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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » How do you pull off a dream?

Author Topic: How do you pull off a dream?
Member # 5562

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My short story begins with a character dreaming about a girl he has never met. The dreaming is paramount to what I'm trying to get across, but I feel awkward beginning the story like this. I feel like I might be cheating the readers because they will definitely assume the dream is reality when they read it. Is it possible to really pull off an opening of a story with a dream sequence, or should I just step back a couple of moments before jumping into the dream?


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My personal view is that deram sequences are VERY difficult to pull off successfully. If you portray a deram sequence as reality, you risk losing the trust of the reader when you reveal it's a dream (I for one am sick and tired of horror films using dreams to create moments of shock) - if that was a dream, then how do I know this isn't "real" either? Indeed, dreams (like prophecies) all too readily smack of authorial manipulation, of setting the pieces on the board, of driving characters to do things that they otherwise wouldn't ("you have to do this! it's your destiny!"). That's not to say you shouldn't have dreams in a story, though - I can think of two instances where I've used them very deliberately as part of the plot - but you just have to be very careful about how you let the read know what is dream and what is not, and whether you "immerse" the reader in the dream (which will depend on POV to some extent). To take specific examples; I have one story where one of the main characters dreams about another of the main characters, but it turns out that he has been "fed" the dreams by the antagonist to manipulate him into doing certain things. In that one I never go into the dreams, I deliberately use telling NOT showing, because the dreams aren't really his. By contrast, in the other story, the dreams are totally imersive, because they are the escape that the protagonist uses to deal with the harsh realities of her life, and serve to provide counterpoint and contrast - so while I let the reader know they are dreams, I continue to use them almost as a parallel narative of how she wants her life to go.
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Robert Nowall
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Member # 8019

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Dream scenes and any other form of virtual reality scenes don't fly well with readers because when ineffectively handled they're typically written in such a way that they disengage a reader's connection to a story. A reader has emotionally invested in what seems a realistic experience, only to find that it wasn't authentic. As a result of reading so many ineffective dream scenes, many readers reject a story with them out of hand. So there's that complication to overcome.

One way to deflect that is to relate that it's a dream scene right up front and have the dream be relevant to the plot. Say, a recurring nightmare that haunts the protagonist, that's related to the dramatic premise. As long as the dream logically follows the setup of the dramatic premise and is causally entrained, a dream scene can be a useful, emotionally stimulating scene.

One other related issue with beginning a story with a dream scene is it can too easily be a form of Dischism, where the writer's writing environment intrudes into the story. The protagonist waking up at the beginning of a story is a reflection of the writer actually waking up and sitting down to write, or a symbolic awakening of the writer's writing persona sitting down to write. When the writer's presence is apparent in a story, suspension of disbelief is jeopardized. A reader will disengage.

My latest and perhaps final, significant writing epiphany is the writer must (yes, another of a very few musts in storytelling) must, in most cases, be totally absent from the frame of a story. Kurt Vonnegut couldn't stay out of his stories. He treated the Fourth Wall like it was made to be talked through, and he did so effectively. But I can only take so much of that. It smacks of visual media's voiceovers poaching on the close psychic access dominion of the written word.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited October 20, 2008).]

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Member # 3619

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Dreams are fine. They're just rarely a compelling way to begin a story. But often, I think, the most successful dream sequences will be fast, summarizing the experience mostly, and allowing the reader to fly through at a fast speed. Catching the essence and feel of it more than the exact details.
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Member # 3261

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As long as it is clear from the beginning that it is a dream, I'd give one a chance. While common wisdom is DON'T start with a dream, sometimes that IS the best place to start. The problem is lots of writers try starting there when it's the wrong place.

A dream sequence has to be like everything else you write, but more so: tight, evocative and moving the story along. The next scene has to be intimately connected to the dream. Because veteran editors are going to have passed on a dozen dream or wake up starts before getting to yours that day, your 13 really have to be perfect and convince them that the dream is necessary.

If you can start without the dream and work into it, you might be better off. But only you are going to be able to tell that for sure.

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Member # 8250

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Starting with a dream is tricky, especially in a speculative story, because even if strange things happen, it's not clear that those strange things aren't impossible in this story world. If you start with the real world, and then go into the dream, then you'll have established a baseline of reality to compare to.

Dreams can be used very effectively in a variety of ways, but I would only use them if they serve a specific purpose. For instance, prophetic dreams, or dreams which show an underlying emotion the character may not be totally aware of.

And I'll doubly second extrinisic's mention of Dischism where the writer's environment intrudes on the story. I've heard from some slush readers that they groan in frustration any time a story starts with the character waking up. You'd do yourself a favor by not starting stories this way, so the slush readers don't start reading the story predisposed to disliking it. Another example of Dischism is starting the story with an empty totally-white room (a metaphor for the empty page ahead of the writer).

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Member # 5136

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I agree with Kings Falcon. A dream opening can be done if it's made clear to the reader, and not meant to mislead him. For instance:

In my story, The Surrogate,I opened with:

"She was beautiful, the girl in his dreams, and she was naked with tiny transparent wings sprouting from her shoulders."

Following more dream details, the second paragraph began:

"When he woke, rats were gnawing at the dried vomit caked to his chest and matted within his tangled beard."

