Although “it was all a dream” is the one twist ending that all writers and comic-makers are not supposed to use (“it was a dream within a dream” is something of a grey area though, especially in the horror genre), there’s no rule against including dream scenes in your story or comic provided that they are either obviously a dream and/or are openly declared to be a dream at some point within the dream.
The main reason why writers and comic-makers aren’t supposed to use “it was all a dream” as a plot twist is because it’s an extremely lazy one. However, dream scenes can be one of the most interesting types of scenes to write and/or draw.
But, how can you do this in a believable and/or realistic way? Here are a few tips:
1) Lacunae and missing details: Generally speaking, when you are dreaming, you’re often thrown into the middle of a story which you both do and don’t know everything about.
Things make sense within the dream itself but, when you wake up, you can’t always quite remember why certain key events happened or the precise details of important things in the dream (even in the dream itself, you might only have a general sense or vague knowledge of why important things are happening). However, if you do something similar in a comic or story, then you’ll obviously end up confusing your audience.
The trick here is, of course, to only leave out details that don’t seriously affect the events of the main plot. You could also have your characters declare that they don’t remember some important thing (eg: the reason why they’re doing something), whilst giving your audience enough clues to let them fill in some of the details. Or you could make the missing details themselves a central part of the plot of your story or comic.
Likewise, if you’re making a comic, then you can also take advantage of one key feature of many dreams – lacunae. This is a fancy word for gaps in time and/or memory. Since comics don’t take place in real time, you can intentionally create a dream-like atmosphere by including slightly significant time and/or location jumps between chapters and/or separate webcomic updates.
Just try not to confuse your audience with this (eg: either give your readers clues so that they can fill in the gaps and/or make sure your characters comment about the lacunae).
2) Altered settings: Although dreams can take place in entirely imaginary locations, dream locations are often altered versions of real places (or places you’ve seen in movies, TV shows, games etc..). You might dream about your local town, but it might also seamlessly include random parts of other towns or there may be lots of subtle differences from the real location. Likewise, a familiar house might suddenly have a few extra rooms or something like that.
In fiction, a good way to replicate this is to include subtly altered versions of settings that are familiar to your audience (with your narrator commenting about a few of the subtle differences).
One sneaky thing that you can do if you’re making a comic is to make any complex outdoor backgrounds change slightly from panel to panel. As long as the location still looks similar enough that it can be recognised at a glance, then you can often get away with this.
3) Psychological factors: The thing to remember about dreams is that they take place entirely within the mind of the person who is dreaming. Everything and everyone in a dream is based on the dreamer’s memories and/or things that the dreamer has seen, read or thought about recently.
So, your dream scene should be a reflection of your character’s mind. If a character is nervous, then it’s probably going to take place in an uneasily creepy world, where no-one can be trusted (even if they can be trusted in the “real life” parts of your story) and where danger is never far away.
If a character is a fan of something, then their dreams are probably occasionally (but not as often as you might think) going to include elements from things that they are interested in (to give some examples from my own dreams, I’ve met at least a couple of characters from various versions of “Star Trek” in various dreams, I’ve had a few computer game-style dreams etc..).
4) Dream quirks: These vary from dreamer to dreamer, but dreams often have their own set of recurring quirks. These are fundamental “rules” within dreams that are often followed, even in different dreams. They often make no sense, but they can be used in a dramatic way to either subtly signal to your readers that the character is dreaming and/or to give the dream some semblance of consistency and logic.
To give you a creepy example from my own dreams, my nightmares virtually never contain blood whenever I get injured. In fact, I can only think of literally one nightmare I’ve ever had where I’ve started bleeding (it was one when I had a nosebleed that got worse and worse throughout the dream).
In the other injury-based nightmares I’ve had, I can end up suffering all sorts of horrific injuries and it will all be completely bloodless. This somehow makes it ten times more disturbing.
So, yes, dreams often have recurring “rules” that vary from dreamer to dreamer.
5) Plot twists and dream logic: Writing convincing dream-like plot twists can be fairly difficult, since plot twists in dreams can often seem to happen without any foreshadowing. However, from my experience of dreams, there often is foreshadowing – but it happens in a very different way.
Generally, if there’s a strong theme and/or emotion in a dream, then it’s going to take physical form in some way or another. Likewise, a character’s thoughts or fears about something within a dream will usually quickly end up taking form later in the dream (as I’ve discovered for myself during at least two nightmares! If a pile of leaves in a gutter looks like a giant spider creature or if an old scythe reminds you of the Grim Reaper, it’s usually not a good idea to think about it too much when dreaming!).
Regardless of whether you believe that it exists in the waking world or not, dreams contain a turbo-charged version of the “Law Of Attraction“.
So, if you’re going to include a plot twist in a dream, then it has to follow dream logic. What this means is that you have to either hint at it through strong themes/emotions, or you have to briefly show one of your characters either thinking about or feeling afraid about the possibility of some implausible event happening.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