I used to think that almost all dream sequences in books were bad. I don’t recall what books I was reading at the time but I specifically recall them being just a bunch of nonsense.
Until one day, I read one that didn’t only entice me, but I read it three times in a row. Why the desperation? Because it was telling me something. Although what it was telling me wasn’t essential, just foreshadowing and food for theories, I just wanted to know. No. I needed to know.
So, bad dream sequences are the ones that don’t serve a purpose. It’s just a bunch of shocking imagery for the sake of it, because you need some excitement but the next action scene is too far away.
Or because you have a cool image in your head and you think despite it’s lack of relation to the story it will entice your reader regardless. Perhaps you like other people’s dream sequences and don’t know what you like about them.
For me, a good dream sequence tells you something, perhaps gives you some important details about a characters past, perhaps some insight on their emotional state, it tells us about what they’re worried about, it’s tell us what they’re scared of.
I think the most important thing is to know what you’re trying to express before writing the sequence. Choose the essential details and then mix in some less-esential but in no way irrelevant ones.
Let’s use an example from my writing, spoilers ahead for Act 1 of Oppida Institute for Reformation (obviously, slight spoilers, it’s available for free in the link at the bottom of the post if you’d like to read it and then come back!):
Slumber came fast, but it was not pleasant. She found herself in the Institute, her arm was hurting, why was her arm hurting? She looked down at it to see it was bleeding. Why was it bleeding? She turned her arm over, but couldn’t find where the blood came from. She hummed and began to walk towards the exit.
She knew this building. She hated it. But she knew it. She reached the familiar door, pushed. Nothing, it wouldn’t budge. She hummed again and wondered off to find a window. But there were none.
She was tired. So she headed upstairs, towards her room, she needed somewhere to sleep. The building had been empty up until now, but when she entered the hallway with the rooms it was full. There was a child at every door.
They were younger than Elizabeth. She didn’t know who any of them were, they didn’t have names, but she somehow knew they were from the Institute.
They looked at her. Or past her? No. Definitely at her.
“Hello?” she couldn’t hear her own voice, but they reacted to it by tilting their heads.
She didn’t know who they were, until it dawned on her, they were the children who she hadn’t got to in time. She looked at them closer. They all had cuffs on their wrists. The cuffs she’d worn when thrown into the carriage.
She looked down at the ground, it wasn’t stone anymore but wood. She looked back up, the walls were wood, the doors to the rooms were now all like the exit to the carriage. The ground began to move and she lost her balance falling to the ground.
She heard banging, it was the sound of her banging on the exit of the carriage.
She gasped for breath. Before waking up in a cold sweat in her bed at the orphanage. She was crying. She was crying loudly.
Thankfully her room mate was missing, nobody noticed.
Okay, so what was the goal with this scene? Context for those who haven’t read the story: Act 1 consists of Elizabeth infiltrating what is believed to be an abusive institution to find evidence. She finds this evidence but is promptly found out and nearly “shipped off” in a wooden carriage fighting for survival.
She is rescued before anything truly bad can happen to her. However, she’s shown to be quite stressed and her attitude towards the adults in charge further hint that the events are having a larger impact than she wants them to know about. However, this is the moment where all readers should realize how deep the trauma runs.
Prior to writing the sequence, I knew I needed to show the Institute, the carriage and the children. The Institute being the origin of the trauma, the carriage being the overflow and the children being her largest regret. The children who came before her, who she didn’t arrive in time to save.
Okay, so three things to work with. What about the other details? Where do they come from? Let’s take a look by listing them:
–Pain/bleeding in her arm: this a quick early hint at what’s to come for those who read the chapters in order. In the carriage she banged her shoulder and in extension her arm against the wooden door. Although not stated because of the adrenaline and the lack of relative importance, this is something painful and damaging. This is also foreshadowing to the next chapter where she is taken down with an odd amount of ease, partly due to exhaustion from this nightmare, but also partly due to invisible injuries needing recovery.
–Locked door and no windows: obviously representing the feeling of being trapped that she had while living there.
–Being tired and heading to her old room: it shows how despite being back home, she still holds that instinct from the time she was there.
–The building being empty except for children: after she found evidence obviously the building was emptied, employees were arrested, children returned to safe homes. But in Elizabeth’s mind, it’ll never be fully empty, for it still holds those children who weren’t allowed to ever go home.
–The children standing at the doors: this is a throwback to this exact thing happening at the Institute.
–The children being younger than Elizabeth: This one is interesting because in the actual story, it’s mentioned that Elizabeth’s the same age as most of the attendants. Why make them younger here? Because Elizabeth perceives them as such. She’s an apprentice, a guard to be, responsible, mature. They’re children that need protecting. It’s her job to protect them. Just like an older kid to a younger child.
(Plus children are always spookier).
–Not being sure about where they are looking: Who’s to blame for them not making it? They look past her, at the real culprits, but ultimately Elizabeth still blames herself so they’re eyes return to her.
–Not being able to hear her own voice: This is just something that happens (to me) often in dreams. And that’s another thing you can incorporate into dream sequences, actual realistic things from dreams, it can help sell and seal the scene. It also adds to the spooky factor and makes the wooden noise coming up later stronger and more impactful.
–The sudden recognition: Another thing stolen from my actual dreams. I often am confused as to who people are until my brain fills me in on the story it’s trying to tell.
Obviously I don’t expect anybody to pick up on all of these details, especially not to this extent. I expect some are obvious, while some are near impossible. I expect there are details I did not add on purpose but people will over read, or read differently. But the point is, there are details, there are layers. There’s nothing wrong with readers giving stuff their own twist!
Plus, nothing is added in just for the visual affects or to sound spooky. There is thought behind these random details.
Another thing to note about this scene is the point of view and the pacing. Usually I’m a lot more to the point with my writing, asking questions and giving a lot of opinion create a slower pace I’m not always a fan off. But this is a different plane, mixing up the pacing and showing a lot more of Elizabeth’s feelings helps separate it from the real world.
It helps set the tone and more importantly, it allows for more impact in the final scene.
The final scene, the climax of the dream sequence, the whole place turning to wood, the noise and the feeling of the ground moving. It’s an example of a scene that uses the senses, only missing smell here. But we don’t usually experience things so vividly in dreams, right? Well, that’s why she wakes up. That’s why it’s the climax.
I think it also helps to think of every dream sequence as it’s own little story, with it’s introduction, midpoint and climax. You can also consider them as little chapters if you’re going to have several, but be careful with overusing dream sequences! Especially if you do like I do and mix up the pace, if a reader enjoys your writing style, having that style change often may be frustrating.
Anyways, I hope this made sense. I don’t know if using an example from a story few of you will have read is a good idea because a lot of the details won’t make sense on their own, but it’s something I had easy access to and actually knew everything about.
Did it work for you? Would you rather I try to make something up next time? Feel free to tell me, I aim to imrpove, as we all do.
As usual, check out my socials and book here. Also, my Wattpad is in there, so if you enjoyed this small extract from Opida’s Institute for Reformation, you can read twenty three chapters of it for free! Plus a new chapter every Tuesday.
What’s your favorite dream sequence from a book you’ve read?