Many people would say that you shouldn’t, ever. That including dream sequences in a novel is mere inches away from the cardinal sin of closing a story with the immortal phrase ‘and then I woke up’. That it’s impossible to capture the ever-shifting intangibility of our dream worlds, and that in trying to do so we end up with writing that is at its best banal – as boring to the reader as when a friend tries to recount the reverie that had so entranced them in their sleep the night before.
If this is true then I have a problem. The entire plot of my novel revolves around the dreams of my protagonist. I didn’t even consider that this might be an issue before now: in the humdrum excitement of writing the first draft I just wanted to get it all down, to tell her story. But there’s no escaping that the middle of that draft lags, that something does not quite ring true, does not quite manage to keep the reader where I want them.
I’ve been able to push it to the back of my mind over the past week, but now my chapter a day has brought me to that crucial point where Grace has her first dream.
I had a bit of feedback to work with: the dreams were too long, too cheesy, too dialogue driven. Reading back over the chapter today I could see that was true. My style is usually quite sparse, but in my desire to thrust the reader deep inside Grace’s experience I had over-written it. I was making the same point twice, maybe three times. I was spelling out the steps of her journey in a way that was far removed from the abstract, impression-driven world that dreams more normally inhabit.
So there were some clear areas to cut. It was quite satisfying, actually – realising that I could convey what I needed to in drastically fewer words than I had previously thought. I did leave some of the detail, more than would normally remain when recalling a dream of one’s own in the cold light of day. Because this dream isn’t a memory – it’s happening to her in the present.
This might be part of the problem when it comes to writing about dreams. Very few of us, if any, will ever have the experience of being truly present in our dreams. I think I’ve come close a handful of times – that realisation that I’m dreaming, an awareness that imprints the experience more solidly in my conscious mind. But dreams more often come to us in fragments, bubbling up from the subconscious and slipping through our fingers before we’ve had the chance to really remember.
It was the desire to make this distinction, between a dream happening now and one remembered, that led to the other major change I made. Whilst most of my novel is written in the past tense, I transposed the dream to the present. It’s still in the third person, but I think it feels more immediate – whilst also managing to convey an otherworldliness and uncertainty that seems to fit.
I’m not 100% sure it works, but I’m going to go with it for now. I think it becomes more challenging to hold the reader’s attention with the dream sequences as the novel goes on, so this is very much only the beginning…
I’d love to hear your thoughts on writing dreams. Have you ever tried incorporating dreams into your fiction? How do you think the dream world can best be conjured up in words? Are there any good examples of dreams in literature that you think I should read? It’s not that I’m afraid of breaking the rules – but if I do then it most definitely needs to be convincing.