Dreams, Drugs, and Yawning


I have a confession to make:  I ***HATE*** dream sequences and drug sequences in my books, movies, and television shows.  (You might think that I’m being a bit too forceful, with stars, capital letters, bold, and increased font size.  Believe me, I’m not.  My goal is to make you understand the depth of my emotion on this topic.)

I get it.  Authors want to convey information outside the mainstream of their narrative.  They want to show a character’s inner self, her secret motivations, his true core beliefs.  They want to demonstrate what happens when a character is plucked from all that is familiar and normative and thrust into a world where none of standard rules apply.

But when I read these scenes, or when I watch them, all I get is a disconnect from the story.  All of the creator’s careful worldbuilding, the contract between the author/director and the reader/viewer, is made null and void.  I’m left looking at my watch, wondering when the diversion is going to end, when I’m going to get back to the real story, the one I invested in when I picked up the book or sat down to watch the flick.  (I’m looking at you, Matt Wiener, with your repeated drug sequences on this season of MAD MEN.  And I’m looking at a bunch of books, too…)

As an author, I’ve experimented with dream sequences.  I’ve explored the “fake out”, writing a dream from the beginning of a chapter, so that my reader doesn’t realize (at first) that things are different, that the rules are changed, that they have no tools for parsing the action I present. 

In fact, I’ve even left a small handful of those sequences in my finished work.  The novel I’m almost through drafting, SINGLE WITCH’S SURVIVAL GUIDE, uses a dream sequence to show the after-effects of a magic spell gone horribly wrong.  I’m pretty sure it’ll make the final cut — mostly because even as Jane describes the nightmare she’s experiencing, she says, “This doesn’t make sense.  This can’t possibly be happening.”  I *think* this approach will let my reader experience Jane’s disorientation, even as I present the aftermath of disaster.  (The dream scene also lasts for a single paragraph, which I think gives me a bit of permission.)

So, no matter how many stars, capitals, bold, large-font statements I make, I’m willing to sell out a bit.  ::wry grin::

What about you?  Do you find dream sequences energizing, exciting ways to stray from the plod of straightforward narrative?  Or do you think they’re a cheat?  Or something else?  And what dream sequences do you think are especially successful, in books or movies that you’ve read?

Just to get the ball rolling, I’ll toss out a dream sequence that I think is wonderfully successful — but it’s a massive spoiler, from a movie that came out 32 years ago.  In AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, there’s a dream sequence that works because it’s a dream within a dream — the dreaming character wakes up, realizes he was having a nightmare, relaxes in the aftermath of the horror, only to have something more horrific happen in the dream that is actually continuing.  (Highlight from LONDON to the period, to read the spoiler.)

I look forward to reading your thoughts! 


20 comments to Dreams, Drugs, and Yawning

  • Dreams where the reader or character knows it’s a dream (uh, no examples come to mind), or is partially or fully in control of the dream (Inception, Tel’aran’rhiod from The Wheel of Time) can be effective and I’ve always enjoyed those in books and movies. I’m not a huge fan of being kept in the dark though, and the “it was just a dream” reveal does tend to pull me out of the story. It becomes a conversation with the author – “ah, you got me!” – rather than with the story or character.

  • sagablessed

    IN one of my WIPs on of the characters is chosen by the gods, and is a seer. Dreams play an important role in his POV. It is the best way for certain aspects (rules, visions, and so on) to come to light. It depends on how it is done. I have read books where I had a “wtf?” moment because of a dream/drug sequence. But I have also read some where it was amazing.

  • I use them on occasion. Unless it’s something that’s fairly integral to the plot, as saga’s is, they shouldn’t be used a lot, but done well, can add to the narrative and can foreshadow an event or revelation. I’ve got a novel awaiting my return to it where I break two rules in one. I add a dream sequence…right at the beginning. And it worked. It’s a foreshadowing that sets the scene for the main POV protag and gives the reader a bit of information about the character the rest of his comrades don’t have. He’ll have a couple more before he reveals his secrets to the rest of the group.

    My noir urban fantasy novel has, not so much dream sequences, but the MC can get memory bursts from people from time to time (not telling how 😉 ), things he uses to solve his cases. And yeah, there’s a definite downside to doing it.

    I also have a nightmare or two in my epic fantasy trilogy.

    For me, if they’re not overused and done well, they don’t really bother me at all. I know some writers put it all in italics to show you it’s different, but there are some instances where I like the surprise in finding out it was a dream.

