I’ve recently been taking some magnesium supplements which is supposed to send you to sleep, and it does indeed. For me it also leads to vivid and lengthy dreams. I’ve been on some adventures, I tell you. This week I’ve even been stranded in a desert after my frat friend’s aeroplane crashed. (I have never been in a fraternity. I’m neither male nor American.) I’ve had kebab shops and beach walks and chickens murdered.
All of this has had me thinking about dreams, and their use in fiction.
I had a teacher at school who forbade any ending of stories with dreams. Some years later when I was an English teacher myself, I was introduced to an extant Department Policy borne of bitter experience of evenings reading wads and wads of creative writing assignments:
No babbling brooks
No chirping of birds.
I never had any reason to argue with either of those. The woman who executed those rules — a high school English teacher of many years’ experience — walked out of her first yoga session after it turned out the instructor asked them to imagine ‘babbling brooks’ at the end of their ‘proper yoga’… Oh, if only the yoga teacher had been primed!
In hindsight I would add two more topics I never want to read about again:
I don’t know why those two topics cropped up so often, but I think it was because I encouraged students to write about events which happened more than seven years ago, because I read something somewhere which made a good case for allowing adequate time for reflection between experiencing an event and then writing about it. The trouble is, I was teaching 14-year-olds, so memories prior to age seven were limited to birthday parties and injuries, especially those which necessitated a trip to emergency for stitches. Oh, so many stitches and grazes and broken arms!
Then there’s the Dream Ending.
I know several people who have told me as adults that when they discovered they could end a creative writing assignment by waking up from a dream they genuinely believed they had come up with the Best Thing Ever. English teachers and the judges of short story competitions would say otherwise.
Maria Nikolajeva writes about the dream ending and similar tidy conclusions in her book Children’s Literature Comes Of Age:
Children’s books with ready solutions bind the child’s imagination and free thought. It is treachery towards the modern sophisticated child reader to offer a “rational” explanation at the end. “And then he woke up and it has only been a dream.” We should not think that this ending is a thing of the past, for we remember it from Alice In Wonderland. It is repeated in much later texts, and one discovers it somewhat reluctantly in Mordecai Richler’s prize-winning book Jacob Two-Two Meets The Hooded Fang (1975) and in a many even more recent texts. Critical and creative authors find such resolutions very unsatisfactory, and regard the open ending as the only possible way of appealing to modern young readers.
So it is clear that the dream technique is not dead, but writers after good reviews do their utmost to avoid it.
OTHER USES FOR DREAMS IN FICTION
Whatever your thoughts on Freud, dreams can play a useful role in plots and we fancy dreams give an insight into someone’s subconscious. Whether this works in real life, I’m not so sure, but as literary convention… It’s pretty much accepted, I think.
Here are some effective uses of dreams that I have seen of late. As in all things, there will still be readers with a very low tolerance for dreams, because everyone’s dreams are weird.
1. SNEAKY DREAMING
At the conclusion of Chapter 4, ‘Magic Phenomena’ of The Men’s Room by Ann Oakley (I’m getting a lot of mileage out of that book) is a dream scene. After a space break, the sequence begins:
There was a nail in the bed. It had cut into her face and made it bleed.
And the reader thinks, ‘Oh god, what has the man done to her?’ and then it gets more and more ridiculous, but it’s kind of sexual so I won’t quote it here because I don’t want that kind of spam.
Anyway, by the end of the scene the reader is left in no doubt that the protagonist is mid-dream. This technique works because it only happens once in the entire novel (after which it may get tiresome). The dream/nightmare gives the reader insight into the protagonist’s greatest fears. (I’m not sure that dreams really do indicate a person’s greatest fears — I’m not much of a Freudian — but nevertheless, I accept that this is the case in fiction.)
If you’ve seen Six Feet Under you’ll be familiar with the sneaky dream technique. Once you’ve seen a few episodes of Six Feet Under you’ll learn to expect dreaming, especially when something weird is playing out. That series also makes much use of tripping to achieve the same effect, as well as Nate’s illness. The technique has since been used in The Sopranos, and in many other things I haven’t seen, no doubt.
2. DREAMING AS PART OF THE PLOT
John Irving’s short story Other People’s Dreams is a prime example of that. It’s about a man who has never dreamed in his life, but then he discovers that by sleeping where others have dreamed, he can dream what they have. He learns a few things along the way, including a few surprises about his own mother.
So these kind of stories aren’t using dreams as a device, they just happen to be stories whose plots somehow involve dreams. The reader therefore doesn’t feel tricked.
