Saturday, May 2, 2009

Counter Point: Dreams in Fiction

Batman is told in the Language of Dreams

I enjoyed the blog Alex posted on mistakes beginning writers make. I could laugh along as I read the blog because I could recall reading many of those “mistakes” and hating them. I probably would not throw the book across the room, but it might receive a more silent death. It is so easy to just shut a book and never pick it back up again. That’s the silent death many stories suffer, at least if they do not speak to me.

But, I don’t think we should write in fear. That’s not how the creative process works.

Do you write with a DON’T LIST in your head:

don’t write too many POV’s,
don’t write adjectives,
don’t repeat,
don’t write in passive voice,
don’t take too long to get to the action,
don’t write too much description,
don’t, by God, do not write backstory in the first chapter,
do not info dump,

(And the list goes on and on and on.)

Who could write with so many don’ts in their head?

I think the key is to do whatever you do well. I repeat: Whatever you do, you had better do it well. Do it the best damn way you can. Make it fly and feel, make it you.

So, I challenge all of you to look for exceptions to the rule of don’t. Find a beautiful black swan.

What made that bit of writing so great even though it did what you are not supposed to do?

Compare that to a bit of writing that broke the rule and then we have something to talk about.

So, let’s talk about writing dreams.

First off, I need to say that I take the rule of don’t write dreams at the start of a story personally.

Why? Uh, well, because chapter two of my fantasy novel starts with a dream. It’s not a long dream, but it’s a dream. In fact, it is a waking moment. Wouldn’t it be too bad if someone had that rule in their head when they read that chapter and thought I AM NOT SUPPOSED TO LIKE THIS BECAUSE IT IS A DREAM. DREAMS DON'T BELONG IN FICTION, ESPECIALLY THE START OF A STORY!

Who am I to speak of dreams and fiction?

Let’s turn to a master of fantasy fiction, one who has been called The American Tolkien; one who has won the most prestigious awards fantasy fiction guilds can offer: George R.R. Martin.

On his official website—under the banner titled “Musings”—the dream weaver writes:

The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real ... for a moment at least ... that long magic moment before we wake. ... Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines.

To Summarize:

I think we should all challenge these rules by looking for exceptions that work, most especially when it comes to writing dreams.

A Concession:

So, let me offer a few examples of dreams in fiction that I think work. But, just in case you really hate dreams in fiction, let me concede that it is lame to trick a reader into believing a story is real only to say, in the end, “It was all just a dream.”

Examples of Dreams in Fiction that Work:

1. I recall that my favorite Batman movie, BATMAN BEGINS, starts with a dream.

It’s all about a terrifying boyhood moment (being trapped in a well with bats flying and shrieking all around). The memory haunts Bruce Wayne's dreams.

One thing I love about this movie is that it is a story of how the hero faced his fear, how he embraced it and made it his own. In Jungian terms, he faced the shadow.

2. Harry Potter has dreams that take him into Voldemort’s point of view.

I love that point of view trick because it is like spying on the bad guy, but it also shows how Harry is connected to the dark villain in ways that he does not understand and can not control. There’s a sense of danger and discovery to his dreams.

3. Everyone has their favorite authors. George R.R. Martin is one of mine.

His book A Game of Thrones won the big fantasy award. In it a boy named Bran has dreams of a crow that speaks to him, as he falls and falls and falls, possibly to his death.

As strange as it sounds, the crow tells him to fly or die.

(If you are interested in how to write dreams read that book! The chapters with Bran's dreams are remarkable.)

I could go on and on describing great dreams in fiction. Some would be at the start of a story, and others would not, but in my mind a dream is a dream and it really does not matter where it is placed.

Admittedly, I’ve focused my examples on fantasy fiction. But, I don’t see why the argument for dreams should be limited to fantasy fiction though. The reason for that is dreams are a part of reality and they take us deep into our submerged desires and fears. What could be more interesting to write about than desires and fears?

I’d love to hear examples of terribly written dreams and wonderfully written dreams. Perhaps from that we could identify the essential characteristics of a well written dream.

Together, we could discover how to break the rule and get away with it!

More importantly, knowing examples of well written and badly written dreams can help us write better; it can keep us from getting chained down by a "don't" that I don't agree with.

The Wings of Icarus


  1. There is a series I read where the author uses a host of paranormal characters. The most interesting ones are the ones who fight on the side of "good" (it's all relative) to save the innocent humans from the bad guys.

    The least interesting characters are the paranormal heros and heroines who fight for self-preservation or to advance the interests of their fellow better-than-normal kin within dreams.

