Much of the challenge of fiction writing comes down to the inherent difficulty of rendering situations realistically using only words.
And while it can be difficult enough to conjure real-world scenarios in a believable fashion, the task can get exponentially harder when you add more fantastical elements into the mix.
Genres like science fiction and fantasy can create colorful, imaginative worlds, but extra effort is required to make some of their crazier components click in the minds of readers. Even far-flung cosmic adventures like Star Wars or noble-minded magical quests like The Lord of the Rings have some sort of internal logic that keeps them consistent, if not terribly realistic.
And usually, that’s the name of the game—consistency.
We’ve talked in the past about the importance of maintaining consistency in your fiction: regular tone, characterization, naming conventions… the list goes on.
But what do you do in situations that demand inconsistency? How do you apply logic where logic cannot apply? How do you make true chaos believable?
In other words: how do you write a “realistic” dream sequence?
What Makes a Great Dream Sequence?
Dreams have always provided authors, filmmakers, and storytellers of all kinds with fascinating material from which to work their magic.
Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí famously based many of his most well-known paintings on his own dreams; author Stephen King drew inspiration for his novel Misery from a dream he had on a flight; and director Christopher Nolan based the entirety of film Inception on the mechanics of dreams and dream-consciousness.
I myself have based several books and stories off of material that came to me in dreams. Maybe you’ve included dream-matter in your own writing as well, at least subconsciously.
You’d think, therefore, that dreams would be an easy thing to write about. After all, everybody dreams. What’s more common to the human experience than our vivid, nightly hallucinations?
But dreams’ colorful and chaotic nature—the same thing that makes them so vibrant and interesting—is also what makes them difficult to “realistically” describe.
Poorly written dream sequences generally fall into one of two traps:
- The sequence behaves like a “true” dream, throwing reality and logic to the wind in favor of assaulting the reader with surreal imagery and madhouse-brand chaos. This is effective if all you’re trying to do is show your readers a psychedelic good time—but this sort of Pink Elephant imagery doesn’t do much to serve your story or characters.
- The sequence behaves more like reality—or at least uses reality’s logic. The scene is therefore much better able to service the characters and plot, but loses the fantastical qualities that make dream sequences so special. The sequence might as well not be a dream at all, as far as the execution is concerned.
A middle ground, therefore, must be found—and lucky you, because we’re here today to tell you just how to walk that delicate tightrope between grounded and goofy.
Grab your teddy bear and put head to pillow, folks, because things are about to get… dreamy.
Editor’s Note: For the purposes of this exercise, we will only be covering “true” dreams, or those experienced during REM sleep. No drug-induced hallucinations, no mirages, no daydreams, no spirit-quests, no hypnotherapy… just garden-variety dreams here.
4 Uses for Dreams in Your Fiction
Like we said before, dream sequences need to be more than a page or two of trippy imagery. Dream sequences are scenes—and they need to act like them, helping develop your plot or characters in some way.
So before you start writing your dream-scene, know what you intend to accomplish with the dream.
Dreams can play a variety of roles in your fiction; here are 4 ways you can use a dream sequence to move your story forward.
1. The Realization Dream
Maybe a character is incapable of putting together certain pieces of evidence in his waking life, but in the midst of a dream’s storm-and-chaos, the pieces fall into place for her. Or perhaps her latent desires, masked by politeness and strict conscience in the waking world, are thrown into sharp relief in a vivid dream in true Freudian style.
In a Realization Dream, something must “click” for a character in a dream, something they couldn’t figure out while awake.
2. The Internal Conflict Dream
A character struggling with an impossible choice might very well dream about it—and in fantastical style, no less.
My favorite example of this is a certain Amazing Spider-Man comic in which Spidey finds himself torn between two worlds… and when he dreams, “light” and “dark” versions of his iconic costume come to life and literally pull his body in two different directions.
Using a dream sequence to colorfully illustrate internal turmoil can give a face to a character’s agony. Remember: show, don’t tell.
3. The Foreshadowing Dream
Also called the “prophetic dream,” this sequence gives a character a glimpse of the future while he sleeps. This particular effect can range from mere hints at events to come—for instance, a character dreams about a ghastly trial where horrible evidence is brought against him, then wakes up and gets dressed down by his overbearing girlfriend—or outright prophesy.
In either case, this dream type should be used sparingly, and with extreme caution: if your characters are able to accurately predict the future with any sort of consistency, it can drain the tension right out of your story!
4. The Communication Dream
Also known as a “shared” or “linked” dream, this conceit comes from the popular (and rather common) notion that people are somehow able to communicate with one another via their dreams.
When used literally—usually in a more fantasy-oriented setting—the Communication Dream can be used either to demonstrate the close emotional bond between siblings, friends, or lovers, or simply to relay important information across vast distances without the use of communication technology.
Or, if the dream isn’t actually “shared,” it can allow one character to say something to another character that she could never say in person, creating a moment of catharsis.