Maria Nikolajeva writes in The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature:
Some of the best children’s novels and picturebooks are dream narratives, in which dreams are not merely a parable used to illuminate the main plot, but constitute the plot itself. Sometimes the narrative is explicitly stated to be a dream, as in Alice In Wonderland; more often it is implied, as in Tom’s Midnight Garden. While Alice, on waking up, is comfortably relieved of the necessity of taking responsibility for her actions in the dream, the character of Marianne Dreams finds that there is a significant connection between her dreams and her real life. Picturebooks allow vast possibilities in the interaction of word and image to create ambiguity of meaning in dream narratives… in many cases [the dream narrative] is also more inventive and imaginative than most of the mainstream dream narratives.
3. SNIPPETS OF DREAM INTERSPERSED THROUGHOUT NARRATIVE/DIALOGUE/ACTION SCENES
In this case, the dream snippet functions like backstory snippets, and in fact a snippet of a dream seen in the past is kind of a subcategory of backstory. This works on the presumption that dreams mean something, be it in a supernatural way, or simply because the protagonist’s mind has been playing something out, thereby highlighting its significance.
Robert McKee, in his scriptwriting guidebook Story, likens dream sequences to montage sequences:
In the American use of this term, a montage is a series of rapidly cut images that radically condenses or expands time and often employs optical effects such as wipes, irises, split screens, dissolves, or other multiple images. The high energy of such sequences is used to mask their purpose: the rather mundane task of conveying information. Like the Dream Sequence, the montage is an effort to make undramatized exposition less boring by keeping the audience’s eye busy. With few exceptions, montages are a lazy attempt to substitute decorative photography and editing for dramatization and are, therefore, to be avoided.
I think McKee is a little harsh on montages and dream sequences — we each probably have our own tolerance level and he has no doubt been more attune to the bad ones than I have as an armchair movie critic. (The book was written before Six Feet Under was produced, which took dream sequences to a new level.)
In The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier describes Jerry’s dream a moment before he wakes up:
He’d been dreaming of a fire, flames eating unknown walls, and the siren sounded, and then it wasn’t a siren but the telephone.
Since we know from the first sentence that Jerry dies, this nightmarish start to the day is foreshadowing events to come. A dream can also indicate worry and trauma from the previous day. In Jerry’s case it’s the prank calls:
In bed once more, small in the dark, Jerry willed his body to loosen, to relax. After a while, sleep plucked at him with soft fingers, soothing away the ache. But the phone rang in his dreams all night long.
4. DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN, OR DID IT NOT?
Contemporary children’s literature makes much use of this technique: all sorts of fantastic/marvelous/uncanny things happen, and then by the final page the world has been restored to realism, and the reader is led to wonder, “Did that really happen, or was it just a dream?” Often in picturebooks there’s a small clue in the picture — something from the fantasy world appears in the ‘real world’ of the story, to make the reader wonder.
What do you think of this technique? I really like incomplete or ambiguous endings, but I’m not a huge fan of bringing something from the imaginary world into the real world of the story. That seems to have the opposite effect, of telling the reader, “Yes, it really did happen”, when they’d be better off truly wondering.
5. DREAMING ABOUT A LOVE INTEREST
Nothing says, ‘I’m falling in love with him’ like a dream. Pearl Cleage manages to avoid the saccharine by breaking other worn-out romance writers’ tricks: this protagonist ain’t white, ain’t virginal and ain’t clean-talking:
I dreamed about walking in Eddie’s garden. I’m wearing a long, white dress and I’ve got on this big-ass straw hat and I’m holding up my skirt so it won’t get dirty.
- from What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day
And those two sentences pretty much sum up the voice of this book, in which the romantic lead woman has already got AIDS.
6. FORESHADOWING THE FUTURE
Can the subconscious mind alert us to the future? from Psych Central
Taxonomy Of Dreams
Obviously I have been interested in creating a taxonomy of dreams, and haven’t quite got my categories sorted.
NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcast Episode 18 April 2014 is about Orphan Black and then it is about Dream Sequences. Here are some notes from that (starting at 19:30), in which several different ways of classifying fictional dreams are discussed. The discussion is also interesting in that it encourages the listener to consider what we do and don’t like about fictional dreams.
- Glen collected numerous examples of dream sequences in modern stories and could probably have come up with a ‘taxonomy of dream sequences’ but found that a lot of the dream sequences were getting quite old and this is a narrative crutch that writers aren’t taking advantage of as much as they used to. The dream sequence has been around so long that it already has all the cliches associated with. The Simpsons is one show which makes fun of the cliches. Glen responds better to dream sequences when they do some emotional work as opposed to narrative work. When dreams are used to foreshadow or explain plot, they seem like more of a crutch than for example when a dream sequence is used to offer an insight into what a character is thinking/worried about. So there’s the taxonomy.
- A writer who knows how to connect things emotionally via dreams is David Lynch. Everything Lynch makes has some surreal dream sequence. But ‘surreal’ doesn’t equate to throwing a ton of crazy crap in. There’s an internal emotional logic.
