Writers are often tempted to pen dream sequences and hallucinations. And for good reason! Reading a novel itself feels a bit like a dream, and writers want to take full advantage of the medium, which allows us to get inside a character’s head in an unparalleled way.
But you should proceed with the utmost caution.
Once you start undermining the reality of a novel it becomes difficult for the reader to assume anything is real. After a dream sequence, from that point on the reader is going to have in the back of their mind: “Is this a dream? Is the character hallucinating?”
Here are some tips on including dreams and hallucinations in novels.
Think twice about including them in the first place
To be totally honest with you, most dream sequences and hallucinations tend to feel pretty self-indulgent. They are often writing for writing’s sake and authors often use them as a chance to flex their writing muscles.
They almost always fall into an awkward nether region akin to the problem with including intentional symbolism. If it’s super obvious what we’re supposed to take away from a dream sequence the reader might feel a bit beaten over the head, and if it’s not obvious what we’re supposed to take away… well, we’re not really taking anything away.
Don’t get me wrong. There are great dream sequences in novels and sometimes they can punctuate a transcendent moment or create tension and suspense. Just be honest with yourself about whether you really need them.
Keep the dream or hallucination tightly contained
Unless you’re writing something along the lines of magical realism, where the boundaries between waking and dream life are intentionally blurry, in order to avoid disorienting the reader you should try to keep the dream/hallucination tightly bound and contained.
Basically: It’s clear the reader was asleep/out of it, now it’s clear they’re awake/lucid.
This means avoiding “rug pulling” techniques where the dream exists solely to trick the reader. These tend to be pretty cheap plot devices on TV shows, but they’re even worse in novels because of how much harder it is for a reader to suspend disbelief and get into a flow losing themselves in the world of the novel.
Trickery shakes that flow by revealing the hand of the author, and it can be hard to get it back.
Know what you’re trying to achieve
Don’t approach dreams lightly!
This is kind of ironic advice because dreams are the among the most mysterious and elusive elements of life itself, but you should be very, very intentional with your dream sequences in novels.
Don’t just include a dream sequence because you want to invoke a “mood” or because you want to be writerly. Understand how it fits in the story.
This means that the dream should be relevant to the story. It should have a “real world” impact on the character that helps the reader contextualize why we saw it and keeps it further self-contained.
Do you have any thoughts on dream sequences in novels? Tips for writing good ones? Take to the comments!
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Art: Antonio de Pereda – El sueño del caballero