Later in the story The MC meets someone resembling the the girl in his dreams.

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Member # 7974

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Eww. Moving on.

The problems with italics are (1)some people cannot differentiate between regular and italicized text and (2)those of us who can usually don't want to read an entire paragraph or more in italics.

Chris, if you are certain you want to open in a dream, I agree with others that you need to immediately tell your readers the scene is a dream. "MC moved through his dream as if in a mist, stepping with caution until the forest around him solidified as an image." Or some such.

As for the waking up problem, you could start the second scene with your POV character pondering his dream well after awakening while he's in the middle of an activity relevant to your story. That way, he's out of bed (or wherever) and you're already into showing the parts of your story's "real" world or the other characters who matter. Remember, though, you'll again risk losing a reader's interest if the character ponders for long.

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Member # 8250

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I've got to agree with aspirit on the subject of italics. A sentence or word in italics is okay for me, but a paragraph or more is hard to take.
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The problem I see with dream segments, particularly as an opener, is they are horribly cliche. My observation has been that the vast majority of times a dream segment is used as an opener has been lack of experience and/or skill on the part of the writer, not that it is the most effective tool.

Be sure you've done an honest analysis of your story to find the most compelling opener possible, and consider that a dream sequence may not be as powerful as you would like (and need it to be.)

Then, if you decide it's integral to the rest of the story as is, consider keeping it very VERY short...

Just a couple of suggestions.

[This message has been edited by Elan (edited October 21, 2008).]

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Member # 2714

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Could you have the MC tell another character about the dream while they're doing something else? Let it be a way to develop both characters as well as get the information about the dream to the reader?
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I once used dream-like drug infused dementia to describe the Character's change in character (stupid sentence, I know). The point is I tried to make his experiences accumulate over time and to make him change in a short time when he realized those the impact of those experiences. Still trying to make it work, though.
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Member # 5562

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Thanks for the replies everybody. I decided to mix another element to the story-- the protagonist's past-- with the setting and open with that instead. The dream is still toward the beginning of the story, but I made sure I defined what was real and what wasn't.

I had been using italics to write the dreams, but I don't think I like them anymore than you do, aspirit. Is there another way you would suggest doing to differentiate the dream from reality? I am already explicitly saying its a dream in the first sentence.

Thanks again for the responses, everybody.

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Member # 8250

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If you're explicitly saying it is a dream, I don't think it needs to be offset any more than that, especially if it's clear where the dream ends again.
You could have a separate section for it, separated by # but I don't think that's strictly necessary.

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Member # 7974

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In one of my stories, the 17-year-old MC dreams of a traumatic experience from his early childhood, and the memory of the experience, forgotten until his subconscious stumbled upon it in his sleep, forced him to look at his current decisions in a new light. To emphasize the surrealism of the dream, I used a different tense (present instead of past) and shorter sentences than the rest of the story. I liked the result. However, I don't recall seeing this technique used in published works and the dream is in the middle of a novel. You may confuse or irritate readers by changing tenses dramatically in a short story.

Therefore, I agree with steffenwolf. If you're clear where the dream begins and ends, then you don’t need to differentiate in another way. If the dream were long (as in multiple pages) or easily confused as reality, then I would recommend treating the dream as a separate scene, with a space (#) before and after.

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Bent Tree
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I have been considering mentioning the dream in a dialogue with another character. It seemed to me a better way to lay out key info without the whole dream sequence which tends to be problematic. Just a notion. I personally do not like being confused in scene changes involved in dream sequences and typically feel an entire dream is not relevant to a story and in short stories content is really important.

In the past I have blended recollections of dreams into the exposition which seems to work well, again this is a way to add the key elements of the dream which have relevance to the story in effective points in the story where the pov character actually regards the dream.

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Member # 7977

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On the issue of starting with a dream, although it is difficult, I think it can definitely be pulled off in a way that is both realistic AND that doesn't break the reader's trust, even without explicitly saying "This is a dream."

It's hard, but I think that it is very, very doable. The key, in my opinion, is that there are things that are very specifically dreamlike, no matter what the specfi nature of the world. When done well, it is more of a window into the psyche. Never tried it at the beginning of a story, but I think it can be done.

POV is important - first person for a dream is easiest, but strictly limited third person works as well. Key things that stand out to make something a dream, IMHO:
1. Seeing one person over and over no matter where you go, but she doesn't seem to be following you.
2. Appearance of a family member that doesn't make sense.
3. Dreamlike frequent, frustrating failure that can't be averted
4. Sudden unexplained change of location that doesn't confuse the character at all.

I'm sure there are others... just off the top of my head. These are also easy things to make cheesy, so you have to be careful. Dreams can be done well, and probably even as an intro. Good luck with it.

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Member # 8250

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But if you're starting a speculative fiction story in a dream, I don't think it would be clear whether those strange elements were part of a dream or part of another world where strange rules may apply. For instance seeing one person over and over, could be a dream, or a psychic projection, or clones, or androids, or drug-induced hallucination. By starting in a dream, the reader has no "reality" to ground themselves in, so any surrealism elements of a surreal reality, rather than a dream.

This would be a different story if you were writing mainstream where you can rule out at least some of these possibilities.

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