Content Warning: You may feel attacked because of my choice of language (f-bombs!), but I promise I’m not angry cursing. I curse when I’m passionate about something. And when I talk normally… I just fucking swear a lot, and I’ve given up on trying to pretend I don’t.
I have written my fair share of dream sequences, and I’m not proud of that. I don’t like them. I avoid them completely in my recent works. So why, you ask, am I writing an article about these fucking things? The purpose of this is to help writers understand the perspective of someone who may whip their books at the wall the moment their dream sequences pop up.
Don’t worry, I’m not just going to rant about why dream sequences are terrible and urge you not to write them. I’m going to talk a bit about what really gets my goat, and also ways in which they can be, and have been, done well.
Please go into this ready to take my opinions with a grain of salt. If you do everything I say not to do, and flip the bird at everything I say will work, I will not read your fucking book, but there are likely many readers who will, and who might even love it. Do what makes you happy. Write the book you’d like to read.
What purpose does your dream sequence serve? This is important. Through my conversations with other writers and readers about dream sequences, this is the single point that comes up the most often with people who hate them. Are you wasting our time?
Purpose 1: Backstory
If your dream sequence’s sole purpose is to spoonfeed us bits of back story, it’s essentially a flashback. Those of us who hate dream sequences tend to hate flashbacks just as much. It feels like an info dump. It takes us out of the story. Especially if you got yourself a page turner. Suddenly being forced out of the events while we’re hungry for more is frustrating in a bad way. Most of the time, I’ll skip it completely, or skim over it. If there’s more than one, I’ll go find another book to read.
Purpose 2: Character Development
These are usually brief glimpses into a character’s state of mind. Especially prevalent in stories about mental illness. I skip/skim these too. We don’t normally need to have a story-stopping glimpse into how a character is feeling to know how they’re feeling — body language, dialogue, and decision-making are effective ways to present a character’s state of mind without breaking away from the events of the story.
Purpose 3: Plot
This is forgivable. I still don’t super enjoy them. Usually wish the author had opted for a more immersive way to give us plot details, but plotty dreams can certainly work. Especially if they’re brief and interesting. You can slip bits of character development and backstory into these as long as you don’t go crazy with it. Like putting vegetables in brownies, if you do it right, us dream-hating-peeps won’t even realize you’ve done it.
Purpose 4: Setting
This is my favourite, and the only one I don’t blatantly hate. When dreams are woven through the narrative kinda like a fantasy element, but not completely. Pan’s Labyrinth comes to mind. Maybe even Alice in Wonderland, or stories about descending into a psychotic break where it’s hard to tell reality from hallucination. This method of storytelling can be compelling as fuck. It doesn’t have to be super important to the plot if it’s serving as an escape for the character. Or if the character’s state of mind is the plot.
Level of Weird
Okay, so you got your dream sequences, and you’ve established that some of us dream-sequence-haters would burn your book, or forgive it based on its purpose alone. But how surreal should it be? Dreams can get really fucking surreal, but we all know if it gets too weird, you’re going to lose even the most avid dream-sequence supporters.
Does your dream sequence resemble Naked Lunch? Are there cockroaches playing poker and dogs dancing on the sun? Does your character melt into a puddle of pistachio pudding and get licked up by an alpaca wearing a fedora? Unless your story is meant to be a fever dream and your target audience consists of people heavily dosed with hallucinogens, maybe pull back a bit.
Weird can be good. Some people don’t like it to be weird, but if your narrative is already out there, making the dream sequences even more crazy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As long as you keep the purpose of it clear. As long as the characters are recognisable, and your reader isn’t just confused the whole time, go for it. Do not confuse your reader. You do not want to dive so deep into metaphor that your reader comes out of the dream sequence not knowing WTF they just read.
Vaguely Twisted Reality
This is my favourite. When a dream is clearly a dream, but it’s not out there — when emotions twist into vague disorientation in moments that otherwise feel real-ish. If you’re writing a stress dream or a nightmare, this is the best way to go, in my opinion, because the ridiculousness of the last two options would work against you. If it’s too weird, it feels silly, and silly is not scary or tense, so you lose the impact of your character’s fear/anxiety.
Indistinguishable from Reality
These can be good. They can also enrage, so if you’re trying not to piss off dream-sequence haters, tricking us into reading a dream sequence is a good way to get your book yeeted out a window. I swear, if I read a significant section of a book, or even a whole book, that turns out to be a dream, and I was unaware until the end, I feel like my time has been wasted, and I never read another work from that author again. Some people really like that shit, so if you want to do it, do it, just be aware that you’re going to make enemies out of some of your readers. However, if you have super realistic dream sequences where no weird shit happens, but you’ve clearly signified that it’s a dream, you should be fine. Even better, if it’s brief!
Okay, I think I’ve insulted enough of my fellow writers with my judgmental bullshit. If you feel called out, I’m sorry! I respect you and your dream scenes, and I recognize that my opinion says nothing about your ability to write and the quality of your stories, so please do not take this rant as an attack.
I’ve heard from a lot of writers on twitter on this topic. You may even be one of them! But if you have more thoughts on the subject, I’d love to hear them. Do you have examples where dream sequences were done well? Have you written them yourself and want to defend their honour with a rant of your own? Do you have a blog post on the subject you’d like me to link to? Hit me up! Comment here, or contact me on Twitter — my DMs are open, as long as you’re not trying to sell me shit! Good luck! ♡♡♡
More Writing Articles by Sam Clover
Sam Clover is an author of M/M speculative fiction. Though she dabbles in a variety of genres, dark themes always find ways to permeate her work. She is a prairie girl from east of the Canadian Rockies, and a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community. Her debut book “Cold Snap” was released by Ninestar Press in December of 2020.