  • I don’t mind dream sequences if I know they’re dreams. Like you, Mindy, I hate the *Surprise! It was just a dream – George’s life is entirely normal and boring!* tricks.

    I’ve used a dream sequence to start a WIP. I put it all in italics to try to indicate it isn’t part of the normal narrative, but I’m not sure it will survive the final cut. I think it might of a reveal, too early. We’ll see.

  • …might be too much of… [sigh]..

    It’s too early and I haven’t had enough coffee.

  • (laughs) Don’t read the Jane Yellowrock books then. Jane is led into her deeper mind and her past memories through dream-type-sequences by a Cherokee elder in Sweat ceremonies and when taken to water. Stay Away!

    Though I admit that I’ve not used dreams much, other in this series…

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Interesting topic, thank you. Dare I admit that your post has made me realize that my WIP has a *bunch* of dream sequences – primarily because the magic system at play is very much beneath the surface in this book… One of my 3 primary characters gets two dream sequences (I think one is only 2 sentences long) and these I really want to keep because these recurring dreams/nightmares a) become enough of a source of stress that they affect his actions in the waking world, and b) are actually linked to magic that is being practiced on him. A second character, though, I’ve given a dream sequence at the end of each of her chapters (so about 10), as her magical influence is just starting to build and grow in this book. I set a strict limit on those to each be under 150 words, but I’ll (finally) be able to get this out to my beta reader before too long, and I’ll definitely want to hear from her whether those are working or not. This character also has a fever-dream (it’s clear from the start it’s a fever dream), and I’d be very sad to cut that one out, as it’s my favorite chapter written for that character.

    In terms of dream sequences that totally work: The Princess Bride.
    But I do agree that there needs to be a real reason to include them and that effort should be put into making sure they are done well.

  • I don’t like using/reading dream sequences in the “psych! It was just a dream” sense. But if it makes sense for the story, I’m okay with it.

    In my WIP, there are a few “vision” sequences, where my main character is being contacted by a woman who has the power to communicate through visions. It only happens a few times, but they steer my character’s path. But they’re not dreams, and she makes that clear once she knows what’s going on. In a later book, another person with the same powers and more sinister motives sends visions to my character, who’s been cut off from her party. These also steer her path, and she makes some choices she wouldn’t have if she knew the reasons behind them.

  • Okay, first of all, that dream sequence from AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, which I did not have to see again to remember vividly, is one of the best I have ever seen. It fooled me so thoroughly the first time I saw the movie that I was actually shaking by the end of it.

    I do use dreams in my books, though as Laura says, I never use them to trick my readers. Dreaming, in my view, is a central element of the human emotional experience. We express so much emotion and tension through our dreams that it seems natural to me to include them in the internal monologues of my characters. To ignore them, again in my opinion, would be to remove some depth and richness from my character work. And I have also used a psychotic episode in a novel that we’re still trying to sell, and I think it is some of my best writing.

  • Ken

    Well, as mentioned above, Faith’s Jane Yellowrock books have dream sequences and they work pretty well for me as a reader. Dune had a pretty good drug sequence. Without getting spoilery, Jim Butcher’s Ghost Story could arguably be said to contain a dream sequence that worked.

    Much like Flashbacks, dreams and drug sequences need to be used sparingly and in service to the story. OH, and they’ve got to be in the right place, preferably not in the middle of a big action sequence. Nothing trips my booklaunch reflex faster.

  • I think like with any other tool in the Writer’s Toolbox, Dream/Drug sequences can be done well or poorly. I am fond of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and his use of the World of Dreams. Also in Orwell’s 1984, the dream sequence of the Protagonist of the bucolic field, with a stream nearby and dace swimming in it… is indicative of his mental condition and what is going on in his mind.

    Likewise a poor example would be the famous Mary Tyler Moore “It was all a dream” finale.

  • There’s a lot of good reasons to have dream sequences, but for some reason those are never the ones I see cited.

    It’s usually for background information, foreshadowing, or some other need to tell the reader things the writer doesn’t think can be told in the main narrative. That kind of thing is rarely effective or even true.

    I like the rule that if you can do it someway else and have the same effect, that means you should do it someway else.

