Authorguy's Blog

Dream sequences

Posted on: May 30, 2020


I was just reading one of my more favorite fan fictions and came across a scene where the female lead realizes she was betrayed and set up to die by her trusted boss. The author spends a bit of time telling the reader how furious she was. This is a case where the rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ should have been followed.

The stronger the emotion, the harder it is to put it into words and the more phony it sounds when you do. ‘Joe was enraged’ doesn’t carry nearly the impact of something like ‘Joe attacked the punching bag. It lost.’ This version does sort of require the reader to know what punching bags are and the sorts of abuse they’re designed to take, so it’s not the best option. Those would be highly dependent on the genre of the story (the above example would work in a sports or boxing story, since it would be expected that the likely reader would know the necessary background), the context and the character.

This is one of the reasons I like dream sequences. They’re really good for showing the character’s internal mental state without all those pesky words getting in the way.

I have to say it was strange to find out that for a lot of people, their internal experience of the world is mostly cast into some form of interior monologue. In my case it is not, and I find books where the character’s internal states are put into pages of (usually italicized) text to be incredibly phony and off-putting. One, I hate reading pages of italics. Two, pages of the character going on about his internal state just reads like the author being lazy, telling me what the character is thinking and feeling rather than showing it.

In my experience only the most important things are worth the effort of putting them into words, and words are a way of keeping things distant. As I said recently in a comment on a youtube video about using the 5 senses in writing, “The goals of immersion and description oppose each other.”

Showing what a character is thinking isn’t all that hard, if you ask me. I developed my technique of what I call ‘experiential prose’ mostly to avoid having to describe the setting the character is in, but it works by focusing on what the character would notice in that setting, and uses only the concepts the character knows to understand it. If he’s walking through the forest I don’t want to describe every damn tree and shrub, just the ones he cares about. So I don’t. This makes the book more dynamic, since every piece if description is the product of some act of perception.

In a dream sequence we get the reverse, in which the entire environment is only the things he cares about, cast into some alternative form. Consider this, for example, from a story about a woman who has lost her memory and wants it back:

“She awoke on a cold, hard surface, one of the benches in one of the holding cells in [the base]. The entire facility was dark, and quiet, and she didn’t know what roused her. It wasn’t until she pressed the panel by the door that it occurred to her to think she may be a prisoner, that it might not open, but the notion hadn’t fully formed before it opened. She walked alone, into cold darkness. Down the hall she could hear whispers in the dark, a play of light in the shadows, and she walked that way.”

and contrast it with this, set later on and she’s much more desperate:

“She awoke in Castle, lying on a bench. When she pressed the button, the door moved but terribly slowly, and she yanked it back into its slot. The halls were dark, neither lights nor sounds to give her a direction. The cell block seemed much longer as she ran through it, but eventually she reached the end, and another slow door. This time she cut herself pulling it open.”

She knows she’s getting herself into trouble, and doing what she can to prevent it, but what she wants is stronger than what she knows. This is made clear later on, when she discovers a memory she’d lost on purpose:

“The blackness that had obscured the last image had crumbled to dust, although it still obscured the light glowing from beneath. She just had to…brush it off. She raised her hand and–

She bent and blew gently, unwilling to touch the thing.

-A room. A bed. A woman and a man, naked and coupling and the woman was-

[Her]body went from zero to sixty in no time at all. Her…her…the woman was…her, and the man, the man…[he]was…Oh God, he was…so perfect, waited so long…

She exploded in memory, she exploded in dream.”

You’d think that would be a good thing.

“Light played across the chamber, memories blazed across her mind, emotions seared her very soul, searching for channels that were no more. She had forgotten how to feel this strongly. Only [her later self] had ever learned, and she was not [her later self].

This was a mistake. She had to get away, and struggled to rise.

Her hand landed in the dust and she recoiled. Rage! Betrayal! Soul deep hatred stabbed through the vulnerable place he had made over her heart.

The [last]image burst into flames. The other images followed suit. The explosion caught her before she could reach the door.”

If I had to write this scene over, I’d do it a little differently, not for these parts but for the dialog. At the time I cast it as regular speech, but now I’d put most of it into the dreaded italics.

Dream sequences are, in my view, a great way to combine description and immersion. They present the character’s thoughts and goals into a visual form, showing what she wants, why she wants it, and sometimes the cost of getting it. Consider the classic movie Forbidden Planet, and its monsters of the Id made real.

Do you like dream sequences? Why, or why not?

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