Writers sometimes use dreams to show something about their story, but do you know why that’s not necessarily the best approach?
-The cliché: Dreams have been used too often and by too many writers, so the idea is no longer fresh. It’s cliché. With the publishing industry being harder to break into as ever, is it worth taking the risk? I know many writers who tried to get traditionally published and came close but just couldn’t get their foot in the door. (Don’t you love it when I use clichés in the same paragraph where I preach about why you shouldn’t use them? Do as I say, not as I do. Oh, there I go again!) These same authors were told by acquiring editors that there was nothing wrong with their writing or their story, just that it wasn’t unique enough. Still want to use a dream in yours?
-The super dream: The actual dream can sometimes be more powerful and exciting than the regular story, leaving the reader feeling disappointed when the character wakes up and gets on with his regular life. Remember Bobby’s dream on the TV show Dallas? I was just a kid, but I recall my mom talking about this and how everything that had happened on the previous season was dismissed by having Bobby wake up from a dream in the first episode of the new season. That was the beginning of the end for that show. They lost many viewers that night. Why? Because the viewers felt cheated. They’d wasted a year getting to know characters and plots that weren’t real and now they were expected to readjust and pick up where everything had left off before “the dream”.
-The long-winded dream: Writers have a tendency to create long, detailed dreams, which take the reader away from the true story for too long. You’ve heard the term “keep the story moving”, right? What editors mean when we say this is that you need to continue to develop characters and the main plot. Stopping for a flashback or dream is fine as long as it doesn’t happen so often that the reader loses sight of the real plot, and as long as the distraction/backstory isn’t so long that the reader disconnects with the characters and main plot or is jolted when she returns to the actual story.
-The scratch-your-head dream: Starting a novel or chapter with a dream can sometimes be confusing for the reader. If this is the beginning of the book, a reader may grow to like the characters and situation in the dream only to be disappointed when she realizes what she’d read wasn’t the real story. I’ve had that happen before and can tell you I wasn’t able to get into the actual plot after I discovered the characters I’d fallen in love with weren’t going to reappear because they were a part of a fabrication. Maybe I would’ve liked the main plot had I not been introduced to these characters and this other world, but that’s not the way the author chose to write the novel. As a result, I was disappointed and didn’t finish the book.
If you’re considering having a dream in your story, figure out why you feel a need to do so. What are you trying to accomplish by using the dream? Is it a way to show backstory or foreshadow an upcoming event? Is there another way you can show this without stopping the flow of the main story? If there’s absolutely no way around using a dream, make it brief, using only the strongest elements and quickly returning to the real story.
Have you ever used a dream in your book? Why did you choose to add this element to your plot? Looking back, did it add or take away from the main story?