? The lamp beside the guard’s chair flickered, then went out with a faint pop. Darkness.

    Der Fuehrer is now dreaming a hideous dream featuring his niece, Geli Raubal, first victim of the mental quirk that drove the Holocaust.

      • Thanks, Robert. Hitler really did insist on an SS man in his bedroom to prevent night fears. Though I don’t say so explicitly, I think most readers would recognize that Hitler is dreaming the rest. The imagery is grotesque and truly reflects his evil character. As Carl Jung said:

        “In each of us there is an ʘther whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from the way we see ourselves.”

  12. Whelp, gotta fess up. I opened my standalone “She’s Not There” with a dream. It lasts two sentences and it is structured to register as a reality. (The character is drowning and is “yanked” out of it, gasping and crying.). In actuality, she is emerging, violently, from a coma and we immediately get a nurse’s reaction and the lights come on. The character realizes it was “just” a dream but she also realizes it is a very old memory. Only late in the book does she connect that, at age 10, almost drowned and her brother yanked her out of the water by her hair. The memory is pivotal to the plot.

    FYI: My uncle saved me from drowning when I was a little kid by yanking me out of the lake by my hair as I sunk in the blue-green bubble. Horrifying memory…

    • Two sentences, eh? Interesting. Happens so fast there’s not enough time for a reader to be “deceived” for several pages.

      I’ll let it go this time, Kris! ?

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