How to Write Dream Sequences that Don’t Suck

Should I use a dream sequence?

how to write dream sequencesDreams in literature tend to serve one of three purposes: to foreshadow (either as a direct prophecy or as a tip-off to the reader), to tell about a character’s inner torment, or to be a flashback.

Dreams can be seen as gimmicky because they are often poorly written. That’s not to say the sequences themselves are written badly, but that the inclusion of dreams can be an easy way out of having to incorporate the character’s struggle into the action of the story. It can also be a cheap way to foreshadow or portend an ending, or explain an earlier event.

However, just because it’s hard to write good, useful dreams doesn’t mean you should immediately scrap yours. Dreams are a part of real life, after all, and many cultures have special beliefs about dreams and the things that we see in them.

  • If the dream advances the plot in a way that can’t be done by events in the waking life, you should use it.
  • If the dream tells us something about the character that can’t be told in another way, you should use it.
  • If the reaction of your character to the dream is critical to the plot, include the dream.

From Phil Partington:

Many readers will look at a dream sequence with the mindset of Oh no! Not ANOTHER one of these! That means if you’re going to include one (or more), you’ve got that hurdle to tackle, so your dream sequence had better be near-perfect and powerful.

The last sentence sums it up: in the same way that you choose the rest of your scenes, a dream sequence should be the best way to tell your story.

Remember: a vision, a flashback, or a conversation might be a better way to share the information your character needs.

Elements of successful dream sequences

So you’ve decided that a dream is the best way to connect your readers to the story. Awesome! Here’s a list of suggestions to help you write it well.

  • Keep it short. When you dream, do you really remember much of it? Nope. You remember scattered bits and pieces.
  • Make it clear and unclear. Scattered bits and pieces are what we remember from dreams. We tend to believe the pieces we remember are more important.
  • Let the reader know it’s a dream. Because of their intrinsically confusing nature, give the reader a heads up that the dream they’re trying to make sense of doesn’t always make sense. You can do this by writing the dream in italics, changing the verb tense, or even using the exposition to explain the character is dreaming.
  • Move the plot forward. One way or another, the dream should either contain a plot point, set up a plot point, or tell us something we couldn’t find out about the character in any other way.
  • Create or solve an important problem. Your dream should have a tangible impact on the actual happenings of the story.
  • Have your character reflect on the dream. Dreams tend to be cryptic, not clear when interpreted. If the character’s culture has any special beliefs about dreams, make use of those beliefs so we can learn about the character.
  • Make it seem inconsequential. Most dreams don’t actually impact our everyday, even though psychologists and psychics seem to think that dreams are a reflection of the brain trying to cope with issues.

While these guidelines will help you write a great dream sequence, don’t be afraid to do the opposite. Even if it’s only in your rough draft, breaking these rules can let you find something new about your world or character or writing.

One more note: if you choose to have multiple dreams in your story, consider making them similar in style or having a recurring symbol so that your readers can instantly recognize the dream world. Alternately, changing it up every time can help make the dreams seem more unreal.

How to write a dream sequence

Here’s a way to structure a dream sequence in a story.

  1. Your character falls asleep. How do they fall asleep—is it in their own bed after a long day? Were they trying to stay awake and failing?
  2. How are they sleeping? Sleep scientists say we remember our dreams better if we wake up while we’re dreaming. Are there noises from the real world that are incorporated into the dream? Can they feel their body and mind slip into that limbo state between mental alertness and physical inertia?
  3. Introduce the dream’s imagery. We really don’t know much about dreams. But you as the author can use the dream world to reinforce or contrast the imagery of the world your character is in. Like the dreams you can remember, most of them are just snippets of pictures and emotions.
  4. End in the middle. The dreams we remember rarely have conclusions. If your images were telling a story, wake your character up before the story ends or before the mystery is resolved.
  5. Your character wakes up. What is waking them up? Do they remember their dream, or forget it immediately?

Another way to use a dream sequence in a story is to have your character tell another character about their dream. If the culture is conducive, they might ask what the dream means and have a conversation with the other character about the possible symbols or omens they saw.

What’s the best dream sequence you’ve ever read? Do you have other creative ideas for incorporating dreams into a story?

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