If you’re on a book editor’s website reading blog posts about writing then you’ve been in the writersphere long enough to have heard that editors and agents hate dreams in novels. Many people in the writing community tend to just parrot what they’ve heard others say so the reasons behind these remarks get lost and we end up with this intense aversion to writing “rules”. “Writing rules” aren’t actually rules, they’re just suggestions about things that might influence your book’s sales potential.
“Don’t put dreams in novels” isn’t a rule; it’s advice that emerged from readers’ negative reactions to dreams in novels, and it’s practical advice. There are perfectly good reasons why you should avoid dreams in novels. But there are just as many people opposing this advice because “art” or “don’t listen to editors” or other butbutbuts. The message has become unclear.
Before I clarify the “don’ts” of dreams in novels:
- I’m talking about the stuff most people experience during sleep, not visions or magic forms of communication.
- And I’m talking about dream sequences, where you write what your character is dreaming about, not your character’s ability to dream.
So let’s get to it. Why shouldn’t you include dreams in novels?
1. What happens in dreamland stays in dreamland
Writing 101: what keeps readers reading is anticipation. They want to know what happens next. To keep your reader on the edge of their seat, you need to make them care about what happens. To make them care, you need to make it matter to the character. There needs to be something at stake. Ergo, stakes = tension.
Dreams aren’t real (we’re discounting prophetic dreams and dreams as a form of communication, remember?). Even if you make your character’s dream full of adventure, there’s nothing put at stake outside of the dream world. Anything your character achieves in their dream doesn’t crossover into their real life. It’s difficult to make a reader care about something your character is doing if it has no consequences, good or bad. There’s no tension in that. It’s boring, so they’ll either stop reading or skip it.
2. Real dreams are random and incoherent
Dreams don’t make sense; they’re a conglomeration of random things. That makes ordinary dreams unsuitable for use as a plot device, rendering them meaningless. Don’t put your reader through that.
Further, unless your character is clairvoyant, their dreams shouldn’t be able to foreshadow anything unless they’ve been given reason to intuit that something. Dreams don’t tell us something our subconscious doesn’t already know. So when Harry Potter has a dream about Quirrell’s turban telling him to transfer to Slytherin in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone without having any idea there’s a face in that turban, consider me annoyed.
This also means that dreaming is not the best way to reveal your character’s backstory, as dreaming is not the process of your brain replaying all your memories. Of course you can dream about something that happened in the past, but you can neither guarantee that you will nor rely on your dream for accuracy of this event.
3. Awake or asleep, your character is the same person
I’ve seen writers defend the use of dreams by saying they can develop character. If you can’t develop your character while they’re awake, you’re in serious trouble. Need I say more?
Dreams can give voice to your character’s insecurities or fears, but if you develop your character properly, then your reader should be able to deduce these insecurities and fears from your character’s behaviour. In fact, your reader should be able to figure it out from your character’s behaviour to some extent. Even if we push down our fears and insecurities, they still influence our decisions. If you just want to establish how deep something affects your character, you can briefly describe their dream in a few sentences. There’s no need to take your reader on a boring, confusing and tension-lacking sequence.
4. Art imitates life, but not to a T
Another defence I’ve heard is “but people have dreams in real life and books are supposed to be realistic so why shouldn’t your character dream hmmmmmm?” People use the loo several times a day in real life too but do you see anyone writing about that?
Novels aren’t real life. Real life is full of monotony. In novels, we cut out that monotony because we don’t read novels for dreams and toilet breaks and tea room chatter. Books are supposed to be interesting. Other people’s dreams aren’t generally interesting. If they are, they don’t usually push your life forward, so why should they push a plot forward? Unless the dreams are prophetic or unusual in some other way, they shouldn’t. Don’t write them. Leaving dreams out of your novel will not lead your readers to believe your character can’t dream.
As I said, this isn’t a rule. There are no storytelling rules, just suggestions based on how readers respond to different techniques. If you’ve read a book with a dream that wasn’t the result of a special ability, let me know in the comments!