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We’ve all read them. The books that open where the character is fighting the enemy, about to die, only to wake up from their nightmare a few pages later.
Then you, the reader, have the letdown that inevitably follows such an exciting opening. Why bother reading on? The author already psyched you out once, what’s to say he won’t do it again?

(Quick aside: the above example is an example of how NOT to use dreams in a novel. Do not use them simply to hook your reader, or else it leads to the letdown described above.)

Dreams are annoying. Now that that’s out there, let’s talk about them.

If the above example is how dreams are used in literature, why do authors insist on using them? Doesn’t it just frustrate the reader? Isn’t it unfair to lie to the reader?

There are several reasons an author may choose to use a dream in their novel. They can reveal several things about the character: repressed desires, the character’s wishes and fears for their future or past, to foreshadow things that might come, to set a mood, or to reveal flashback. (There is also the less literal “dream” of literature in the sense of a character’s longing, but this post won’t be focusing on the dream in that sense.)

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Repressed desires:

As in real life, a dream in fiction can represent a character’s repressed desires. Is your female MC dreaming of being pregnant? Perhaps it causes her to realize that she truly wants a child of her own. Or perhaps it cements her opinion that she absolutely does not want to be a mother. Either way, if your MC dreams something like this, it must have bearing on the overall plot of the novel, or at least the character’s arc.

Character’s wishes & fears:

Similar to the above, a dream can reveal the character’s wishes. This differs slightly from the above, as in the above the character is unaware of their repressed desire, and it is only revealed to them through the power of a dream. But in this, a character may be dwelling on something overly much and that bleeds through into their dreams, as it might in real life. A character is worried about that test on Monday, so they have a dream Sunday night where their essay question test chases them through the dark forest.

“A single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien

So if you, the reader, already know they’re worrying about the test, why bother putting in a dream? Good question. In some cases, it may not be necessary. It could certainly be skimmed over in conversation the next day, mentioned to a friend before the exam:

“Oh, you look awful.”

“No kidding. I got about fifteen minutes’ sleep last night. I had a nightmare about this paper chasing me through a forest last night.”

End of scene. 

The important thing to remember in this (as in all scenes) is whether or not the scene (dream) is adding anything to the story. If it is, keep it. If it isn’t, cut it.

Foreshadowing:

This is for the reader’s benefit, not necessarily the character’s. Maybe it’s something that the reader will pick up on, but the character will usually sweep it away as a weird dream. Of course, the reader will know that any wise author doesn’t include a dream unless there is something significant about it (which should be true of every scene in a book. Each scene should do something to avoid being a rabbit trail, such as building a character arc, advancing the plot, adding tension and conflict between characters, etc.).

Foreshadowing can be demonstrated in another quote from Rowling:

“Whatever house I’m in, I hope she’s not in it.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Ron says this concerning Hermione as they are being sorted into houses for their first year at Hogwarts, and the very fact that he and Harry (mostly Ron) have taken this instant dislike to Hermione suggests that she will be a major character in not only this novel but the novels to come. A simple statement like this is one that a reader can easily skim over, but when it comes after conflict between two characters, it sticks out a bit more. When it shortly comes to pass…well, that’s why it’s called foreshadowing.

Set a mood:

If it’s a dark dream, the reader and character will probably feel uneasy, as though something bad is going to happen.

“By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.”
― William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Although this comment isn’t a dream, it is certainly a comment which sets the mood of the entire play. A dream can do this exact thing, and even clue the character(s) in on it so that it creates tension in their fictional lives.

“People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.”
― Neil Gaiman

What if your character has a dream where his best friend betrays him. Now, say your character has trust issues and it took him a long time to trust anyone as much as he trusts his best friend. Let’s assume also that the MC puts at least a modicum of faith in his subconscious as well. So when he dreams that his best friend is dating his girlfriend, well, the world is ending. All of a sudden there is tension between three main characters: MC, MC’s best friend, and MC’s girlfriend. Now that’s enough tension for a few scenes, and possibly enough to carry an entire short story or novel.

Flashback & Backstory:

Dreams can also be a technique used to ease into flashbacks for your character’s story. A flashback is a narrative or scene from the character’s past that is related in the present story, usually for some reason pertaining to either characterization or plot. Say your character doesn’t get along with someone and the reader has to know why, a flashback can be used to relate how their relationship deteriorated.

So is a dream an appropriate technique to use for this? In most cases, I’d venture a “no.” Dreams are about as taboo as flashbacks, and using one to reveal the other is most likely going to be overkill. Your reader won’t know who or what to trust. Is the dream real? Or isn’t it? Was the scene related a figment of the character’s imagination, or wasn’t it?

While the dream sequence could be used to reveal bits of backstory, the same bits could probably be better revealed through other sensory triggers (sights, smells, etc. which send your character into a more believable flashback).

“You cannot make yourself have a flashback, nor will you have one unless you are emotionally ready to remember something. Once remembered, the memory can help you to face more of the truth. You can then express your pent-up feelings about the memory and continue on your path to recovery. Think of the flashback as a clue to the next piece of work. No matter how painful, try to view it as a positive indication that you are now ready and willing to remember.”
― Beverly EngelThe Right to Innocence

However, there are moments in fiction, as in real life, where a flashback would be the most accurate way to remember something, especially something traumatic which has been repressed. Did your character suffer trauma at the hands of another? Before you answer yes and think you must reveal it in a dream, consider what your story is about. Is it important for your reader to know it in all its details? Or do they only need to guess at your character’s past? Is it important that this information be revealed to your reader at all? Why? Make certain that you have a good answer for those questions before you add a dream which reveals trauma to both character and reader.

Should you use a dream in your novel?

That’s a question only you as the author can answer. Maybe, maybe not.

But here are a few questions to ask yourself about your dream.

  • Does it cheapen the overall impact of my novel? (Like a dream sequence hook can?)
  • Does it advance the plot or the character’s arc in some important way that cannot be achieved in a better fashion?
  • Does it relay important information for either the reader or the character(s)?
  • Does it enhance the mood/setting of the novel?
  • Are dreams an important symbol in my novel?
  • Is this particular dream significant enough to warrant remaining in the story? I.e. does it create tension or conflict that cannot be better created through another means?

As in all the scenes which make up your novel, it is vital to consider why you are including this dream scene. If you have doubts about the necessity of the dream, then chances are that you do not need it.