An odd subject to be ranting about, maybe. Then again, I think I’ve read too many italicized dream-sequences lately.

…try to not let them take over the story.

1) If you always make dreams meaningful, realize the consequences.

Yes, even in real life people have dreams that seem to tell them stories (I had one just last night which told me an urban fantasy story, and which I actually remember well enough to write down). They have recurring dreams, and lucid dreams, and dreams that seem prophetic, and could actually be prophetic in a fantasy setting.

But think about it. Why do we remember those dreams so well, often well enough to recall them years later as “the time I dreamt about X?”

Because they’re rare. Because we’re much more used to not remembering our dreams, or remembering fragments that fade, or going through meaningless sequences of images that wouldn’t make good stories on their own. If we had meaningful dreams every night, we would eventually grow as used to them as we do to the random trash that dances through our heads. They would become something to be mostly ignored, rather than taken note of and celebrated.

Fantasy characters who never have meaningless dreams annoy me. So do characters who have meaningful dreams every night, and still react as if it’s always a miracle.

Fantasy already has enough problems with realism, given authors’ tendencies towards pointless drama. Think about the way your character would actually react to the dreams, not the way that you need her to react in terms of the plot.

2) Don’t use dreams for pointless drama, either.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read about a character having prophetic dreams, who knows they’re prophetic, realizes they could mean that she or someone she knows is in danger…and won’t say anything to anybody.

The reason is often extremely flimsy. “No one will believe me” only works when other characters have already expressed doubts about the existence of prophetic dreams, which happens very rarely. “I don’t want to worry them” takes a lot of work in the first place, and fails completely when there are people around who have expressed their willingness to worry about the character. “I’m not sure” falls flat on its face when the author shows many scenes of the character first doubting her dream and then coming to terms with it.

Most of the time, the characters dealing with the consequences of the vision, or the consequences of one of them being able to see into the future at all, are much more interesting than the round of hide-find out-accuse that goes on when the author makes the character hide the dream.

3) Find some other means of separating the dream from the main text than italics.

Too many of them get wearying to read, especially when it’s a scene that goes on for pages. Also, italics lend the impression of emphasis, as if what is happening in the dream is more significant and will have a greater impact than anything in the main text. Then, most of the time, the dream doesn’t come into play for several chapters, if ever.

Italics are best confined to short dream sequences, especially ones that warn of immediately coming danger or are likewise relevant the moment the character wakes up. Otherwise, why not just separate the dream scenes the way you separate all the others, whether that’s with line gaps or some sort of symbol?

4) Don’t overuse dreams as a means of getting information to your character.

If she doesn’t have to go through any trouble to learn anything because she always knows it from a dream, there’s a problem with your heroine. For one thing, it means that she never makes factual mistakes, which can lead to a death of suspense. For another, it’s a fairly transparent cheat on the author’s part to step around the trouble of coming up with creditable ways to deliver the information.

Even more than that, though, it strikes directly at the root of what makes dreams different from other magic or visions or means of communication in fantasy books: their intriguing unreliability. Dreams may not tell the truth, or may tell it skewed sideways. Other times, they do reveal the truth, but they do it in such strange symbols that the characters need hindsight to recognize it. And, of course, they are unpredictable. Many characters have prophetic dreams, but few can command them to show up without the assistance of other magic or drugs.

If a dream shows up every night, perfectly on schedule, and always tells the heroine in precise detail what’s happening hundreds of miles away, it destroys all that. Why not just have her be a clairvoyant, who would be able to see when she’s awake? It would seem like less of a cheat, especially if no other characters have the same talent.

Alternatively, plant someone with the same talent on the opposite side. As easily as the heroine can see the things the bad guys are doing, this dreamer can see what the good guys are doing. At least it would make for more story balance.

5) If you have a dream realm, make it more than a reflection of the real world.

We sometimes have dreams that seem like reality, but far more that are illogical or different from reality. When the characters can walk a dream world with perfect confidence because it’s only their own world with a few token details changed, I yawn. How in the world can such visions as the characters experience come from a place like this?

Just like dreams themselves, a dream realm should be more than a convenient way to spy on someone or present plot information. Your readers will not often forgive deliberate authorial lying in the context of the narrative, and if you hide your facts too well before springing out the revelations, they can seem unbelievable. But many readers will forgive the characters being unsure of something they meet in the world of their minds at night, or the author being coy about something that she doesn’t want to reveal yet. It’s easier for the author to keep the cards close to her chest here than almost anywhere else.

If your characters are unable to command their dreams, it can be interesting to have them meet things they never expected here. Perhaps they came seeking a vision of an enemy’s death, and instead see their own.

6) Be sparing in the use of nightmares.

Sometimes it seems as if most fantasy characters who’ve undergone a trauma suffer nightmares, mainly as an excuse for more drama (waking pale and shaking, not sleeping well, giving the other characters an excuse to worry, etc.) However, there are several problems with always doing this.

  • There are other consequences to trauma than nightmares, to which much less attention is ever paid. Probably because they wouldn’t be dramatic and might actually inconvenience the character.
  • It becomes more pointless dream drama when the characters refuse to talk about their nightmares, even when they’re obviously having them.
  • Too many fantasy authors lack the ability to write something truly frightening, so the nightmares sound silly and incapable of inspiring such terror when described.
  • It’s too easy a way to show character suffering. Rather than have an outside observer note subtle signs of inner struggle, or even narrate it through the sufferer’s thoughts, the author goes the cheap and obvious route. And then, too often, she fails to follow through even on that. Sleep loss never incapacitates the character. The shadow of the nightmares, or the shadow of whatever caused them, goes unmentioned whenever the author wants the character to do something else. The character never has to spend any time reassuring himself that such dreams aren’t real or shiver in terror, the way that ordinary people do when they wake from ordinary nightmares.

Just as ordinary dreams shouldn’t be used as a substitute for getting information to your character, nightmares shouldn’t be used as an excuse to avoid actually making a character suffer.

Too many italicized dream-sequences has to be the cause of it, I think.