And That’s Not Even Getting Into “Inception” Territory

. . . mostly because I still haven’t seen Inception. Yeah, yeah, I will. Sometime. But! I’ve been thinking about the role of dreams in fiction.

This is mostly because I’m now reading The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan. I enjoyed his Percy Jackson books, and The Red Pyramid, and I like this one so far. While I’ve found the three series pleasantly distinct in many ways, they all feature vivid dreams in which characters see events that are really happening as they take place. Gods and other beings use dreams to contact people. In The Red Pyramid, people’s souls/spirits/essences/floaty dream selves actually travel to where the events are unfolding, sometimes even being glimpsed by others on the scene. Since all the major characters of these books have supernatural backgrounds, this is taken in stride, and all dreams are taken seriously. As of yet, no one has suggested that hey, maybe this time, it was just a random sequence of subconscious brain blips. And Mr. Riordan has a field day being able to describe stuff that’s happening to other characters halfway around the world without having to switch POV characters.

This made me think of dreams in other books I’ve read. The fact that dreams are actually a pretty bizarre phenomenon when you think about it, are familiar to most people, have a rich tradition of symbolism and mythos, and are still not terribly well-understood, allows authors to use them all kinds of ways.

(Which phrase should alert you that you are about to encounter A LIST! Huzzah for lists!)

What’s that? You want a list of some ways authors use dreams, as remembered offhand by me? Well, if you insist. You guys and your wacky list obsessions!

  • Not at all. This does not necessarily mean that characters do not dream, although it could. (That guy in ALIEN who never dreams? Spoilers – HE’S A ROBOT!)
  • “That night, she dreamed of chasing her brother through a hedge maze full of wolves.” May be described in more detail, but generally just intended to show you the current state of the character’s psyche. May, alternately, skip telling you that it is a dream and launch directly into, “She stood in a dark, oddly rustling corridor. Hedges? Where was she? And what was that howling noise?” Depending on how it’s done and how critical a reader you are, you may catch onto the “dream” aspect of this little interval immediately, or may be confused until our heroine wakes up – probably in a cold sweat – at which point you will be annoyed. Probably. If you’re me.
  • Message delivery in service of specific entities with that capability (e.g. the spirit of Martin the Warrior in the Redwall books), or one with whom the dreamer is connected (e.g. Harry and Voldemort; also common with love interests and with twin siblings).
  • Message delivery in service of the character’s subconscious. These messages will be, understandably, more internal than those of the previous category.
  • Prophesy. This is an interesting one, because characters often wonder whether their dreams could be prophetic or otherwise meaningful, whether they actually are or not.
  • Spirit travel. I haven’t seen this often, but hey, it’s one to add to the list. And Harry Potter sorta kinda does this, sorta.
  • “It was all a dream!” This is like the second wolf-hedge maze example above, only it encompasses the whole story. Thankfully, this is becoming less and less common as I systematically hunt down every person who does it.

Am I missing any, guys? Do you include dreams in your stories? In what way?

7 thoughts on “And That’s Not Even Getting Into “Inception” Territory

  • I’ve written plots that call for prophetic dreaming, but I struggle with it. I guess I see it as a slight cop-out when, like you said, it’s used to show what non-POV characters are doing halfway around the world. The way I (try to) deal with this is to make the dream appropriately muddled and dreamlike. Probably the best dream sequences I can think of were it “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” because they didn’t feel like real life, they felt like dreams. Joel tapped the guy on the shoulder three or four times, stuck on a loop, and when he finally turned around he had no face. And there was the scene in which a fully-grown Joel was otherwise five years old. That kind of weird stuff. I’ll let dreams get away with a lot when they’re at least trying to be something other than authorial shortcuts.

    • The dream sequences in that one Buffy episode, “Restless,” are pretty great, too, especially Xander’s. They capture the weirdness and the sense that a lot of this stuff probably is floating around in the character’s head and got jumbled together, but manage to weave in the whole scary-being-stalked aspect of the episode. The setting transitions are especially good.

  • I don’t often use dreams in my stories. I did use them in “The Leaf Problem,” about a woman who may or may not be turning into a tree– it begins with her dreaming she is a tree.

    I love the dreams in Harry Potter. I love that you can go back and get little clues from them on re-reading, like when Harry has the dream about Quirrell’s turban speaking to him “in a high, cold voice”– but also that they tend to be irrational and silly enough to come across as genuine.

    PS. Inception was overrated for me. It wasn’t a bad movie but it wasn’t the mind-blowing OMFG story I’d heard it was. My impression was that people who don’t normally read/see genre books or movies are amazed by it more because they’ve never seen anything like it, but for someone who is already familiar with this kind of story and premise– Inception does some cool things, granted, but it won’t seem so ground-breaking. For me it was a pretty good movie about dreaming versus reality, but nothing really new. And the ending was something I just took in stride, more of an “I see what you did there.”

  • I used lots of Symbolic Dreams in my first novel, and in an unfinished novel I included dreams that, like the dreams in Harry Potter, seemed random but actually had significance. Dreams of a past life is a category that you left out, and in this case it was something sort of vaguely like that.

    In general, including magical dreams is hard to do without avoiding cliche. They can alternately be good for revealing the character’s state of mind (a character going through crazy plot stuff probably will have at least a few weird dreams). I think the success of either depends really on how good you are writing dream sequences! They can be extremely fun and trippy if handled correctly.

    A good example of “It was all a dream” is Alice in Wonderland, but I think it works in that case because we don’t really care if it was all just a dream – it’s not like there was a plot or anything.

    • A good point re: Alice in Wonderland.

      You’re right about dreams of a past life, too. Rick Riordan’s books are rife with those. Similarly, and sometimes in connection with that, there are dreams of things the character should remember or know already but doesn’t (through magical amnesia or the like). That can sort of blur into the message-sending category.

  • Great minds think alike, Nic! I was just thinking about this- mostly because I almost never dream (or almost never remember my dreams, to be accurate), but in most stories/movies, dreams happen often and are full of meaning. The only one I think you left out is “flashback.” Maybe as a subcategory of “show the character’s psyche.” I see it a lot- it does seem to be a convienent way to give background or bring up (or hint darkly at) an important past trauma. Plus, then you can tell it with confusing flashes and interesting narratives AND add to suspense by telling the story out of sequence through multiple dreams.
    And whoever started that “They woke up and it was all a dream” plotline? Someone who delighted in crushing children’s joy of reading?

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