Dreams and nightmares can play a large part in people’s lives, but because of their unstructured and confusing nature, it can be difficult to include them in a story. To make it even more difficult, the majority of a dream is forgotten within the first few minutes after waking up! How are you supposed to write about something when your own experience with it is only ever a fleeting memory?
There are many ways to write about dreams in fiction, but they generally must serve a different purpose than dreams in real life. Some people could argue that real dreams have deeper meanings, but in a story, they really have to have a clear purpose. You shouldn’t just use a dream to break up a story or create comic relief. Keep that in mind before you decide to include a dream in your story.
Is Writing About Dreams a Bad Idea?
Of course not. Writing about dreams is not an inherently bad idea. A good writer can make anything interesting to read, so if your story needs a dream sequence for some particular reason, you absolutely should write it.
However, the people that vehemently stand by the assertion that it should never be done do have good reason to be grumpy about it. It is extremely easy to mess up a dream sequence, in an absolutely infinite number of ways. In fact, a good majority of attempted dream sequences are poorly executed.
Dreams are confusing by nature, so when you try to write about them, you risk confusing your readers. No one wants to read a story when they have no idea what’s even going on. No amount of fantastical imagery can keep a confused or frustrated reader holding on for too long—they’re bound to skip ahead, or stop reading altogether. Acknowledging that is the first step towards crafting a memorable dream sequence that won’t drive your readers mad.
What Makes a Dream Sequence Good or Bad?
A poorly executed dream sequence can take many different forms. They can be frustratingly vague or too overwhelming, or they can just be downright boring. Although dreams should be confusing, bad dream sequences usually take that too far and construct a narrative that is so confusing that it is rendered completely pointless. And if something in your story doesn’t serve a purpose, it shouldn’t be included.
Another thing that really bothers readers is trickery regarding dreams. It’s just a really really bad idea to disguise a dream as being part of the true narrative. When something significant happens and the character later wakes up to reveal that it was all just a dream, that can be upsetting for a reader. If you need to use a dream to trick the character, make the fact that it’s a dream obvious to the reader—or at least vaguely hinted at.
A good dream sequence is one that serves a legitimate purpose in the context of the story. Dreams can be a powerful tool for giving insight into a character’s personality and struggles, creating meaning from a scene, or emphasizing something else in the narrative. A shocking situation could leave a character fixated on an event, in which case it can be a great technique to use dreams to show how they were affected. In other words, the dream has to mean something. It must be symbolic, haunting, or revealing, and it should contribute to the plot or character in some way.
There are many other ways to make or break a dream sequence, but I’ll get to more specific examples later on.
Is There a Better Way?
There are times when it is more appropriate to use a dream than other times. If dreams play a large storytelling role in the narrative, it’s fine to go a bit overboard with them. However, in most normal situations, there’s almost always a better way to present information than with dreams.
Try to think about what you want to achieve. If you’re using it to reveal backstory for a character, then you might want to hold off. Using dreams as flashbacks can make it unclear what parts of the dream are real, and what parts are just the usual dream nonsense. Dreams can be memories, especially if they’re recurring nightmares from a traumatic experience, but you should establish that outside of the dreamscape beforehand.
As a general rule, using dreams in your story should be a last resort. If you’re considering using a dream in your story, try to think about other ways the same information could be given to the readers. If you can’t come up with anything, then go ahead and move forward with using the dream.
Common Mistakes Writers Make When Writing About Dreams
The biggest way that writers can mess up a dream sequence is by leaning too far into the extremes.
Sometimes, a written dream sequence comes across as indistinguishable from reality. Sure, some dreams can feel sort of real while you’re experiencing, but it’s generally a bad idea to write it like that without some sort of indication that it’s a dream. Making a dream feel too much like a character’s waking life doesn’t make for a very convincing dream. Worse yet, readers could misunderstand and assume it isn’t a dream at all.
Other times, writers really crank up the craziness of dreams, to a degree that is too difficult to understand to be meaningful. Writers try to cram as many weird and conflicting details into a dream as possible, rendering it confusing, uncomfortable, and just downright unpleasant for readers to try to decipher. If a dream doesn’t make sense, then it does not help your story at all. And if something isn’t necessary, it needs to be taken out.
