How to Write a Dream Sequence

20 Aug
Paul Yoon's novel, Snow Hunters, was published by Simon and Schuster. It follows the travels of Yohan, a Korean who leaves his country after the Korean War to start over in Brazil.

Paul Yoon’s novel, Snow Hunters, follows the travels of Yohan, a man who leaves his country after the Korean War to start over in Brazil. The novel prompted a New York Times reviewer to write, “One of the gratifications of literature is to know a character in a book more completely than we can know people in real life.”

Some writing teachers make a rule for stories submitted in workshop: No dreams. No dream sequences. They make this rule because badly written dreams are all the same. They “show” a character’s inner torments/thoughts rather than artfully imbedding them into the narrative. But if fiction is, in any way, supposed to imitate life, then dreams are fair game. The question is how to write them well.

Paul Yoon has written one of the best dream sequences I’ve ever read in his new novel Snow Hunters. You can read the first chapter here. The dream begins at the bottom of page 16.

How the Story Works

The passage begin with Yohan falling asleep and hearing sounds through the open window:

“the tapping of the rain and voices and a car and then a ship’s horn. A single chime of a church bell. a door opening. A song on the radio. The steady punches of a sewing machine. He heard aircraft and the dust spraying from trucks and the wind against the tents”

We get a short reflection on this noise from Yohan (“it was faint and calm and he did not mind”), and then the dream begins.

“He was riding a bicycle. He felt a hand on the small of his back. Someone familiar spoke to him and he said, —I can go a little longer, and he lifted a shovel and sank it into the earth. A group of children whistled and clapped. And then he was running his hands through a girl’s hair and she took his wrist and they moved through a corridor where rows of dresses hung from the ceiling. Those dresses turned into the sea.”

Then the dream ends. So why does this dream work? First, it has no clear message. It’s not telegraphing crucial information about Yohan’s interior life. At best, the message is mixed: the desire and need to push himself and the desire for friendship and love. The images are not accidental. They reflect encounters and experiences from waking life. Second, the dream does not predict the future. It doesn’t attempt to move the plot forward.  Though dreams sometimes cause us to act (dreaming that someone has an accident and then, upon waking, contacting that person), we tend to be skeptical of someone who claims that valuable information was gained in a dream.

So why does the dream work? Here are four reasons (and lessons to keep in mind):

  1. It’s so beautifully and simply written.
  2. It glides from image to image, never dwelling too long in one place.
  3. It’s short.
  4. The images reflect things we’ve already seen in the novel. The dream feels to us, the readers, the same as it does to Yohan. In other words, the dream feels like a real dream. And that is rare in fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice writing a dream sequence, using Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters as a model:

  1. Choose a character whom you’ve already created and written about.
  2. Bring the character home, to bed, after a long day—not after a life-changing event but simply a day in which things seem to be on the cusp of happening.
  3. When the characters’ eyes are closed, let the sounds of the world drift in. Be specific and precise. You’re describing that odd state in which the mind is both idle and resting and also alert and aware of its surroundings.
  4. Ease into the dream. If you’ve ever heard the voice/sound from the waking world in your dream (a spouse or child talking to you, a professor speaking, the alarm clock), then you know how permeable dreams can be.
  5. Make the dream a reflection of the images of the waking world. Treat the dream’s reflective power like that of an almost-still lake. Remember, the mind is not directing traffic any longer but instead letting images trickle through unfiltered. Move from image to image. End on one that best seems to fit the mood of the day.

Now you have a dream sequence. If it seems inconsequential, that’s good. Beware dreams of great import—unless you’re writing about the Virgin Mary. Let the dream become part of the character’s fabric and, thus, the fabric of the novel.

Good luck and have fun.

30 Responses to “How to Write a Dream Sequence”

  1. jdominique37 August 20, 2013 at 8:02 p08 #

    Great advice! Dreams are such a tricky thing to write. I love the example you’ve put up. Thanks for this!

  2. creativewritingschool August 22, 2013 at 8:02 p08 #

    Reblogged this on Creative Writing School.

  3. Ron de Bruijn November 19, 2013 at 8:02 p11 #

    Aaaaaah how nice. I was just trying to write a dream sequence into my story (in Dutch, since I’m like yeah from Holland) and Google brought me here. Great website. I was so glad to find that my projected sequence has a lot of similarities to your excellent exemple. But i stil have one question though: if your entire story use active present tense, I what tense would the dream play out?

    • michaelnoll1 November 19, 2013 at 8:02 p11 #

      Good question, Ron. I’d guess that the dream would play out in present tense. In Snow Hunters, Paul Yoon writes both the novel as a whole and the dream sequence in past tense. But there is a marked transition into the dream state, and it comes through a series of images that exist outside of time and tense: “A single chime of a church bell. A door opening. A song on the radio. The steady punches of a sewing machine.” Perhaps something similar would work in your story. Good luck!

      • Ron de Bruijn November 19, 2013 at 8:02 p11 #

        Wow Michael, thanks for your quick reply. A transition is a clever trick. 🙂 But what if your story starts with a dream? I just wrote it and used present tense. Felt a bit awkward at first, because I thought that no one could ever do a live coverage of a dream. Your to busy dreaming the dream. But then I realised, this is only the case when you’re writing in first person and I’m not. So I just traveled out my main character’s head and wrote about the dream he was/is having. Haha, I’m getting confused again.

      • michaelnoll1 November 19, 2013 at 8:02 p11 #

        I think it was probably a smart decision to travel out of your character’s head to describe the dream. As for the tense, there’s no penalty for trying out another tense and seeing which one works best. You might also try making the dream as short as possible. Usually–but not always–dreams are not as interesting as the reactions that characters have to them. So, if you have a dream that makes you leave your spouse and kids and join the crew of a whaling ship, then that was a pretty interesting dream.

