The fact is that everyone dreams when they’re asleep (even if they don’t always remember it), it’s a part of being human. Dreams are mysterious, magical, interesting, innately fascinating things. Even though there is a rational scientific explanation for them, they still capture the imagination.
As such, dream scenes tend to turn up occasionally in fiction and comics – probably either as often or less often than sex scenes do (which are another innately fascinating part of being human which also happen in bed). There are quite a few parallels which can be drawn between these two things, although I’ll only list a couple in this short introduction.
Unless you’re writing a story or comic which is actually about dreams (like my “Somnium” comic), then dream scenes may only turn up occasionally in your fiction. Like how (with the exception of erotic fiction) many stories either have no sex scenes, mostly leave it to their reader’s imagination or just include a couple of them when they’re absolutely necessary.
Even so, a badly-written dream scene, like a badly-written sex scene can stand out quite prominently. It can seem contrived, unnecessary or unintentionally hilarious. However, it’s more difficult to write a badly-written dream scene, since even the most experienced person in the world has probably had more dreams than intimate encounters.
So, learning to write dream scenes is one of those things which you might not have to do that often, but it’s still worth learning about nonetheless for the times when you need to write one.
So, How Do I Dream Up A Good Dream Scene?
1) Don’t use your actual dreams (but use your nightmares): This may sound slightly counter-intuitive, but it usually isn’t a good idea to just write a verbatim description of a dream you’ve actually had to your story. There are several reasons for this: Firstly, it’s a reflection of your mind/soul/subconcious rather than your protagonists mind/soul/subconscious. Secondly, most real dreams just don’t make enough sense to work well in fiction. Thirdly, it probably won’t really fit into your storyline that well and might confuse your readers.
The one clear exception to this rule are nightmares. If you’re writing a horror novel/story/comic and you’ve had a particularly gory and/or disturbing nightmare – then, by all means, use it in your story. Although I’ve only really actually done this once (in an unpublished novella I wrote in late 2009 called “Ostenta”. I’d post an extract here, but it’s fairly macabre).
2) Use your experience of dreams: Although you shouldn’t use the actual content of your dreams in your stories, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use your own dreams as inspiration or as a learning tool.
Basically, just look at how dreams work rather than what they contain. Then write a dream scene which uses these features.
For example: Dreams often can be exaggerated and surreal versions of your memories – this can be useful if you want to show some of your protagonist’s past without writing a flashback scene or explaining it via dialogue. The locations which appear in dreams are often strange mixtures of familiar places – this can be quite useful if you’re writing descriptions in a story or drawing backgrounds in a comic. Dreams often react fairly quickly to your emotions and change according to your emotional state – for example, if the protagonist of your story is dreaming about somewhere and starts to feel uneasy or afraid that something will happen, then make sure that something extremely frightening or disturbing happens fairly soon afterwards.
3) Dreams have their own logic: This is kind of an extension of the previous point, but dreams always have their own logic and backstory. The logic and backstory of your dreams may seem completely strange when you’re awake (if you even remember all of it, which you probably won’t), but it’ll probably make a bizarre kind of sense when you’re actually dreaming.
Be aware of this when you’re writing dream scenes. Just because strange things can happen in dreams doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a reason for them and an unseen chain of events leading up to them. This point is kind of hard to explain, but if you’re not aware of it, then you can end up writing dream scenes which do nothing but confuse your reader and waste their time.
Or, to put it in a slightly more understandable way – a dream is a fragment of a story within another story. If you write your dream scenes like they were part of another story, then they’ll be a lot more realistic than if you just make them completely random.
Your dream scene may have a very strange story behind it (and it may start in the middle of that story or near the end), but it should always have it’s own storyline behind it.
4) Dream scenes must be relevant to your story: A good story always keeps moving and dream scenes are no exception to this. If your dream scene doesn’t: reveal something new about your protagonist, give the reader more insight into their character (eg: their fears, their desires etc…), reveal new information (eg: if your protagonist suspects something, but can’t quite piece together the evidence. Don’t just reveal completely new information which your protagonist has no logical way of knowing.), foreshadow something which happens later in the story, allow your protagonist to “meet” someone who has died earlier in the story etc… then don’t include your dream scene.
However well-written or well-drawn it might be, if your dream scene isn’t relevant to your story or comic in some way or another, then you’re just wasting your reader’s time.
5) You can change the genre: As long as the dream scene is relavent to your story and the change isn’t too abrupt, then you can have a lot of fun with this. You can use dream scenes to add supernatural horror to a “realistic” drama/love/Western/thriller etc… story. You can use dream scenes to add some much-needed comic relief to an otherwise bleak or depressing story. You can use dream scenes to add thrilling action and adventure to an otherwise understated and slow story. The possibilities are endless. Have fun.
6) You can blur reality and dreams, but don’t use dream scenes as an ending: This is one of the oldest pieces of storytelling advice, but I should probably repeat it here. Ending your story with “it was all a dream” or anything like that is not a good idea. It’ll make your readers groan. The only possible way to do this is either with very extensive foreshadowing (and, even then, it might still annoy your readers) or if you leave it clearly ambiguous whether the end of your story is real or a dream (but, if this is done badly, your readers may still feel cheated).
However, this doesn’t mean you should never blur reality and dreams in your story or comic. Just make sure that it is either clearly a main feature of the story [eg: for cinematic examples of this, check out Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika” or David Cronenburg’s “eXistenZ”] or that it only happens once or twice for dramatic effect.
This is a storytelling device which is used quite often and very effectively in horror movies – especially if the dream scene is actually a dream-within-a-dream and, just as the protagonist thinks that he or she has woken up, something else nighmarish happens…..
Creating a sense of ambiguity between dreams and reality can be an absolutely fascinating thing to do. But it should either be a very occasional thing in a story whilch is mostly set in the waking world or it should be a central theme and part of your story.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful. Dream scenes can be very good fun to write – but, like sex scenes, if they’re written badly then they tend to stand out a lot.