why don’t we like dreams in fiction?

One of the things I love about reading is that it makes me ask a lot of questions: why do I love this? Why do I hate that? What makes this archetype attractive to me and this other one less so? The more I thought about the kind of craft posts I wanted to write, the more I realized it’d be most natural to just write this stuff the way I think about it, which is asking myself questions and then answering them.

So, welcome to my latest reincarnation of craft talks, in which I ask myself questions about why I like or don’t like stuff in fiction and then answer them.

Today’s question du jour is: how do you write a dream that your reader is invested in and doesn’t skip or get frustrated by? More specifically: what makes an effective dream and what makes a frustrating one? Is including dreams in fiction worth it?

Some positives to dreams are that they’re a compact little scene where you can play around in a different world beyond the waking one. Maybe dreams are part of your magic system, or maybe your character has a mysterious dream that plagues them that they can’t figure out. Certainly for us as real people, dreams are something we want to have meaning or, at least, we either ascribe meaning to or at the very least, dreams invite us to ask questions. They blur the boundary between the subconscious and the conscious minds. They’re just plain neat!

But a lot of times with dreams it’s easy to make the reader feel frustrated or pulled out of the story. Personally, there are very few dreams in fiction that I have enjoyed reading, because most of the ones that I encounter don’t have much of a purpose.

Let’s dig in a little more.

The big question I have in mind here is: what’s the dream’s endgame? If it’s a cheap scare– oh my god, someone I love is dead! everyone is naked! aliens are invading! worst case scenarios!– then as soon as the reader cottons on to their being in a dream, it’s game over for your emotional stakes.

Why? Say it’s the night before the final battle and the new chapter begins with the protagonist watching their friends die as the antagonist laughs. Sounds plausible, yeah? You’re no stranger to making your reader squirm: you’re killing people after you’ve made us care about them (as you should), you’re not making it completely out of the blue (it’s happening before a battle), and it’s a very possible thing that could happen. We might confuse it with reality.

Here’s how I’m going to feel when I figure out it’s a dream, though: bored. I’m going to be suspicious that all these important characters (and they should be important if you want their deaths to mean something to the reader) are dying either off-screen or with little fanfare, and then once I figure out that we’re in a bad dream, I’m not going to take any of the action that happens after that realization seriously. It’s going to be tedious to wait for the dreamer to figure that out and deal with the melodrama in the meantime.

One of my big tenets in writing is to trust the reader. This can also be read as: be wary of your reader’s intelligence when you’re trying to play tricks on them. Your audience is smart. Respect that. Maybe some people won’t realize they’re in a dream, but assume some do, even when you’ve revised and you know the dream is at its best. Does the scene still hold up? Or are you relying on jump scares for your effect?

So my question is: why are you putting this dream here? Is it to remind the reader of what’s at stake if the protagonist fails? Chances are, you have that built into the story in other ways (if not, there’s a great starting point for revision). Is it for fun/your own enjoyment? I might be biased as an affirmed dream-hater, but for me, if it goes in the manuscript it’s got to be pulling at least double its weight.

Here are two hard truths:

1) Everything that ends up in the final/people-safe draft should be something you enjoy (no, you do not have to enjoy getting there).

2) The book isn’t for you.

If you’re just popping in a dream because you need to fluff up a word count (we’ve all been there), got tired of playing in the world you normally hang out in, or just felt mentally exhausted and wanted to show the characters from other angles, then cool. The dream is a writing exercise; it doesn’t belong in the final. Cut it.

And sidenote: in general, if you’re hating a scene, ask yourself why! You’re the one in charge here, you can change it to be anything you like. What I’m trying to say is that, there are better ways you can sneak in the information you’re using the dream to communicate, and you might be doing them already.

Also, if you know you’re going to make your readers mad at you, the writer, for including a dream and literally toying with their emotions or boring them when they realize it’s not real and they don’t have to care, then…why do that? The book isn’t for you. You get to write it (and that’s awesome), but ultimately, you’re not the one the end product is meant for. What your reader wants is important. The goal is to help them put the pieces together, not hit them over the head with emotional wrecking balls and then say “jk! it was all a dream!” That just damages your credibility with your audience.

And okay, obvious disclaimer: if you’re writing stuff just for yourself, then do whatever. Rock and roll, buddy– your audience is you. But if you’re looking at making stuff and sharing it with other people, then I’d suggest, you know, thinking about what those other people are like and what they want.

And answers vary! I write for and about smart people who build things to fight monsters. That’s it, that’s my whole entire brand. It’s general, because I like a lot of different genres, but it’s also pretty specific: I write stuff for readers who like tricky, intricate puzzles and who want a strong emotional arc, in whatever form those things manifest. It’s not a specific demographic, but it’s enough that I can tell you what my audience is and isn’t going to dig.

