Dreams are the most organic stories we have. They are the unconscious mind at work, conjuring freely and without intervention. Many a writer has been inspired by their dreams, and there are countless stories that note the parallel between dreaming and storytelling. It makes sense, then, that dreams often play a crucial role in the structure of fiction. So, let’s explore the construction of dream sequences, and consider how dreams can serve your story’s aims.
It’s funny that there should be logic to writing dreams since they themselves generally lack any logic. This gives a writer a great deal of freedom, but can also present a challenge—how do you write something that makes sense, when there are no rules?
Dreams are unstable, transitory territory, and your writing of them should reflect that. Make them strange, unusual, upsetting, and illogical. Dreams should be decidedly separate from the waking world of your story.
One of the best examples of this that I have seen is in The Sandman comic book series. Dreams in The Sandman are visually distinct from the rest of the story’s text and are unique to each character, like a fingerprint. Moreover, they require a good deal of deciphering. That is, they aren’t as obvious as story events in the waking world might be. Yet they give us a privileged glimpse into characters and present a different perspective on the story’s events.
Now that we’ve got a little understanding of how dream territory looks, let’s examine a few famous examples of dreams in fiction, what storytelling functions they serve, and how you can use these techniques in your own writing.
Solidify Themes and Character
After arriving at Wuthering Heights, Mr. Lockwood has a rather unusual nightmare. In the dream, he is forced to listen to an abysmally boring sermon which he interrupts and condemns the speaker. Immediately, the entire congregation descends upon him while the speaker of the sermon eerily pounds upon the church’s floorboards with his walking stick.
Lockwood wakes abruptly thanks to the sound which he realizes is in the waking world as well. The steady noise echoes against his windowpane. He goes to remove the offending branch, and instead, finds himself gripping a cold, dead hand.
This is one of the most famous moments in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, but Lockwood’s dream is often overlooked in favor of the dramatic specter he encounters. The nightmare, however, plays a crucial role in the creation of suspense and ambiance.
First, the dream continues and amplifies the motif of violence and suppression in Wuthering Heights. Specifically, it parallels a startling instance a few chapters prior where Lockwood is again descended upon by a group: this time Heathcliff’s pack of vicious dogs. Thus, we have a glimpse into Lockwood’s mind while the atmosphere of fear is brought to the forefront. The nightmare also prepares us for the appearance of the ghost as the world of fantasy and the logic of dreaming blend with the waking world. Psychically, the reader and Lockwood find they are still in a dream, a terrifying place to be in a world of lasting consequences.
Foreshadowing and Dramatic Irony
In Julius Caesar, the eponymous character is warned in several different ways to “beware the Ides of March”. Fatefully, he does not. One of the most memorable instances and the one that comes the closest to persuading him not to attend the Senate is a warning from his wife, Calpurnia, after she prophetically dreams of his murder.
This dream foreshadows Caesar’s untimely demise, but more crucially, it provides dramatic irony. Shakespeare’s audience already knows that Caesar will die. His refusal to heed his wife’s warnings renders his death more emotionally resonant because we know that it could have all too easily been prevented.
Thus, tragedy is created through the heightened state of dreaming, and the world of Julius Caesar becomes more complicated and expansive. And, as in Wuthering Heights, the worlds of dreaming and waking are ambiguously blended.
Reveal Characters’ Pasts
Another story that dwells in the ambiguity between sleeping and waking is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Through vivid dreams, Scrooge learns the effects of his actions upon his past, present, and future, and makes the decision to become a better person. One of the cleverest uses of dreaming in this text is the exploration of Scrooge’s past. Rather than simply telling us how Scrooge became the person that he is, Dickens shows us, making the backstory immediate, visceral, and interactive.
Dream logic, however, still applies. The memories that Scrooge visits with the Ghost of Christmas Past are unstable and constantly shifting. They are more complicated than flashbacks and take on the shadowy characteristics of dreams. Thus, this story sets up an interesting internal conflict and dramatizes it in a compelling way through the interactivity of dreams.
“It Was All a Dream!”
The trope of discovering that events thought to have taken place in a story’s reality were actually in the mind of a character is one that’s often scoffed at. But I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with it. Plenty of stories such as Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz have used it to great success. The secret lies in the impact that the dream has.
Not only should the dream conform to dream logic, but it absolutely must have an impact on the story. Otherwise, you’ve just cheated the reader of valuable time. As a general rule of storytelling, everything on the page must matter, and the unreal is no exception.
A story, much like a dream, is a fragile, tenuous thing. It has no inherent value but garners its importance from the weight we instill it with. To quote Shakespeare’s Prospero, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”
Author Bio: Kaitlyn Connors is a rising senior at Smith College studying English with an emphasis in creative writing. She is fond of coffee, Shakespeare, light breezes, the sound of crisp page turns, moths, goosebumps, bad drawings of cats, and the general vibe of autumn. She is currently studying abroad at Oxford University. More of her work can be found at www.thesunsetowl.com.