Though I do have to admit that, in the past, I was entirely guilty of falling back on the very devices I now wish to denounce, it is only in the present that I have come to realize how tired a cliché and a blatant display of lazy storytelling the use of dream sequences within a narrative is in many cases.
Too often in stories, use of dreams seems employed as a method of foreshadowing or as prophetic visions experienced by central characters. Again, I will be the first to cast the initial stone at myself. But I have tried to rely less and less on dream sequences, unless there is sound logic and narrative legitimacy to do so.
Dreams are chaotic, more often than not. While our own dream stories seem to have an inherent logic to them as they unfold, that logic often falls apart upon waking. What we can remember of those dreams returns to us as disjointed, nonsensical episodes that rarely hold together as stories with coherent narrative threads. My own dreams often involve people from my past, believed long forgotten, but for some reason, my subconscious has chosen them to be players in the stories it wishes to show me. Truly, though, these are less stories than many series of images or scenes that follow a dream logic but make little sense when recollected while awake. I also dream of returning to difficult times in my past or neglecting to complete something I should have. To the point, never have my dreams been prophetic in any way. Never have they served to foreshadow events to come.
So why is this device used so frequently in film and prose? Personally, in the past, I would incorporate a dream sequence in my writing when I had no idea where to go or what was to happen next. The use of dreams allowed me to paint surreal landscapes (often for personal amusement or to renew my own interest in the story) and commit characters to events or actions that defied all sense and basic laws of physics. It was lazy storytelling because, in retrospect, where did these dreams actually take the story? How could characters, within the symbolic qualities of their dreams, find the answers they needed unless they possessed those answers all along—which rarely they did? In too many instances, storytellers use dreams to present solutions to problems or reveal truths to characters—accomplishing this through sequences, though admittedly odd, that still follow a deliberate thread of narrative logic decipherable by the reader or viewer. They may appear and subsequently function as the deus ex machina come to save the dreamer—to save the storyteller. Dreams have their own logic, though, and this logic rarely resembles dream sequences read in novels or shone in film.
Or storytellers rely on dreams as shock devices that tell us nothing about the dreamer. Dreams, when used properly, should pull back something about the dreamer of which we were initially unaware. Jung had his archetypes and collective unconscious. These can be powerful tools, when used sparingly and with great care, to flesh out character—especially aspects that may not be known to those closest to him or her, let alone to the dreamer. Dreams, however, are wasted when used as lazy gimmicks to propel a story or to fill space when the storyteller has nothing more pertinent to add to the narrative. Dreams have their places when, like was said previously, they reveal character through archetypal symbolism, or the dreamer truly has some special gift or second sight that allows an audience to accept the prophetic nature of a dream as possible and necessary to the narrative. You should never use dreams as manipulative red herrings, whose only purpose are to misdirect the audience. Again, this is lazy storytelling.
Use dreams to give weight and dimension to your characters, to your narrative. When relying on dreams, you should be able to answer simply why its use is necessary and what it adds to the story. They should not be used when a storyteller realizes his narrative has bogged down to little more than wheels spinning uselessly in the mud and requires anything to jolt and/or regain the interest of the reader, or the storyteller himself.
I have seen and read dream sequences where the dreamer encounters a dead loved one or some other individual in a seemingly innocuous setting only to have the encounter turn into a brief confrontation with some malevolent entity. Just before the confrontation reaches a climax, the dreamer awakens. What, in that character’s psychology, supports such a dream? What bearing does it have on the story as a whole? What does it truly add?
The dreamer awakes with a scream from this nightmare, left breathless by the horror he or she experienced in his or her sleep state. Sometimes it ends there. Sometimes, something reaches from under the bed or bursts from the closest, and the dreamer awakes again. A dream within a dream. The storyteller wants his or her audience left shaken and to question what is real and what is not, but what he or she has really accomplished is to likely elicit a roll of the eyes from his or her audience.
Our dreams often do not unfold in a seamless narrative as some storytellers would have us believe. We have dreams of falling, of losing our teeth, of faceless loves lost, and much more.
Essentially, all I am imploring of storytellers is to use dreams not as gimmicks or crutches. If you must use a dream, ensure it adds to or is supported by the psychology or immediate circumstances experienced by the dreamer. Know your characters: their motivations, desires, fears. Use dreams as an alternate landscape with which explore the more hidden, deeper facets of your characters. Dreams are not off-limits, per se. But use them sparingly and with specific, thoughtful purpose. Remember Jung’s archetypes. They can be powerful symbols, when used with care, which may serve to add depth and mystery to your story—to your characters.
So, when considering adding that dream sequence, ask yourself, “How does the dream serve the story, the character(s)?” If you can’t answer these questions intelligibly or convincingly, discard the thought of inserting a dream sequence. It obviously will contribute nothing to your narrative. You will be a better writer for it.