    As a reader, you're already invested in your hero and heroine, so believing they'll be taken out in a dream is almost impossible to achieve.

    Also, knowing the fights, sex and otherworldly mental manipulations are happening inside the dream state take the reader one step further away from the immediacy of the story.

    I'm all for information being imparted within a dream. Insights, intuition, psychic spying and the revelation of nightmares are all good. But action within a dream? Mortal, life-threatening action? It just doesn't work.

  2. Venus:

    Thanks for the comment.

    I could see how unsuspenseful (or disappointing) the reading would be when you don't believe anything truly bad will happen. And I could see how having the action in a dream would make it seem that much more removed, or less dangerous.

    From my point of view, if people died in the dream battles that might change things though. What do you think?

    One of the reasons I get into George R.R. Martin's books is that everybody, whether they are the people you cheer for or the people you cheer against, is at risk. Bad things happen to good people, which keeps the reading real and suspenseful. It's truly shocking how POV characters die.

    How does that apply to dreams and writing dreams?

    When Bran dreams in A GAME OF THRONES I believe that there is something more going on than just a dream. He truly does seem to have something to lose.

  3. What an awesome post! What it boils down to for me is trusting your instincts, knowing your limits, and breaking the rules when you know it WORKS.

    I'm not a huge fan of dreams in writing, but if they work (like in Batman, which I LOVED that version, by the way) they work. You have some good insights and examples. This makes me a little more confident in approaching some of the ideas I have, but was afraid to use with confidence. Thank you!

  4. The Road starts with a section that ends entirely in dreamworld. It illuminates the hopelessness the main character has around him, the 'deadness' and so forth.

    If the dream is an insight into the world or the character, or if it even propels the plot, then it should probably stay. If it goes on for pages and enters tangents and introduces brand new characters and so on and so forth, well, it better sing electric.

    Great post, Dave! That picture of Icarus is great...I must say our small blog now has some much needed color. Keep 'em coming!

  5. Thanks for the comments everybody. From them, I think that we can think more deeply about when and how to break the rules, and what to beware of.

    1. From Venus:

    Beware of mortal combat in dreams. Your reader may not believe in the stakes and feel removed from the action and the main character.

    If it seems integral to your story, I would suggest that you consider letting someone die in one of the dreams, because that will show the stakes are real.

    2. From Lady Glamis:

    Break the rules when you know it works. Cool, I like that.

    3. From Patrick:

    Dreams need to give insights into the world of the character or propel the plot. They can't be tangential.

    I believe that these specific principles can help us determine how to make dreams work when we write them in fiction.

    There are so many rules out there. I think that we constantly need to turn to successful fiction that we like and see what those authors did.

    I welcome more comments and the further development of principles that we can use to successfully write dreams in fiction. If you have an idea that makes sense to me I would be glad to add it to the list of principles.

  6. Being primarily a screenwriter myself, I'm more of an observer to this discussion. Dream sequences in film are generally considered the mark of an amateur writer, as they generally tend to be expositional cheats. Then again, in the hands of a sure-shot like Batman's Christopher Nolan, anything is permissible and can be made to work and feel fresh. Which, I suppose, dovetails with some of this discussion: the rules are only to be broken once the writer/artist has first mastered them.

  7. You make an interesting point, one I've heard before: Once you've made it you can do anything you want. That's the way I translate, master the rules before you break them.

    Really when it comes to writing dreams, there are two basic options. Write them or don't. There's no mastering the rule of don't, it's just in-action.

    If we strip away someone's amateur status or their superstar status, we are left with the piece of art, be it visual, on screen, or on the page. Then, we can ask, "What made it work or not work?"

    When I look at that opening dream sequence from BATMAN BEGINS I see a number of things:

    (1) The little boy hero sufferes greatly and is made tremendously vulnerable. That wins my sympathy in a way that could not be achieved without going back into the past. Batman is simply too strong.

    (2) The dream sequence gives the whole movie a theme: face your fear.

    (3) The dream sequence does not interupt the forward motion of the movie. Rather, it deepens the meaning of every action scene. It's so cool to see Bruce wake up in the prison and know what is deeply meaningful to him before the first big fight scene.

    (4) The movie returns to the boyhood trauma that defined him. So, the dream is not random. It's an important piece of the puzzle.

    To Summarize: If one was to write a dream sequence it would be a good idea to check out what this movie did so well. Follow the principles that actually worked, rather than don't rules that make a nice headline.


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