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How to Write a Realistic Dream Sequence in Fiction

Former university professor of marketing and communications, Sallie is an independent publisher and marketing communications consultant.

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Although some believe there's never a good reason to insert a dream sequence into a work of fiction, I’m not sure I agree. Dreams are part of reality, so what could be wrong with a fictional character having a dream? Although what happens in a dream is not real, it is true that real people dream dreams.

If a fictional person is realistic, isn't it both logical and reasonable, then, to expect them to dream? And, while dreams are not real, they can be realistic in the sense that it is realistic for a person to go to sleep and have a dream. With that said, I think the most important consideration when writing a dream sequence is that it be handled with great care in order to make it effective as a way of moving your story forward. If it doesn't move the story forward, then it should not be inserted.

Eight Things to Consider Before Writing a Dream Sequence

I am the author of a ten-book collection of novels called Color of Love. Although I haven't completed all ten books, with seven of them in various stages of completion, I know that at least one book in the collection includes a dream sequence. If you are determined to insert one into your story, here are eight points I considered before writing a dream sequence for a character in one of my novels. I believe these considerations can help any writer who wants to create a realistic dream sequence.

  • Find out as much as you can about dreams. The fact that you dream does not make you an expert on dreaming. Do your "due diligence" and conduct research to find out all you can about the dream process. Doing this will give you more confidence (and maybe even a few ideas) as you begin to write your dream sequence.
  • Create an outline, or a “details sheet” of your dream sequence. Tell why the dream is needed, what it represents for the character, and how it will move the story forward.
  • Be careful about where you place the dream sequence. The beginning of the novel and action-filled sequences are probably not good for dream placement.
  • Put a realistic time-limit on the dream. The average dream lasts as long as the REM phase of sleep, which is the phase closest to wakefulness. Clinical studies place the REM phase between five and forty-five minutes. But since time is one of the elements of dreams that can be most distorted, a dream can seem to last longer than it actually does. Some research says the longer a person sleeps, the shorter their dreams become.
 "The Soldier's Dream of Home", a patriotic American Civil War print, showing a soldier in Union blue (with "U.S." belt-buckle) sleeping in a military camp, with a letter from home by his side, and dreaming of being happily reunited with his family.

"The Soldier's Dream of Home", a patriotic American Civil War print, showing a soldier in Union blue (with "U.S." belt-buckle) sleeping in a military camp, with a letter from home by his side, and dreaming of being happily reunited with his family.

  • Think about the “after-dream” effect your character will experience. Upon waking, how will the character react from having had the dream? Think about how you awaken from dreaming. Talk to your friends and family members about how they react after waking from a memorable, and perhaps even a startling dream. Make sure your character’s reaction is believable.
  • Think about how you will structure elements of the dream sequence, and how it will “look.” Will the character be “lucid dreaming” or not? A lucid dream is one where the dreamer realizes that he or she is dreaming. Will the dream seem “surreal,” or will it seem more like the character’s reality? Think about how the dream will look, visually, in the character’s mind as he/she is dreaming.
  • Think about how you will present the dream on the page the reader will see. It might be a good idea to put the dream sequence in italics, to distinguish it from the “real” world of your story.
  • Be certain, after thinking about it, that the dream is the only way to proceed. What would happen if you did not insert the dream into the story? Is there any other way, other than the dream, to give your character or your story whatever it is you want to add to it using the dream sequence? Could you leave out the dream sequence, and simply allow your character to tell another character about a dream he/she had?
Dream of Solomon by Luca Giordano, circa 1693.

Dream of Solomon by Luca Giordano, circa 1693.

What is a Realistic Dream?

A "realistic" dream is a dream that is true to what a dream is like. Dreams can take many different forms, and not all dreams seem real, even though some do. A dream can seem like "fantasy," and not seem real at all, or it can be something that is a creative blend of fantasy and reality. Since a dream is not reality, it doesn't have to observe the rules of reality in order to be a realistic dream. Then again, a dream can be nearly indistinguishable from reality. I know I've had many dreams that have seemed so real that, after waking up, I've had to think for a minute or two before finally accepting that an event that seemed very real was, in fact, a dream.

I am reminded of a recently cancelled episodic television show on NBC (which lasted only one season), called “Awake.” It was about a man, Detective Michael Britten (played by actor Jason Isaacs), who lived in two distinct worlds. One world was real, the other was a dream. The problem was, Michael couldn't tell which was which. Both worlds seemed real to him. His "dual" realities started after the car he was driving, in which his wife and son were passengers, was involved in a fatal accident. In one of the worlds he found himself "awake" in, his wife had survived the crash, and in the other his son had.The show was all about Michael trying to figure out which of his realities was real, and which was actually a dream.

No matter what structure a dream sequence takes, the dream itself must be meaningful to the story. That means it must enable movement of the character from one point to a new point, no matter what form it takes. If it doesn't, then it should not be used.