Writing the Transition from Awake to Dreaming
Falling asleep can be a difficult thing to write, but it’s probably best not to overthink it in most cases. Avoid the cliches, and don’t overcomplicate it. Unless you have a good reason to focus on the process of falling asleep, you could just have the character lay down and then skip right to being asleep.
For the first few minutes of being asleep, the character will be in stage one of the sleep cycle, which means they will be mildly alert and easy to wake up. Sometimes dreams occur in this stage, but they more closely resemble passing thoughts or daydreams. If other sounds are happening around the character as they are in this stage, they may incorporate into the character’s dreams.
As the character descends further into unconsciousness, that alertness begins to fade, and they enter the second stage of the sleep cycle. Brain waves begin to slow down in preparation for deep sleep. No dreams occur in this stage of sleep, and it is still relatively easy to wake someone up at this stage.
For a deeper explanation of how to write about a character falling asleep, take a moment to look at my other article: How to Write a Character Falling Asleep in First-Person.
How People Dream
When someone falls asleep, they don’t just dream the entire time. A sleeper cycles between Non-REM, or deep sleep, and REM sleep, which is the dream sleep. Those are the third and fourth stages of the sleep cycle. The average person cycles in and out of REM sleep about six times per night, but that varies from person to person, as well as how long the individual is asleep. In addition to producing dreams, the brain uses REM sleep to organize the experiences of the day and store them in long-term memory.
This cycle of deep and dream sleep often results in dreams having a sort of fragmented quality, where the scene seems to shift suddenly or change altogether. A dream with a more linear narrative is common, but some elements still tend to change between REM cycles. Another consequence of the dream cycle is that the entire dream, or sections of it, could simply repeat itself. Some things may change in the repetitions, the character could become aware that they are dreaming, or they may forget that the repetitions even occurred.
Another thing to keep in mind with dreams is the passage of time. When a person is asleep, their perception of time is altered, and they may experience a dream that feels quite brief or drawn out. The length of the dream has very little to do with the amount of time actually spent asleep.
Now, this of course only applies to natural sleep. There are many other ways dreams can be induced, like with drugs, psychosis, hypnosis, and a multitude of other options. The dreams experienced in these altered states are going to operate differently from regular REM sleep, and you may need to do some additional research on those topics to be able to craft a dream that fits the situation.
The Dream’s Purpose in Your Story
Once you have decided to move forward with writing a dream, you need to consider what you want it to achieve. What do you want it to do for the story? What impact should it have on the character? How do you want the readers to feel about it? How is it going to complicate the narrative?
There are several different kinds of dreams you can utilize for different purposes, but each one can be tailor-fit to the vibe you want to convey. Any of these categories can also apply to nightmares, or they can evolve from or into a nightmare. A dream can also serve more than one purpose at a time, so don’t feel as though any of these categories are limiting you and the things your writing can achieve.
Dreams are often utilized to foreshadow an event taking place later on in the story. This can take the form of a premonition, a telekinetic message, or heavy symbolism, but no matter how you choose to convey it, you should be cautious about how explicit the message is. Being too obvious about the foreshadowing ruins the effect and makes the dream feel more magical—which can be problematic if you’re writing realistic fiction.
If the dream is a result of some magical element, then the character could receive a more explicit warning about something, but that is usually for the effect of avoiding something and is not necessarily foreshadowing.
This type of dream can easily apply to nightmares as well. In fact, it lends itself better to being a bad dream than otherwise. A character could have a dream that symbolizes their impending doom. Which, you know, probably isn’t a fun dream to have.
REM sleep is a time when the brain synthesizes all the information it gathered throughout the day. If a character has been mulling over a problem, things may fall into place after they begin to dream. For storytelling’s sake, you could illustrate them solving a problem in their dreams that is representative of the problem they have to deal with in their waking life. Then, they could jerk awake with the sudden realization, having finally discovered a solution to their problem.