Here’s a rule of thumb for any type of dream sequence: before you begin writing your dream sequence, ask yourself exactly why you’re including it.
If you can’t answer further than, “Because it’ll be awesome,” then the sequence probably isn’t necessary to your story.
Three Tips for Writing Killer Dream Sequences
Now that you know how to use a dream sequence in your writing, let’s check out some top tips for making those dreamy interludes shine.
1. Apply Logic… Sort Of
You’ve probably heard writers and critics alike refer to how certain scenes accurately capture “dream logic,” or the fact that dreams seemingly operate on no logic at all.
That’s the keyword, however: “seemingly.”
Remember again that you’re writing a scene first, a scene that your readers need to be able to follow—at least somewhat. The same way that science fiction and fantasy stories maintain a kind of internal logic to keep readers engaged and up to speed, your dream sequence needs to establish its own brand of consistent “dream logic” to ensure that the scene actually functions as a scene.
Even the most surreal and chaotic dreamscape needs some sort of through-line that ties it all together: as bananas as dreams get sometimes, they still have a narrative of some sort.
Even if you decide that your story would be best served by a wildly inconsistent dream sequence, you can at least be consistent in your inconsistency. Basically, keep the chaos running at the same level at all times, and the events within will hold some semblance of internal consistency—even if they’re actually coming apart at the seams.
2. Use Narrative Distance
You’ve no doubt heard of the classic “out-of-body experience” dream, where the dreamer watches their own actions as though they are a spectator instead of being “in the driver’s seat.”
Well, there’s a way to capture that floaty, out-to-lunch feeling in fiction using a narrative technique called narrative distance.
Narrative distance, or “perspective distance,” refers to the implied “space” between the reader and the narrator or character in the story. Are your readers privy to the narrator’s private thoughts or opinions about the goings-on in your book? Does he or she have a distinct personality—or even agency in the story, to a degree?
If so, that’s close narrative distance.
First-person perspective has the closest and most intimate narrative distance, but third-person has varying degrees of this as well. Can your third-person narrator omnisciently “hear” the thoughts of all your major characters—or does the narration function more like a camera lens, observing the action only on a surface level? Or can the narrator only “hear” the inner monologue of one central character? Or maybe a chosen few? All these decisions affect the narrative distance of your story.
But how does this apply to dream sequences? Well, in order to create that floaty, dreamlike feel, simply increase the narrative distance in your story for the duration of the scene. If you’ve got a first-person narrator, switch to third-person limited. If you’re already in third-person limited, “pan out” further—go for that action-oriented, cinematic viewpoint we described earlier.
Your goal is create a shift in perspective so radical that it makes your readers feel like they’re dreaming as well. “Zoom out” from the dream’s events, set your character loose inside—and watch the mayhem begin from afar.
3. Use a Little Detail… or a Lot
There are, to my mind, two basic settings for fictional dreams.
First, there are the dreams that take place in vast voids with little detail and only a few characters and concrete objects within them. This creates an empty, lonely, and often eerie atmosphere, appropriate for both nightmares and reflection.
But these dream-voids aren’t merely seen, they’re experienced—and a very specific type of writing is required to simulate that experience on paper.
In this sort of dream, a lamp should go from “the lamp with the gold-colored lampshade and the base shaped like a crouching cat” to simply “a lamp on a low desk.”
Be vague. Be infuriatingly vague. Withhold details. Use sentence fragments. Leave gaps in your descriptions for your readers to fill in: after all, that’s what they’d do if the dream belonged to them!
The other kind of dream turns everything up several notches: the noise, the saturation, the colors, the mayhem… These dreams feel overcrowded, bursting at the seams, difficult to navigate without stepping on (or in) something unpleasant.
These are a different sort of nightmare: use them to communicate stress or illness or indecision, the product of a split, fractured, or divided mind.
Embrace that chaos in your writing. Go into detail overload. Describe things in florid or grotesque fashion, especially things that wouldn’t normally be either florid or grotesque. Have random, surreal elements intrude into the central narrative of the dream, and make sure these intrusions are as unpleasant as possible. Make your readers uneasy with their descriptions.
Not only does this overblown style suit surreal imagery, but it can make even ordinary scenery feel fevered and dreamlike.
A word of warning, however: exercise at least a smidge of restraint here. You may want your fever-dream sequence to be unpleasant, yes—but not so awful that your readers simply walk away.
A Final Thought
Don’t treat these rules like rules. Dreams are so scattered and mysterious that we’d never pretend to know the One Right Way to render them on the page.
But next time you’re writing a dream sequence in one of your stories, keep these guidelines in mind, and you’ll be well-prepared and well-armed to create a memorable—and dreamlike—experience for your readers.
Happy writing, authors of the world—and, of course, sleep well.
And if you’re looking for more high-quality fiction tips, read on: