It’s a First Friday again! A Drift of Quills comes together again, this time to air our lofty opinions about dreams in fiction. Are they good or bad? And joining us today we have author Gregory S. Close. You might remember him from the book I recently reviewed over here. Please give him a warm welcome!
GREGORY S. CLOSE
Author of In Siege of Daylight, Book 1 of Light, Dark & Shadow
A dream sequence can create an ethereal mood of otherworldliness, reveal hidden truths, foreshadow victory or doom, or even represent a second, hidden realm that parallels the waking world. That can all be very cool. It can also go very wrong, very easily.
Three good questions to ask:
What is it about the dream sequence that is necessary for the plot to unfold? Is the dream conveying information to the characters, or revealing an internal fear or truth? Could the characters (and the readers) possibly get this same information in a more mundane way?
Is it internally consistent?
If a character has a prophetic dream, for example, is it just the one prophetic dream? You know, the dream that propels said character into the story by revealing the MacGuffin or warning of the Big Bad Evil? Because once the character has one prophetic dream, you’d better be prepared to explain why more prophetic dreams aren’t coming to warn about the assassin in the woods, the dastardly traitor in their midst or the hot sauce someone snuck into the king’s stew.
Does it develop a character?
It’s possible that dreams are not at all related to the overall plot, but are more centered on illuminating the psyche of a character. Perhaps the villain is tortured by dreams, or a noble hero could be haunted by them. Either way, the dream itself can be a canvas to illustrate traits of the character and drive them to action (or explain inaction).
As an author it’s important to be honest with your reader. You can lie, of course, that’s part of the job, but you should at least lie honestly. In other words, the lie must be true to the story and not simply there for the sake of itself, for shock value alone. You can be tricky, but you can’t betray the reader’s trust.
So lie well, and dream big.
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My Two Cents
Dreams can be such marvelous, intricate, eye-opening, exhilarating, or terrifying occurrences. They can inspire us to do things, be things—or write things. Do they belong in fiction? Are they useful as plot devices? Well… it depends!
Dreaming is a natural thing in our world, so it makes sense that the characters we read about have dreams. Sometimes. Many tales have been based in completely in a dream world: Alice in Wonderland; The Wizard of Oz; The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever… Others incorporate dream worlds as another plane or alternate reality (The Black Company, Otherland). And others still use dreams “inline.” They can be very powerful plot devices.
You know what a plot device is, right? No? Wikipedia has a good answer: “A plot device is a means of advancing the plot in a story, often used to motivate characters, create urgency, or resolve a difficulty.”
So, powerful — or completely and utterly clichéd.
“The greatest mistake in using dreams in your fiction is to make the plot require the dream.” (Nancy Kress, Dynamic Characters)
What are some of the essential rules guidelines?
- Don’t use a dream to reveal a piece of critical information. While our subconscious might trap important information we might not have access to in real life, fiction is not real life. Credibility is strained when our heroic wizard just so happens to dream the exact location of the Top Secret Book of Magic Spells that’s been missing for millennia.
- Do use a short dream (1–2 paragraphs) as a detail that contributes to characterization. If the character is under a lot of stress, it’s completely logical for her to dream—and the dream can serve beautifully to underscore the trauma she is going through and give valuable character insight. One short sentence is usually best: “Deryk woke from a panic-inducing dream of eyes glowing in the dark and leathery wings rustling.”
- Don’t pretend you’re Sigmund Freud. Dreams in fiction are commonly symbolic, but be sparing and not so clever that no one else sees the connection. We are not all trained at psychoanalysis. Our eyes may glaze over.
- Do use remembered or recurring dreams to make circumstances more graphic. The comparison of the dream to the current situation can add color and emotion. If our wizard used to dream about crows sitting on a wall watching him intently, we can better imagine the scene in which he’s being interrogated by the black-robed Board of Wizard Behavior.
Me? I like dreams in fiction, but they must be used well. And sparingly.
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Author of the short story, Sanguis Dei and a poetry collection, Light and Dark
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub: For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause…
— Shakespeare, Hamlet
Are dreams used as plot devices good or bad? I think I can give a resounding “Yes!” for they are… (READ MORE!)
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Author of Oathtaker
(Patricia has been taken hostage by “real life.” Hopefully, she will recover soon!)