This also applies to anything that could be confusing for the character. If they are a researcher trying to translate an ancient tome, they could have some revelation about cross-referencing the tome with a different artifact when the artifact comes to them in their dream. If the character is debating what birthday gift to get for a friend, the idea could come to them in their sleep because of a memory of the friend. If the character is trying to write a scene for their book, they could potentially dream a scene that perfectly fits into their story.
To turn this dream into a nightmare, the realization could be something more horrifying, instead of a convenient solution. The character may realize after they fall asleep that their new roommate fits the description of a wanted criminal. Or, they might dream of a house fire and wake up with the realization that they left the oven on.
This kind of dream also results from the character experiencing a problem, like with the realization dream, except they aren’t quite lucky enough to get a convenient solution presented to them in a neatly packaged dream. Instead, the internal conflict dream usually occurs when there is a difficult decision that the character has to make, or if they have to do something that they are not looking forward to.
Usually, this dream is a nightmare. Characters will dream about the event or decision, and the dream will play out all the ways the situation could possibly (or impossibly) go wrong. If the character is dreading making a decision, the dreams are bound to reflect all the reasons why each choice is bad. This could be the case if a character is considering breaking up with their significant other. On the one hand, they could continue to be miserable in their relationship and life, but on the other hand, they could end up dying alone.
If, however, the character is dreading a particular event, like having to make a speech, then they will likely dream of all the worst things that could happen during that speech. The audience may laugh, they could trip on their way to the podium, or maybe they’ll even get shot! Regardless of how unlikely a situation is to actually happen, it could still be a source of anxiety for the character.
Recurring dreams are dreams that repeat at any interval. A character could experience a recurring dream every single night, every week, or even years apart. These dreams are also often used in conjunction with the foreshadowing type since a recurring dream can have serious narrative implications.
There are a few reasonable explanations for recurring dreams. The first is an obsession of some kind. People develop fixations on items, events, people, or locations, and then those fixations can reinforce (and be reinforced by) a specific recurring dream. This is great if you want to show a character’s slow descent into madness since constantly being bombarded with the same dream could make an obsession even harder to manage. Consider a character that is obsessed with another person, and continues to have the same dream of them getting married every single night. That’s a great recipe for driving the character to kidnapping.
Another reason for recurring dreams is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A character that experienced or witnessed something traumatic or dangerous may have recurring nightmares about the traumatic event. This layers with the flashback type of dream, even if the dream deviates a bit from actual history.
Flashbacks should generally not be presented in the form of dreams, but if you want a way to present them more naturally than simply cutting to the past, you could give it try. Flashbacks are a way of giving the readers some backstory to support the main narrative, but they can also be a way of exploring the psyche of the dreaming character.
When a character experiences a flashback dream, it is commonly something traumatic, or involving memories that they would rather not acknowledge. If you wanted to put an interesting spin on the flashbacks, you could make the memories something the character had effectively repressed, either as a coping mechanism or with some sort of magical intervention. The character would therefore not think of the dream as representing a real memory, which could be an interesting plot point.
When a person falls asleep, the brain essentially paralyzes the sleeper so their body doesn’t move as a reaction to whatever they are dreaming. This is called “atonia,” and it is an evolutionary reaction that prevents the person from hurting themself while they are asleep. However, some people experience this paralysis in the minutes before or after being asleep as well, which is part of the reason they might experience a phenomenon known as “sleep paralysis.”
During an episode of sleep paralysis, the character would be unable to move or speak. This is accompanied by a terrifying hallucination, often described as a demon approaching the immobile person. The hallucination can also take the form of another person that the character fears or some other thing that they are afraid of, like a swarm of spiders.
Although sleep paralysis is a hallucination and not a dream, it is still closely related to the topic of nightmares.
A lucid dream is a dream in which the person experiencing it is aware that they are dreaming. Sometimes, as a result of that, the dreamer gains some sort of control over the way the dream plays out. Sometimes that means only controlling their own reactions in the dream, and other times it means exercising control over the main narrative and setting.
A lucid dream can become a nightmare if the character has control over their own body, but not the setting around them. Even if the character is aware of the fact that it is a dream, they may see grotesque or haunting images, or situations that force them to face things they are afraid of. At times, a lucid nightmare can be worse than a regular nightmare, since the character would know that the nightmare would end if they could only wake up.
Telepathic dreams are when magical influence allows one character to send dreams to another, or to experience the same dream at the same time. Since this type of dream purely exists within the realm of magic, there are no hard and fast rules. Traditional understandings of dreams do not apply, so… go nuts.
How to Make Dreams Stand Out in Your Story
When writing a dream, it is important to format the text differently from how you ordinarily would write the rest of the story. This is especially important if dreams are going to play a large part in the story, or if you have more than one.
Having a recognizable format for writing dreams can be helpful for a few reasons. For one thing, it allows you to include multiple dreams in a story without having to explain that it’s a dream every time, and makes it obvious that the dream is removed from the character’s reality. More importantly, however, it allows you to manipulate the way the dream feels.
There are several ways to manipulate the format of the text to make a dream stand out. If the dream is supposed to be fuzzy and sort of numb, try adding… ellipses… to give readers the sense that the dream… lags. This can emphasize that… dreamy feeling… and it… makes it obvious that the character isn’t… really… fully aware.
A simpler way of setting dreams apart is to put them in italics. This works better if the tone of the dream isn’t meant to be slow or dreamy, making it great for nightmares or premonitions. However, using italics is a popular method of showing thoughts or writings, so if you’ve already decided to use italics to format something else, don’t use it for dreams.
You could also set dreams apart by using a noticeably different font. This can also be a helpful tool for setting the tone of the dreams, since some fonts can appear rigid, playful, or timid. However, you should be aware that deviating from traditional fonts might make your text more difficult for some people to read.
You could also try bolded text, or bolded and italicized text, to try to set the dream apart. This could work well if nightmares are the focus, but it doesn’t work as well for most other dreams, since it’s a little too bold to properly represent the subconscious. Also, like with italicization, be aware that this is often used to format other things.
Another option is to change the point of view. If the POV is typically in first-person, try jumping into third person for the duration of the dream. If the POV is in closed third-person, try shifting to an omniscient perspective, or vice versa. This can dramatically change the way a scene is perceived.
How to Write a Character Waking Up from a Dream
In real life, people begin to forget their dreams within minutes of waking up. However, most characters in fiction don’t forget their dreams, otherwise it wouldn’t serve much of a purpose. They can forget bits and pieces of the dream over time, though, which can be helpful for building tension. That can be a great way of having the character blunder through something they don’t remember when the readers know they were warned about the situation in their dream.
If the character does remember the majority of their dream, spend some time to write about their reaction to it as they are waking up. Do they jolt awake, and is it because of a nightmare or revelation? Are they used to having strange or frightening dreams? How do they interpret it? Do they tell someone else about their dream after the fact? If the dream is going to be an important part of the story (which it should be, if you chose to include it), then give the character some space to try to interpret it outside of the dream itself.
For a more comprehensive explanation of writing about waking up in various cases, check out my article When and How to Write a Character Waking Up.
Dreams as Recollections
If writing the dreams themselves are causing you too much trouble, don’t let that get in the way of you finishing your story. Skipping over the dream sequence and interpreting it only from what the character remembers is just as viable of an option, if not more so. You cut out the risk of boring or confusing your readers, and you can reveal things about the dream over time as it is convenient or relevant.
Presenting only a character’s recollections of the dream can also be useful if the character has recurring dreams. There’s no need to show the dreams themselves over and over if they are the same every time. And often, showing what effect the dreams or nightmares have on the character can be a more interesting plot point than the actual content of the dream.
One Final Suggestion
It is important to keep in mind that people dream primarily in images, so make sure there is a lot of descriptive language and many visual details in the dreams you write. Play with the setting, and use the visual details to hint at the kind of dream the character is about to experience. Characters may also have a difficult time remembering what anyone in the dream says, so focus less on dialogue and more on what the character sees.
Good luck, and remember to keep dreaming, writers!