Tuesday, February 1, 2011


I appreciate all the comments on yesterday's guest post. If you haven't read it yet, please treat yourself to Becky Levine's wise words about how we never stop learning.

In other blogger exchange news, I'm over at Teralyn Pilgrim's blog today, talking about fancy notebooks and why one should write in them, instead of saving them for a special occasion.

Today's topic here on the blog is dreams ... not writer dreams, but character dreams. I was thinking about the dream as a plot device, and how fictional dreams seem to serve a few main purposes:

--Memory. The memory may be triggered in a very obvious and literal way--that is, the character dreams about something that actually happened. The memory may be something of which the character has always been consciously aware, or it may be a forgotten experience that resurfaces in the dream. On the other hand, the memory dream could be cryptic, requiring interpretation. Mary Anderson's Step on a Crack is a good example of the cryptic memory dream as a plot device.

--Revelation. The dream may reveal something to the character about herself (this sort of dream occurred in Alicia Thompson's Psych Major Syndrome). Often it reveals even more to the reader about the character's true state of mind. For example, you could have a character who insists her life is sunny and smooth, but she has horrifying dreams that signal something is really bothering her. I used a variant of the "revelation" dream in The Secret Year: the main character has a couple of dreams about the girl he was involved with, dreams in which the shock of her death is expressed more overtly than he can do when he's awake.

--Prophecy. This is more common in paranormal literature: the character predicts future events in dreams. In a variant of this, the character may receive messages or clues in a dream. Often, the dreams are cryptic and the character must figure out what they mean.

--Control. Carrying the prophetic dream even further, the character actually changes and controls the environment through his dreams. Right off the bat, this concept has a lot of potential for a fascinating story.

In all cases, the dream--like any other scene--has to advance the plot or deepen the characterization (or ideally, do both). It should also arise organically, rather than as a device of convenience (not, "How should I have her find out about the key? I guess I'll just have her dream about finding it in the toilet tank, and then when she looks--there it is!"). The dream should introduce material that can't easily be conveyed some other way, or wouldn't be as interesting or natural if it were conveyed in another way. Of course, even as I suggest these guidelines, I know there must be a million exceptions, as always. Have you ever used dreams in a story, or seen another writer use them effectively? If so, how?


  1. Interesting post. I find dreams fascinating, although I have not, as of yet, used dreams in my novels. But they intrigue me, so maybe in the future.

  2. Dreams are like stories, in a way--an imaginary world that resembles the real one.