- Stephen says that dreams can probably be divided into taxonomies in all sorts of different ways but another way of classifying dreams in fiction is according to their function. There’s the ‘red herring’ or the ‘what, it was all a dream!’ and ‘dream sequence as fantasy’, but a common way dreams are used these days is to mete out little bits of backstory, especially in very convoluted stories like Captain America in which the mystery is ‘what the hell’s going on.’ (This is also true of Orphan Black, in which visualisations are used, even if they’re not technically dreams.)
- Dreams, daydreams, visions, prophecies, processes of memory… all of these count as ‘dream sequences’.
- In fantasy, dreams are almost always plot advance tools. They’re Jungian rather than Freudian; they’re messages to the reader, not about him. They’re there to give you some cryptic information about what’s going to happen.
- Diana Wynne Jones wrote a fantasy satire called The Tough Guide To Fantasyland which is a parody tour-guide: “While you are on tour, your psyche is in the care of the management who will, when necessary, provide you with dreams. You should always attend to these, particularly when they are repeated the next night in the same form. They occupy the same slot as legends. They will be telling you something you need to know for the next phase of your tour, but they will not be doing so very clearly. You will need to think a bit.”
- It’s surprising that dream sequences aren’t done better. Dream sequences feel more true when different scenes are blended, populated by characters who shouldn’t be there. Everybody knows that experience of having dreams where you can only describe it by saying, ‘Well, it was my bedroom, but it was also school’, and in the dream you knew that. It’s so rare for cinematic dream sequences to achieve the constantly shifting sense of place.
- There’s an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer that conveys this disconnectedness of dreams particularly well where they’re rambling from room to room through various tunnels. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another example of this done well. [I would add Big Love Season 5 in which Bill Henrickson dreams of meeting Emma Smith. His mother is also in the room. Cabin in the Woods could perhaps be considered a good example of this too.]
- The thing that makes a dream sequence creepy is that there’s a difference between a stimulus and a response.
- All that said, sometimes dream sequences are there just because they’re cool. Buster Keaton is a master of the dream sequence. (The Playhouse, Sherlock Junior.) In 1924 his techniques were quite revolutionary. [By coincidence(?) today marks an anniversary of this film and it is discussed by Film School Rejects. "Although Woody Allen claims Keaton’s film wasn’t an influence, his 1985 comedy The Purple Rose of Cairo employs the same conceit of people moving through a movie screen like it’s a gateway between worlds. This time, though, it’s a character from the film-within-the-film that exits out to the theater auditorium and real world. The address of escapism is still there even if the movie universe is doing the escaping. It’s a blurring of the border between cinema and reality."]
- Dream sequences used to be used as a way to do things which were experimental without needing to say that you had broken the rules of narrative storytelling. For example, that’s how you can have Dorothy go to Oz and say, ‘No no no, it’s not really a fantasy movie. It’s still in reality. It’s just a dream, because anything can happen in a dream.’
- Some of the musicals of the 40s and 50s had dream sequences. An example is Oklahoma, which has a dream ballet. It’s a way to incorporate a huge ballet in the middle of a Broadway musical.
- One of the most famous dream sequences in history occurs in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Designed by Salvador Dali, a lot of crazy crap happens. The film has a disturbingly literal understanding of Freudian psychology. There’s no ‘mesh’. The audience is more likely to remember the dream sequence of this movie rather than plot.
- There have been a number of romantic comedy shows with a ‘will they or won’t they plot’ in which characters kiss, but it happens in a dream. That way the audience gets to have it both ways: You get to see the people kissing but the high sexual tension of unrequited love gets to continue. People didn’t used to be quite so embittered about that, but once the Dallas thing happened, in which a dream sequence wiped out an entire season of the show, audience started to think, ‘Boy if this turns out to be a dream I’m going to lose it.’ That was always on the table in Lost. Surprisingly, students of creative writing are still using it.
ANND, sort of not related is the effervescent Natalie Tran, in which she wishes she could insert the movies into her dreams rather than the usual way around.
More On Dreams In General:
- Will we ever decode dreams? from Discover Magazine
- Oliver Sacks On Hallucinations from Time Health and Family
- Ever been woken up by a feeling of falling down? Learn more about why that happens, from OMG facts
- Scientists can read what you see in your dreams
- Five Actual Facts About The Science of Dreams from Mental Floss
- 10 Theories About Why We Dream from io9
- Why Don’t We Know When We’re Dreaming? from Discover
- People are still using their dreams to make significant decisions about their own and others’ lives. This incident, from the recent news, is an Iranian example of that. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/25/interview-samereh-alinejad-iranian-mother-spared-sons-killer