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?

 

12+

Dreams, Reality and Writing

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


There he is. Jimmy Bell, age 10, crack third baseman for the Red Sox of the Sunrise Little League in Woodland Hills, California. He’s ready for anything. And his head is full of dreams.
He dreams of playing third base in the Major Leagues. Of playing it like Brooks Robinson, maybe the greatest defensive infielder of all time. He dreams of hitting like Mickey Mantle, but doing it all in Dodger blue. 
The dreams keep him happy in the summer, when the smell of grass from the field and hot dogs from the Snack Shack create the aroma of the possible.
But then somewhere along the way, reality sets in. In its cold, nasty fashion it wakes him up and sets a full length mirror in front of him and says, “Look. Do you see your dream in here anywhere? No? That’s right. Because it ain’t gonna happen, kid.”
No one really likes reality all that much, do they?
Which is why you should give it a kick in the classifieds every now and then.
Which is what Jimmy Bell did after realizing his Major League career was a longer shot than William M. Gaines winning the Pulitzer Prize. (And if you don’t know who Bill Gaines is, read up on him, for he had a greater influence upon America than Henry Luce!)
My dreams switched to basketball. If baseball was my first love, basketball was my true love, the girl I wanted to marry. And working as hard as I could I became one of the best pure shooters in my town, which happened to be a big one called Los Angeles. I dreamed then of wearing Lakers gold.
In college, though, reality came calling again. This time, in the mirror, it showed me the body made of the DNA of my Irish and Scottish ancestors. A body that was not made for quickness or jumping but for klonking slow Englishmen on the head with rocks. Had I been deeded the body of a Jerry West or a Walt Frazier, I daresay I would be in the Basketball Hall of Fame today.
I refused, however, to let reality keep spoiling my parties. I started dreaming of an acting career, of becoming another Brando or Newman. Reality kept its distance this time. It knew I had a few good kicks in me. And it was going good there for awhile—Off-Broadway, commercials. Then I married a beautiful actress and decided that was a dream realized, and I wanted to support a family.
Thus, I went to law school, dreaming of becoming a famous trial lawyer. This was firmly within my grasp. But with two young kids and a long commute to a big law firm, reality whispered something to me: if you really want to be the best, you’re going to have give something up. Like time with your children while they’re young.
I downsized, opened my own office (with my dad, an L.A. lawyer), and was a seven minute drive from my house.
Hovering over all of this was another dream—of becoming a writer. Off and on, through boyhood and school years, I thought it would be wonderful to be able to write books and have people buy them.
But some mob hired reality as a hit man, because it kept shooting me down. It told me I didn’t have what it takes to be a writer. That I couldn’t ever learn how to do it. Its favorite phrase, spoken with a cigarette dangling from its lips, was, Writers are born, not made, kid. And you’re not a writer.
Rather than take more punishment, I put the writing dream away. But it came back, years later, in a movie theater. My wife and I were at a double feature. One film was Wall Street. The other was one I’d hardly heard of, Moonstruck. But that was the movie that knocked me out. It was one of those rare experiences that sweeps you up and holds you tight and makes you happy you’re alive.
And I knew I had to try the writing dream again. Had to. I wanted to write something that would move an audience like Moonstruck had moved me. Reality be hanged! I was going to shove reality out of a moving car on a steep grade.
I set out to do the thing reality said could not be done. I read books on writing. I devoured them. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest and highlighted the articles on fiction craft. A few years later I was a published novelist. Then I was making a living at it. Still am. Not bad for somebody who was “not born” to write.
So what would I say to Jimmy Bell, age 10, if I could go back in time? I’d tell him to keep on dreaming, but be ready to change dreams once in awhile. Work hard, drive toward what you yearn for, but also adjust to the curveballs life throws you. Maybe I’d even give him a few lines from Kipling’s If, just to show him he’s going to grow up and know some poetry:

If you can dream, and not make dreams your master;
If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And, which is more, you’ll be a Man, my son!

So, if you had the chance, what would you tell your ten-year-old self? 


0

Writing the final chapter on a recurring dream

Like many people, I have a few recurring dreams. Some of them–like the one where I discover I can fly–are good. Others are bad. One of the more unpleasant dreams has been driving me crazy for decades. In it I’m back in high school, and I suddenly realize that I’ve missed most of my classes for the entire semester. Panic ensues.


Now, it’s been a heck of a long time since I graduated safely from high school, college, and graduate school. You’d think my subconscious would have caught on by now. And indeed the dream has evolved over time. Now I wander the halls as an older adult, having for some reason decided to repeat high school (the horror!), and suddenly I realize that I’ve missed most of my classes. Panic ensues.


During this dream, I have never once entered a classroom. I am doomed to wander the halls with no exit. A couple of weeks ago, however, when I was in the middle of a writing challenge in my waking life, I had the dream again. This time, I finally found my English class. I slipped behind a desk, braving the mocking stares of students who knew I’d missed everything and didn’t have a chance. The assignment was to write a compelling 8-page paper.


I struggled to recall a story, quickly. It came in fits and starts. In the dream I gave the finished paper to the teacher. She looked up at me, smiled, and said, “You know, I think you’ve graduated from this level.” I felt…released. Validated, somehow.When I woke up, I realized that the story I’d written in the dream was the first chapter of my WIP.


I hope that that last little mutation of the dream means it won’t be back to annoy me. Maybe my subconscious has finally learned that life, indeed, moves on.
If it does come back, I hope at least I’ll be in college this time. That would be so much more interesting than high school.


Have you ever found yourself writing in your dreams? Did anything you  wrote while dreaming carry over into your waking hours?

0

Dreams and writing

I recently began dreaming again. For a while I was taking some medication that prevented me from dreaming at night. It wasn’t until the dreams came back that I realized how much I’d missed them. Not that any of my nocturnal conjurings are particularly noteworthy (especially not the one where I’m wandering the halls of Wellesley College on my way to a final exam, having missed the entire semester of class. I hate that one.)


No matter how stressful or mundane, dreams are important to the creative process. They may even be essential. In a 2003 study, a researcher found that people who are imaginative and prone to fantasizing are more likely to remember their dreams than non-creative people. Reportedly, Paul McCartney has said that the melody of “Yesterday” came to him during a dream. 


According to another study, the REM stage of sleep (rapid eye movement) is the most conducive to making creative connections. It’s also during REM stage that we dream the most, so perhaps I was right to worry that my medication-induced dream void was also suppressing my writing creativity. Normally when I wake up I do a flash review, trying to recall any fragments of dreams before they fade away. Without my dreams, I felt “flat” upon awakening. 


But now they’re back. Last night’s dream was nothing spectacular–I was forced to confess to an old boss that I’d lost track of an important project. Then I had to put it back together in time for a “mission critical” meeting. Ugh. I think it’s the workplace version of my Wellesley-exam nightmare. But no matter: Welcome back, dreams!


Do you find that dreaming is important to your creative process? Have you ever generated a writing idea from a dream?

0