4 Reasons You Should Avoid Writing Dreams in Novels

4 Reasons You Should Avoid Dreams in Novels | Tips about writing dream sequences in novels, and why you should avoid it. A must read for writers who have written out detailed dreams in their stories.

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!

4 Reasons You Should Avoid Dreams in Novels |Advice about why you should avoid writing out detailed dreams in novels. Head over to jackalediting.com for the full article, and more great writing tips from a freelance book editor!


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5 thoughts on “4 Reasons You Should Avoid Writing Dreams in Novels

    1. Hi Lilith, I think you asked the same question on another post recently but mustn’t have been notified of my reply, which you can read here. The problem with using dreams as a way to reveal your character’s backstory is that even when we dream of something that happened in the past, the dream is rarely an accurate representation of what really happened. Because of this, readers find dreams to be a lazy and unimaginative way of exploring backstory.

      If this memory is something that’s haunting the protagonist then it’s likely to appear in her dreams, but in a warped way that reveals her feelings or insecurities more than it replays the event. If you want your reader to see what happened rather than how it’s affecting your character, it’s probably best to leave it as a memory or flashback and not a dream. If you want to show the reader how it’s affecting her then it’s fine to reference a dream she had (that isn’t a memory) and briefly describe it, but I’d keep this no longer than a paragraph in length and avoid writing out a play-by-play of the dream.

  1. I like reading dreams — or rather, *nightmares* — that might represent the protagonist’s current mental state. Two-to-four paragraphs of represented fear usually do the trick for me where I can sympathise with a character further. It’s also interesting to see a character have a nightmare about a situation the could happen further in the story. I wouldn’t know if it *will* happen, but I do get the hint it’s possible and that raises the tension for me. Nightmares where the protagonist hurts someone close to them are also interesting. They make me wonder if there are thoughts the protagonist has been refusing to acknowledge or if there’s a possibility of this friend/etc. being a turnover. Also, when dreams give me assumptions, they usually stick with me better than a character’s thought process. So I find that, if executed in certain ways, dreams are actually a good inclusion to the story. This is why I take what you said about “rules” actually being advice to heart.

    1. I think a couple of paragraphs describing what a character is dreaming about can be useful in some situations, but any more than that can be really off-putting. But you’re right: it’s all about execution.

  2. Dream in novels are usually cop-outs. They rarely further the plot and often occur at the end of a chapter because the writer wants a quick and easy way to end the chapter.

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