Dreams in Fiction

Everyone dreams, although not everyone remembers doing so. Dreams, therefore, are a common experience, so it’s inevitable that they turn up in fiction. Fictional dreams are, in fact, a literary device. They have also drawn the ire of rule-makers. Writers know they should never end a story by revealing that it was all a dream, or begin one with the character waking up from one.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use dreams in fiction. They can be useful in many ways.

  • Prophetic dreams can provide foreshadowing
  • Dreams can add symbolic elements
  • Nightmares can provide a jolt of horror and an element of backstory
  • Dreams can show something about a character they aren’t aware of
  • A dream can be a vehicle for something unlikely in reality (along with hints that maybe it wasn’t really a dream)
  • Hallucinations and visions are somewhat like dreams (or nightmares)

Deep into Draft 2.5 of my work in progress, I decided to change a particular scene into a dream. That let me dodge some awkward logic problems going forward and introduce bizarre details that (I think) enhance the reading experience without straining the suspension of disbelief. This got me thinking about the use of dreams in fiction. Every one of my novels includes dreams, from brief mentions to full and detailed accounts.

Photo by Elina Krima on Pexels.com

Not to set down rules (Me? Rules? Never!), but it occurs to me there are a few things to keep in mind about using dreams as elements in fiction.

  • Less is more. Unless a story is about dreams or dreaming, it’s probably best not to go overboard with them.
  • Dreams aren’t logical. Fictional dreams that are too detailed and realistic are obviously contrived.
  • Feel free to make fictional dreams bizarre and illogical. In fact, drawing upon your own actual dreams may be a good idea.
  • Think oblique. Hint rather than state. Instead of having a character remember a dream from start to finish, drop in flash memories of the dream as they go through their day. Vivid vignettes instead of technicolour dramas.
cemetery, gravestones
Image from Pixabay

Fellow writers, do you put dreams into your fiction? Or maybe something you’ve written was inspired by a dream. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

Featured image from Pexels

60 comments

    1. Yes, those writing taboos do cramp our style. 🙂
      Dreams are part of life, so why not incorporate them into our fiction? There are many ways to do that. TBH, I think it’s only ending a story with “It was all a dream” that really doesn’t work.
      Thanks for your thoughts, Jaye!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Hi Audrey,

    Dreams feature a lot in my writing, especially the more speculative material. They appeal to my personal metaphysics, which I tend to explore through my writings. But I’ll include them in even the more down to earth stories, as they’re part of most people’s every day experience, and life would be strange without them. Dreams can colour our moods and change the way we face the day, or they can change the way we see certain people, perhaps pointing out the flaws in a person we are inappropriately idolising, or by hinting at the better side of a person we don’t like.

    It also depends on the character having the dream, how the dreams affect them – if they’re a dreamy sort of person anyway, they’ll just roll with them, but a more hard-nosed, rational character might struggle. And then you get the very prudish person who’s disturbed by the most erotic dreams. How do they react to that? I think you can have a lot of fun with dreams in fiction, but as you say, best not to overdo it and to make the dreams authentic by being surreal. Rational, they are not.

    I have borrowed material from my own dreams, the same way I borrow from life in general, but I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that was inspired by an entire dream itself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think your approach to dreams in fiction is a well thought out and effective one, Michael. I don’t usually remember details of dreams, but they can colour the mood of a day, and sometimes odd bits of dream pop up when suggested by something.
      Thanks for your comments!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks, Audrey. My mother was often saying such and such a thing “broke my dream”. Some people are naturally great dreamers, and can remember their dreams chapter and verse. Others believe they don’t dream, ever. You can teach yourself, though. I found just asking to remember your dreams when you lay down at night, works. It can take a few days, but eventually things begin to stick, and it opens up vast new vistas, mostly incomprehensible, but I like to think meaningful in some elusive way. Always fascinating, though.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Like backstory, dream elements may be better dribbled in, mentioned fleetingly, etc. Complete, detailed, technicolour dreams may very well be distractions and obvious contrivances.
      On the other hand, dreams are part of life and connected to waking reality.
      Thanks for your thoughts on this, Liz!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have the weirdest dreams at times and avoided using them in any of my stories in case the men in white coats knocked to take me away…The first one I can still recall, was during evacuation to Wales, in WW2 when a few witches turned up to tie bricks to my arms and legs and throw me in one of the large water tanks around to drown. My dear aunt Sal found me upside down in bed with a sheet tied around my neck. .Have never written a tale about witches,,,but you never know! xx

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That dream sounds like a ready-made horror story, Joy! You should write it.
      I do recall some terrifying dreams from childhood. Now they’re harder to hang onto once I wake up, but leave a kind of mood residue behind.

      Like

  3. I wrote a novella (unpublished) where the main character has a lot of what seem to be foreshadowing dreams, which I used as a red herring. It was an unreliable narrator sort of tale, so the dreams were used to “trick” the reader.