Sweet dreams dreaming of snowhite and the seven dwarves - painting by Franz Schrotzberg

Sweet dreams dreaming of snowhite and the seven dwarves - painting by Franz Schrotzberg

Have a Good Reason for Inserting a Dream Sequence

Think about why you want to insert a dream sequence into your book. Could it be that there is something your character needs to know or to understand, that can be best told or revealed to him or her through a dream?

Or maybe your character, while awake, is dealing with repressed feelings or emotions that only come to the surface in a dream. Maybe the reason you want to use a dream sequence is because you feel that, ironically, it can bring about a kind of “awakening” for a character, and is, therefore, the perfect conduit. Maybe you think a dream, like nothing and/or no one else, can enable a character to face or to figure out something that has been buried deep in his or her subconscious mind, something that no one else knows about. Something that must surface in order to save the character from a certain downfall or demise.

The dream sequence is a tricky proposition. Many people believe it should not be used at all, while others say it's simply not a good way to begin a novel. Why? Perhaps it has to do with the idea that, in writing fiction, you are asking readers to suspend their disbelief in order to accept as "real" the story you're about to tell them. Then, the first thing you give them to read about is a dream, something that by its very nature is unbelievable, because, conceptually, it is “unreal.”

None of the "precautions" I've mentioned in this Hub mean you shouldn't insert a dream sequence into your novel. They do mean, however, that you should give a lot of thought and careful consideration to whether or not a dream sequence is what you really need to move your story forward. A dream, like anything that happens in your story, should be there for a good reason.

Questions & Answers

Question: I'm thinking of adding a dream section in my story. The reason being so my character can remember a traumatic event that she has blocked from her mind. Would this be a good approach to the story?

Answer: It sounds like a good use of a dream sequence for a character. Our dreams do sometimes work to help us "resolve" issues from the past where we might not have "closure," so to speak. Trauma and tragic events can make it difficult to arrive at closure, and dreams can represent a chance for our subconscious mind to take us to a place where we come face-to-face with the need for closure.

Dreams often allow us to relive the situation, a similar but not exact situation, or an entirely different situation that feels similar regarding the challenge it presents. One or more dreams might offer a chance for healing or at least coming to terms (finding "closure") with something from the past. Since we can only live in the present, all of us have to find a way to come to terms with things from the past, no matter how traumatic or tragic.

Question: How do you end a dream sequence? I usually just write that the character awoke, but is there a clear way to end a dream sequence that sounds good?

Answer: There is no "set" way to end a dream sequence or to end any other type of event or occurrence in fiction writing. Of course, the character has to awaken from the dream, unless he or she is in a coma, but otherwise, just as in real life, he or she will awaken. What the character does after waking up is probably where your challenge lies, as a writer. Does the character remember the dream? In what way/ways has the dream affected the character, if at all? Does the character know more about what he/she must do? Has the dream "awakened" the character to something that was buried or "asleep" before the dream?

Question: My character is going to have a series of horrible nightmares every night, in which she kills her own friends, while in her “evil form.” She never talks about the dreams, but I don’t want to write the same nightmares over and over again. Should I just write the dream once, and then show signs she isn’t sleeping well?

Answer: This sounds like a "workable" plan. I have a novel where a character is struggling with bad dreams, but before introducing the dreams, I have done my best to make sure readers care about the character first. Character development is always more important than any dream or nightmare he or she might be having. Once we care about the character, the dreams will be more meaningful and important to your readers.

© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD

Comments

Shirley Urso-Farmer from Michigan on July 11, 2016:

You're quite welcome :)

Sallie B Middlebrook PhD (author) from Texas, USA on July 08, 2016:

Thank you Shirl Urso-Farmer. Always good to hear. : )

Shirley Urso-Farmer from Michigan on July 08, 2016:

Great article, thank you :)

Sallie B Middlebrook PhD (author) from Texas, USA on September 15, 2013:

Hi Petemayhew. Thank you so much for your kind words. I am thrilled whenever anything I've written helps someone in some way. Rules are there to be broken, for sure, but when doing so, I think it is necessary to have a good reason, and that it needs to be done skillfully and strategically. That is, the end result of breaking the rules when writing fiction or non-fiction, should be something so clear, so easy to understand, and so powerful, that not breaking the rules would make it much less so.

In response to your question ("I have some questions but I'm not sure if this is where I should ask them. Any advice?"), while I can't speak for all Hubbers, I always welcome a few questions.

Pete Mayhew from Somewhere in the Middle East on September 15, 2013:

This is by far the best article I've come across yet on writing dream sequences! I can't thank you enough. I've never followed the "rules", (EVER) just ask my teachers or my parents. I'm in the middle of writing my first novel and I'm struggling with this very subject. I have some questions but I'm not sure if this is where I should ask them. Any advice?

Sallie B Middlebrook PhD (author) from Texas, USA on October 21, 2012:

Thank you, Chris Neal, for reading my Hub. Some people abhor them in novels, but they are part of our "real" lives. Glad you found some things to think about. Thanks again.

Chris Neal from Fishers, IN on October 21, 2012:

Thank you very much! Great hub! I do sometimes put dream sequences in my writing, so this is good to think about!