  • Nathan Elberg

    Dreams and drugs are a limited approach to dealing with other realities, or other spheres of existence. There is the mystical experience, for example, or Kubler-Ross’ (and others’) death journey, from which some people have returned. And even drugs can be approached differently. For the Jivaro (and other Amazonian) Indians, the drug experience is reality, and what we know as ordinary life is the world of illusion.
    Terry Goodkind handled it well: in Wizard’s First Rule, two characters undergo a very real meeting with deceased ancestors. In the subsequent book, Stone of Tears, a pragmatist attributes the meeting to drugs. The reader is left uncertain as to what really (if there is such a thing, which I believe there is) really happened.
    In my work Quantum Cannibals the characters have mystical experiences that are cloaked in the ordinary. In fact, there is a recent book on Jewish mysticism called “Magic of the Ordinary.” You don’t have to get stoned or dream to have incredible, insightful experiences, whether in fiction or in fact.

  • I don’t mind dreams or drugs or spirit quests or anything like that as long as they are established early as a necessary or important part of the narrative. What drives me crazy is when a dream explains some key plot point or character development without any set-up beforehand. In those cases it just feels like the writer couldn’t think of a better way to move the plot along.

  • ajp88

    I like when dreams are used to further mysteries or speculation about the true nature of something. The example I usually think of is from A Game of Thrones: Eddard Stark is being held in the black cells until he is eventually executed. Suffering from exhaustion, starvation, and injury, he slips into a fever dream that hazily recalls events during Robert’s Rebellion where Ned and the crannogman attempted to rescue Ned’s sister from the Tower of Joy. It’s a surreal, beautiful scene that purposefully fuels speculation as to the true parentage of Ned’s bastard son (true fan hint, R+L=J).

  • I don’t mind fake out dream sequences in movies and TV, but not in my books.

  • Razziecat

    I don’t like dreams in stories if it’s not clear the character is dreaming, or if the info conveyed could just as easily be depicted in real time. I don’t think I’ve ever read drug sequences in a story. I have put a couple of very short dreams–one or two short paragraphs–in stories to show a character’s underlying state of mind, and I have started out a short story with a dream because the character was traumatized by something in his past. But that story starts out “Faran was dreaming. He had to be…” and explains why, so no surprises.

    What I actually hate, loathe and despise more than dream sequences is virtual reality stuff, unless the entire story (or 90-some percent of it) takes place in virtual reality. I want the characters to experience their problem in their own reality, not in what amounts to a waking dream. To me, the dangers in virtual reality are not immediate; it puts another layer of distance between me and the character. It’s one of the reasons I got annoyed with the holodeck-centered stories on the ‘Star Trek: TNG’ TV series–it’s not really happening and eventually they find a way to “shut off” the situation, and voila–problem solved. 🙁

  • quillet

    I like dream sequences if they’re used sparingly and if they’re necessary somehow. I definitely don’t like the fake-out, where the author is basically saying, “Ha ha, gotcha, it was all a dream!” I like it when the dreams affect the plot or show character or culture or world-building. Great example: Jane Yellowrock’s dream/vision sequences totally work because they’re in tune with her heritage and her memory loss. They reveal a lot about her character and personal history, and I don’t think that information could be revealed any other way that would be as cool. (SO cool!)

  • I used a dream sequence in Mad Kestrel, but it was only to convey a little backstory about Kestrel herself without doing it in dialogue. It didn’t last long, and she immediately moved on as soon as she woke. I think dreams can be useful story devices, when used mindfully by the author. Just, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t start the whole book with one!

    And speaking of drug sequences, I happened to see an episode of Supernatural the other night that handled it well. Dean and Sam were in a hospital and both had been drugged. No giant talking bunnies or purple unicorns. They stumbled a bit and everything they saw was mushy and off-kilter, so it made sense without being silly. Reminded me of my old party days, before I became a mother and turned into a person who could be taken down by one well-timed wine cooler. *laughs*

  • Hey, everyone! Sorry to be so long in replying — I’ve had an INSANE (dream-like, drug-like ::wry grin) week, finishing the drafting a manuscript and doing the heavy-lifting editing.

    I appreciate all the thoughts expressed here, which have helped me to clarify what *I* was trying to say — I dislike (somewhat intensely, I admit) dreams and drug trips that are inserted to advance plot or provide backstory, WITHOUT OUTSIDE JUSTIFICATION. Cultures that routinely dream-or-trip, and religions that require it, or whatnot — *those* don’t trigger my negative reactions.

    In any case, you’ve all given me a lot to think about. And now that my WIP is turned in, I can start to do the thinking!