    I had a friend who was a high school English teacher, and every year she assigned her students to write a short story. After a few years, she banned them from ever using dreams because so many of them would fall back on the “it was all a dream” plot twist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that plot twist has been overused, but I think dreams can be mined in various ways for fictional or poetic purposes.
      Apparently H.P. Lovecraft based some of his stories on dreams. I think he did a lot of sleeping. And of course there is his story “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” and the novella The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, which incorporate dreams into their plots.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s right; now that you mention it, I remember reading that “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and “Nyarlathotep” were based on dreams he had. I wish I’d ever had dreams that could be turned into such memorable stories. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The interesting thing about “Nyarlathotep” is that HPL’s dream might have been related to a lecture by Nikola Tesla. Using an actual dream as substance for a story would be kind of tricky, I think. But maybe it depends on the dream. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I use dreams a lot in my writings, particularly in The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars series. Part One ends after the impressionable Robbie’s dream of “Mairin’s Dimension” (the afterlife) that he absorbed from his association with the MaGilligoody clan. And In Part Two Robbie suffers from PTSD and spends a lot of time being psychoanalysed by Dr. Gill Winehandle. His dreams move in a progression from terrifying to benign – they ultimately help him to cope. And at the end of Part Eight (the end of the “Big Mission” to Epsilon Eridani), Robbie has a dream that is funny and also poignant. Perfect conclusion, in my opinion.
    It would have never occurred to me that I wasn’t supposed to use dreams in my fiction. If you followed all the so-called “rules” of writing, your creative instincts would be completely paralyzed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I remember those dreams of Robbie’s. They certainly fit the story and enhanced it. I think the only “taboo” worth paying attention to regarding dreams is the one where the end of a story reveals that it was all a dream. But yes, fretting about rules does have a paralysing effect. I’m aware of them, but shove them aside until the editing stage. And there are a few I’ve simply discounted as misguided and, let’s face it, dumb.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I would never think of witing a story that was entirely a dream. I like realism, with a touch of the paranormal at times, which can easily be introduced through dreams (like Robbie’s occasional relationship with Prf. Doone’s cat Taliesin.)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree. Stories rooted in realism with supernatural elements woven in are more relatable than purely unreal narratives. For those, the writer needs to create some sort of reality from scratch first, and even then they may be too unstable for the reader’s comfort.
          (As a catless cat person, I appreciated the scenes with Taliesin!)

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I have no problem with dreams in stories. If done well, they can add to the story and often serves as foreshadowing. Children often have nightmares so it is normal to add one or two to the story. I like your (sort of) rules.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Prophecies revealed in a dream-like state, I’ve used them for a character, Cassandra, ahem, in a story. Other than that, I don’t think I’d used them except in passing to, yeah, foreshadow or reveal a desire or revulsion that would be difficult to blatantly expose.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great tips about writing dreams, Audrey, especially about making them illogical and fractured, and dropping them in little bits. That’s how dreams work. I have used dreams, but not often. Good for you for going with your gut. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Since I write stories in first person, and I can’t think of anything more tedious than to be forced to listen to someone telling you their dream, I haven’t used dreams in my stories. My own dreams, what little I remember of them in the minute or two after I awake, generally lack not only interest, but a comprehendible narrative flow, so I’d have to be very inventive if I wanted to include one. That said, I can see that in some genre, in some writing styles, and in some situations, a dream can play an important role in the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Excellent post! I know that I agree with your overall philosophy about occasionally breaking the rules. How does one qualify to be an “expert” and tell us what not to do? Another possible plot scenario is a character could do something irrational based on their dream believing in its reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Love your post! I use dreams in my stories from time to time, and I like writing them. You’re right–they need to be short, symbolic, seemingly incoherent to look like real dreams, but written with inner logic to achieve their purpose — to foreshadow future events or to give insight into a character’s subconscious feelings. Many famous writers used them, after all: they in War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Handmaid’s Tale…

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Some of my weirdest dreams were adapted for chapters of stories I was writing, because my dreams are sometimes movie-like. Using dreams in my writing? I do it, sometimes mentioning the whole dream or pieces of it, more often just having a character with PTSD (usually from war) waking up in terror after nightmares (or mentioning that a friend sleeping next to him wakes him up and tries to calm him). I mentioned a whole dream into a chapter once, cinematographically, because it made sense – the young man, who had PTSD from war, blocking the memories for some days of his war mission, several months later, triggered by a bar fight he had witnessed one night, when succeeding to fall asleep afterwards, had dreamt everything his memory tried to hide from him. I had researched that it could happen.

    His friend who had been found together with him, both half dead, had an almost total amnesia, he did not remember even his name, but he had kept his skills, without knowing where and when he had learnt them. For him, the challenge had been to discover more about himself every day – well, I understand this language… I know how to add and subtract, without remembering anything about going to school or about my parents and my town (yet). I know how to play chess when I see two hospital roommates playing it… He keeps discovering and having small flashbacks of memories in time, but who he actually was, with the names of parents, town and school, and what he actually did in the war (ie the memories arranged well like a puzzle, vs discovering one or another random puzzle pieces) happens only a few years later, when a terrorist hostage taking happens and he gets involved. The shock makes him act, save the day and remember.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. That’s all quite incredible, Marina!!

    I can recall one, very strange dream, whereby there was a knock at the door, and when opened, there was a horde of helmeted Vikings standing there, smiling and, the one who seemed to be in charge, announced they had all “Come for tea!” I immediately thought I hadn’t enough cups to accommodate them and then the dream faded. I mentioned it to my husband, but he didn’t believe me…As weird as it sounds, that was exactly how the short dream happened. The mind, both conscious and subconscious, works in such mysterious ways….

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Interesting post! I’m working on the first draft of a paranormal mystery that opens with short, intense nightmare sequence. In the same chapter, readers learn that this isn’t the first time it’s happened to her, and that this particular scene she’s encountered is connected to her parents’ current client. I haven’t sent it out for critiquing yet, but it’ll be interesting to hear comments when I do.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I’ve found myself using dreams as exposition and characterization. It isn’t something I planned (i have an over arching plan but not a chapter by chapter plan, I’ve tried though). Nightmares can be very useful for characterization because it shows the characters fears and traumas, especially when those fears and traumas are the characters motivations.
    That and it makes me sad and making me sad was the reason I cared about that story over the many ideas I have.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dreams can be good vehicles for all sorts of fictional elements. The trick is to make them seem dreamlike rather than too realistic. Nightmares are opportunities for dramatic scenes.
      Thanks for your comments!

      Like

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