Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The problem with dream sequences in books you like is that they are all metaphor and you never get a choice on whether or not you want to go along for the ride.

"Dream of Solomon" by Luca Giordano
I'm a hypocritical writer. I tend to not like dream sequences in books, but I've used them before. I think that I did it in the past because so many other writers of speculative fiction employ dream sequences (or they historically did so) that it seemed like a necessary component of any narrative. You know? Kind of like following a recipe in a Betty Crocker cookbook. Step one: add characters, sprinkle them liberally, make sure that there are female and male characters in equal helpings. Step two: check for diversity. Step three: Add dream sequence, because it's the best way to indulge author narcissism and come across as clever... Sigh. And sometimes they are unavoidable if there's a certain kind of story that you want to tell.

As to the question: why do dream sequences bug me? I haven't been able to answer that until now. And the answer is complex because I have to channel my love/hate relationship with David Lynch movies. See...I love to watch David Lynch, but only when I know my brain is well-rested, and I feel like I can handle an entire show of nothing but metaphor. And with regard to metaphor, I'm talking the kind that made a Star Trek: Next Generation episode famous with lines like "Darmok at Tanagra" and "When the walls fell." These lines made absolutely no sense because they were metaphors that you could only understand if you were part of the same alien race that was speaking them.

This is why I can't just binge-watch Legion or Twin Peaks. I have to work myself up to these kinds of shows and limit how much they toy with my brain. Figuring out what's going on can be exhausting, but in a fun way. Well when books do these dream sequences (and yes I'm speaking with a wide sweeping generalization) they are usually all metaphors. Very rarely does a dream sequence ever end up being a literal scene as in A leads to B leads to C. If that were the case, then why not just write the scene and not even have it be a dream? The very idea of writing a dream triggers something in us all that wants to explore it via metaphor and get all clever with the images.

Anyway, with a book, my problem with a dream sequence is that you don't get a choice. In the real world...I know that Legion or Twin Peaks is going to be a headache. A book can lure you into the story with snappy dialogue and action and then you are suddenly committed to following along on a journey with a character. Then bam! Out of nowhere comes the dreaded "dream sequence" and it's pages long, and it's all metaphor that I'm going to have to try and figure out and then my brain starts to hurt.

I've been reading Tad Williams' classic The Dragonbone Chair, and this thing is full of dream sequences. But you don't get to them right away. But when they come, boy oh boy are you seeing all kinds of cloaked figures, faces that glow but make no sense, mountains of ice and birds that could be stand-ins for people, or they could very well just be birds. There's marks that could be swords or maybe not be swords, etc., and so on and so forth. Don't get me wrong, I love the book. It's quite riveting, but those dream sequences are like a frickin' wall when they pop up, and I think I visibly groan and say something like, "Not another one...." and then find myself paging through it to see just how long the damn thing is before we get back to the main character.

So the dreaded dream sequence; I'm not sure what I plan on doing with it once I return to writing (I'm on an extended hiatus). I think that I'm going to strive to never ever write another one. I don't care if they made me seem clever. They're ridiculous and I don't think another reader out there ever deserves to suffer through another one. And yes, I realize that I've just burned down James Joyce because that man writes ALL in metaphor. But unlike a dream sequence, at least you know that about James Joyce and can choose to pick up Ulysses if you're craving punishment.

That's just my opinion though :).


  1. I never could get into Tad Williams.
    Not a fan of dream metaphors in books either.
    I can't imagine binge watching Legion. I'd be as nutty as David if I did that.

  2. I don't use a lot of dream sequences. All apologies to Inception but most dreams are largely nonsensical.

  3. I have a hard time following dream sequences. So, I know what you mean.

  4. I've never written a dream sequence, maybe because my own dreams are always so weird I never assume there's any hidden meaning in them -- they're just subconscious garbage. In Inception, which Pat mentions above, they work because they're an integral part of the plot. But 99% of the time writers should skip them.

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