And I know the emotional below-the-belt punch is not going to fly. My reader would expect something more satisfying than that.

It begs the question: what makes a satisfying dream?

I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few scenarios where I could see dreaming being useful: if your magic system or world or what-have-you relies on dreams as a mode of communication (think: SHADOW OF THE FOX by Julie Kagawa, aasimar and their deva guides, if you’re doing an Endymion retelling and it’s literally in the OG myth, etc), or if the dream is a reflection of the dreamer’s id or subconscious in an interesting and unexpected way and also conveys something important that the reader may not be able to understand or grasp the significance of (the prophecy/foreshadowing angle).

What’s different? If you’re communicating in the dream world or if your character knows that they’re dreaming and this lucidity doesn’t defeat the stakes, then awesome– the events in the dream are influencing what happens in the real world (e.g. Endymion meets the Moon, falls in love, and decides to spend the rest of his life asleep) and this moves the story forward.

If physical woes carry over from dream state to waking state (e.g. protagonist is a magical girl saving a city in her dream world, she’s awesome and a hero, but all her cuts and bruises from defeating monsters carry over into her waking life) or if the emotional stress of the dream/fantasy state influences the real world (e.g. a group of friends play a TTRPG, one of their characters dies, and the person playing the dead character gets steamed af at the other players who let their character just die), then we don’t see the same disruption in stakes as we would with a garden variety dream because what happens in the dream state matters. You can’t cut the dream out, because the dream has become what moves the story forward. Maybe that’s my litmus test for “do we keep the dream or not?”

Notice also that in these cases it doesn’t particularly matter anymore if the reader figures out that we’re dreaming– we’re in another world/state of being, sure, but actions still have consequences. Maybe they’re not always physical ones, but sometimes the emotional fallout is worse. I’ve probably said this a million times, but if it costs you something (goodwill between friends, physical wellbeing, magic) it tends to be compelling.

Last, let’s talk about dreams as foreshadowing. This is the other thing that I see a lot of in fiction, beyond a false reality scenario. And prophetic dreams can be really cool! My question here is more: how do you still keep this fun for the reader? If we’re getting dreams of this wholesome peasant girl dancing around in ballgowns and being crowed empress of all Russia, then it’s not really going to shock us to learn later that she’s Anastasia.

For this, take cues from what your own dreams (the ones you, as a person, have when you are sleeping) are like. Make your reader work to figure out what dreams mean, if they mean anything at all! Maybe the dream is communicating something is about to happen, but maybe it’s done so weirdly that the dreamer only gets a feeling and not an in-depth meteorological forecast of the future.

Like: you stumble into a kitchen. You don’t know why you’ve been running, but it’s important that you are hidden. There’s a young man working some dough in a bowl, a careless streak of flour down his cheek and tousled hair. He’s also kinda confused why you’re here, but the oven is heating up, there’s herbs growing on the window sill as it rains outside, and the dark wood cupboards give the room a cozy look. He gives you a look and motions for you to hide under the table with its long white tablecloth. You do so, thanking him, and he puts a finger to his lips. There’s the sound of measuring cups, then the people who were chasing you surge into the kitchen, sounding very important and questioning the young man about you. He’s annoyed that he’s being bothered in the middle of his work and gives them wrong directions. When they’ve left, he gives you the all-clear, then sends you on your way with a thumbs-up and a croissant from the basket on the table. It tastes melt-in-your-mouth good as you run through lavender fields outside the cottage and into the mists. You wake up, surprisingly grateful, and get back to work on the project you’ve been stressing about.

It’s that kind of subtlety that I think you’re looking for. You could sneak more foreshadowing into that (maybe the dreamer has the opportunity to do something kind for someone else, or meets someone with a birthmark under their eye and feels kindly toward them), but we’re not watching the dream to know what happens next– we’re watching it to know how the character feels. Maybe a more ruthless character is a little more inclined toward kindness after a dream like that and it influences the way the they treat the people around them.

Because, again, your reader is smart. They’ve seen a ton of dreams too, and chances are they know the same narrative tricks you do. If you want to give them something to think about, then kick it up a level.

And those are my thoughts on dreams: ease off the worst-case gotcha! moments and lean more into the weird emotional angles and the stuff that carries over into the waking world and creates change there. At the end of the day, you are playing the stakes game: how can I manipulate the reader’s emotions in way that’s going to be most satisfying long-term?

If you liked this and want to cajole me into making more craft posts via monetary encouragement, behold, I have a Ko-fi! If these Uncertain Times™ are not ~finding you well~ then nbd fam, I’m just glad you’re here.

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Now get out there and make stuff.

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