How to Write an Effective Dream Sequence
Let’s start with an example, and since I’m a masochist by nature, let’s start with a dream sequence from the novel I am currently writing….Shadows Kill:
My sleep was restless that night. I was being chased in a dream, but I couldn’t see the face of my pursuer. He was darkness upon darkness, a shadow man, barely visible each time I turned to look at him. I raced through the woods, my heart exploding in my chest, my breath raspy and strained, sweat pouring from my brow. I knew there was no point in running, that being caught was inevitable, and finally I tripped over a tree root and fell hard to the ground. Turning over, I saw the Shadow Man standing over me, and his shadow formed a smile, dark teeth in a dark mouth.
“It won’t be that easy, Eli,” he said. “Now is not the time.”
There was a pounding in the distance, muffled at first but gradually growing louder. I looked right, left, and the trees seemed to close ranks and move nearer, but the source of the pounding was lost to me.
I awoke drenched in sweat. Someone was pounding on my front door.
And Later in the Book
I was visited again in my sleep by the Shadow Man. I was in a bedroom, engulfed by a darkness. There was a bed, and a woman sleeping, and leaning over her, Evil raised an arm, a knife in his hands, gleaming where light was absent, impossible and yet so real. The woman’s eyes were open, and fear was evident, but she could not scream. As the knife plunged downward, he who embraces pain looked at me and smiled, lips peeled back exposing his teeth, eyes laughing at my impotence.
“Not yet, Eli,” he said. “But soon.”
And Still Later in the Book
My dad was yelling at me to wake up. “Only twenty-four more hours, Eli; you don’t have time to sleep. Wake up, son! Wake up, and follow me.”
I was in bed¸ a bed sitting at the edge of a cliff, and my father stood in midair thirty feet away. He was waving his arm, imploring me to follow him. “Jesus H. Christ, Eli, you’ll sleep your life away. I need you awake now, Eli. We’ve got to catch that bastard before he kills again. Get up now, son.”
I struggled to a sitting position and then swung my legs over the side of the bed, but there was no floor, only what seemed to be a bottomless chasm just below my feet. My father couldn’t seem to understand why I wasn’t following him. The frustration was evident on his face, his arm waving a come along, and finally he turned his back on me and started walking away. I hollered for him to wait, but he just shook his head and kept walking, leaving me frozen in place, unsure how to proceed.
The phone brought me out of it. I had drenched my t-shirt during the nightmare, and my mouth tasted like ten miles of unpaved road as I went into the other room to put an end to the incessant ringing.
Would you be willing to try writing a dream sequence?
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- William Holland | Helping Writers to Spread Their Wings and Fly
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So, How Do You Write a Dream Sequence?
Obviously, I’m a big fan of them, because I have three dreams in this novel, but I was originally hesitant to use a dream sequence because of the horrors I had read in the past. If I couldn’t write one that was necessary to the story then I wouldn’t write one, and if I couldn’t write one that was of high quality, I didn’t want to bother. Time will tell whether I achieved what I set out to achieve.
There are four things to consider when writing a dream sequence:
- You must know your character
- What are the events surrounding the dream
- What is the current internal conflict
- What is the symbolism of the dream
Let’s take a look at each of these.
KNOW YOUR CHARACTER
I don’t think you can write an effective dream sequence without first knowing your main character intimately. You must know how his/her mind works? You must know what frightens them, brings them joy, and angers them. Why?
If you know your main characters as though they were real people, then you’ll know how they are likely to respond to stimuli, which is really what a dream is….a response to the events of one’s life….you will also know how a dream is likely to affect them
EVENTS SURROUNDING THE DREAM
This is for context, to help the readers understand what is going on, but the events also will, most likely, shape the dream. Otherwise, why would you even bother writing a dream sequence?
In my three examples above, I did not randomly toss in dreams to increase my word count. I chose times of intense struggle for the main character, and the readers are fully aware of that struggle by the time he dreams once again. Thus, they are along for the ride, and they know why my character is dreaming.
CURRENT INTERNAL CONFLICT
I guess, if you were writing a feel-good book, your character might have a happy dream, but most often, in literature, dreams are a sign of internal conflict. In other words, we already know what’s happening in the story, the events that lead up to the dream, but we also need to know how those events are making the character struggle. Are his guts churning with tension? Is he scared out of his wits?
Finally, in order for a dream sequence to realize its full potential, it must symbolize something. In my examples above, the dreams may symbolize death….they may symbolize evil….the reader can decide what the true symbolism is as they progress through the book, but they will only be able to do that if I’ve supplied the first three stepping stones mentioned above.
Now You Know How to Do It
And that means all you have to do now is…..do it!
How many dreams should you use in a novel? The answer to that question can only be given by you, the author. I’ve seen novels with five or more dreams included. I’ve seen novels with only one, and naturally there are many novels where you won’t find dreams at all.
Dream sequences are not easy to write well, but if you manage to do so, they are highly effective. This is another literary tool that can raise your game to a new level if you are willing to give it a try.
Are you willing?
2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”