By the title of this post, I don't mean "dreams" in the sense that I dream of being a published author some day (World Domination 2010!), but those dreams that characters (and real people, too) have when they are asleep. You know, real dreams, as opposed to aspirations, hopes, goals, whatnot.
Recently, over at Mysterious Matters, Agatho said that dreams in stories often make him cringe. Why? Because, as he puts it:
Let's see, your protagonist has just had a narrow escape from the clutches of a serial killer. That night, she dreams that she is being chased through a carnival by a wolf whose face she cannot see. She wakes, terrified, wondering what it all means. It means that your manuscript has just been shit-canned.Heh. The rest of the post about what makes him cringe is pretty good, too, but this part made me giggle. What does it mean? "It means your manuscript has just been shit-canned." I'm going to have to start using that.
Seriously, though, dreams in fiction are hard to pull off because dreams in real life don't often make sense. That's strike one.
And I'm sure you've had that experience where you've tried to tell someone else about a dream you've had and, like, three minutes in their eyes start to glaze over, even if the dream is about them? Yeah, that's because dreams are boring. Strike two.
So why include them in stories at all? Because sometimes it seems like an important thing to include. An example -- in one of the stories that I've got on the back burner right now (the Super Exciting New Project, or SENP) -- one of my characters has a sort of a sexy dream. People have these all the time, of course, and normally, they don't go into stories (at least, not the kinds of stories I write :) ) at all. It's like going to the bathroom -- you don't need to put it in the story unless something relevant to the story happens in there. But that's the thing, the sexy dream my character has is relevant to something (not sexy) that happens to him later in the story. It's foreshadowing future events, laying the groundwork for the stuff that happens later.
So, things to be aware of to avoid striking out when writing about dreams:
1. don't be too literal. In Agatho's example, the dream is a too literal representation of what has just happened to the character. If she's wondering what that dream means, your character is stupid and should have been killed by the serial killer long ago.
2. reflect what the character is feeling, but not too directly. People are complex creatures. When they are feeling trapped, they don't necessarily dream about being trapped in a cage or something. When they are feeling nervous, they don't have to dream about being nervous. I remember distinctly a time when I was feeling stifled in a personal relationship, I dreamt of driving on a mountain road, losing control of the car, and driving off the edge of a cliff. That could be applied to my situation in two different ways: (1) if I'm not in control of a situation, the whole thing is going to go off a cliff or (2) too much freedom and power is just as destructive as too little. A character's dream is more interesting if it can be interpreted in more than one way.
3. make them short. No one wants more than a paragraph about a dream. For real.
4. make them disjointed. No real dream makes perfect sense. Things change, people change, images change, without explanation. A description of a dream is one place in your writing where strangeness and obscurity has a place. Just not too much of it. :)