      • stefan December 18, 2018 at 8:02 p12 #

        Hi Michael, I am 15 years old (turning 16 in 4 months time). I am currently trying to write a book by having a past dream and going into the future by the character waking up from the “past dream nightmare” but I don’t know how to do the past dream in 1st person. My opening dream starts off in a fictional world and then an unknown force takes over the planet but my main character gets rescued by some people who look after her and from then on she wakes up in a space ship and describes her mission and what she has to do but yeah I was wandering how you can describe a dream in first person past tense sort of thing you know? and transitioning to the present. Please can you give me an example as well as that would really help. Im sorry if all this text is all over the place but I hope you can understand what im saying. Thank you for taking your time to read my comment.

  4. Peter Hughes March 26, 2014 at 8:02 p03 #

    Thanks for this! I’m attempting a dream sequence in Chapter 2 of my novel I’m writing on my blog, so check back tomorrow if you want to see the fruits of my labour. 🙂

  5. Caytlin September 1, 2014 at 8:02 p09 #

    Brilliant! I’m so glad I did a quick search on writing dream sequences to find this, it helps so much for what I’m trying to do!

  6. imantraorg April 22, 2015 at 8:02 p04 #

    If you have some dream and you want to write about that then don’t think so much just do it. Love your post very nice it was.

  7. The Creative Kitty May 31, 2015 at 8:02 p05 #

    Reblogged this on The Creative Kitty.

  8. Riley Elrich October 19, 2015 at 8:02 p10 #

    So right now i have an assignment in science to write about the arctic tundra and i chose to write it in a journal form, the main character (Evalynne) has a nightmare and i cant figure out how to write it. I want it to have something to do with her 8 year old sister (Gwenie) and her 10 year old brother (Theren) plz reply asap and thx

    • Riley Elrich October 19, 2015 at 8:02 p10 #

      “Evalynne” your sister called. “Evalynne!’ you heard again and again. “Yes Gwenie.” you replied. Your sister’s voice sounded as if it was right in front of you but all you saw was an old house.

      thats what i have right now but i dont like that part of my story. if it would help i can also post the rest of the story for some context. 🙂

      • michaelnoll1 October 20, 2015 at 8:02 p10 #

        Hmm, Riley. Intriguing assignment. The post above includes an exercise for writing a dream sequence. Perhaps it will help.

  9. angelinaintriere December 18, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    What if the character is dead and she’s looking back on her life in a dream sort of way?

  10. mykill19 January 12, 2017 at 8:02 p01 #

    I know my comment seems kind of late. But, I am really thankful I managed to land in this blog. I am currently writing a story in Wattpad. Somehow, I’m stuck with a bad case of Writer’s Block. I am trying to write a dream scene of a man who lost his memory. I wanted him to dream about his past conversations with his girlfriend. I’m not sure if i have to write so vaguely like what a dream should really be. Or, maybe if i should write the whole conversation clearly like a real scene in a waking life.

    • Rosalie June 21, 2018 at 8:02 p06 #

      I’m thinking…..if the character has lost their memory would it be more interesting to have bits and pieces of conversations zinging through his view of the dream? Bits of conversations with greater significance that can be redressed in more of his dreams until the bits and pieces converge to become mostly whole conversations that eventually surface during his times being awake. He might hear someone having a conversation and connects with something said that resembles the dream sequence bits and pieces jogging his memory of past realities.
      I’m Rosalie. I got excited and created a run-on conversation. I hope your story turns out great!

  11. Maryanne January 23, 2017 at 8:02 p01 #

    I love it so much

  12. Sheldon Porter April 11, 2017 at 8:02 p04 #

    Thank you, well written. Your example from Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters was clear, to the point, and beautiful like poetry. I understand now.

  13. Heather April 12, 2017 at 8:02 p04 #

    I am writing a short story for a college creative writing course. I want to start the story with a dream sequence. Any ideas about how to start???

  14. Rosalie June 21, 2018 at 8:02 p06 #

    The playful momentum makes this writing exercise seem to be one to be accomplished with ease….what fun it is going to be. Thank you very much….Rosalie

  15. Dana October 22, 2019 at 8:02 p10 #

    Hi Michael –
    How does a “vision” sequence differ from a dream sequence? My college-age protagonist begins having visions as if she’s seeing memories/experiences through someone else’s eyes. Someone very significant (but she doesn’t discover this until much later in the story). These episodes hit her unexpectedly and have a dream like quality but she’s wide awake going about her day. Her reaction is vital to the story plot as it propels her on a quest for information about her past. Is the approach to writing a vision similar to writing a dream? How do you think they differ?

    • Michael Noll October 22, 2019 at 8:02 p10 #

      Sounds like they’re a little different, Dana. When a dream ends and a character wakes up, it negates everything that we learned in the dream (unless the dream can predict the future). But if the vision is a sight of something that is real or that will be, then it carries story weight.

      • Dana October 24, 2019 at 8:02 p10 #

        Thank you, Michael. The visions do carry story weight but the protagonist doesn’t initially understand what is happening or what the visions mean. I want the reader to experience them alongside the protagonist. I used a modified version of your exercise (my protagonist isn’t sleep walking through the university library) as a guide to write a first draft. The sights and sounds drift in as they would before a dream and then the vision happens. I kept writing short and simple but sensory-rich. Her reaction brings her back to the present moment. Thanks again.

  16. Blings January 2, 2020 at 8:02 p01 #

    Like 👍

  17. Blings January 2, 2020 at 8:02 p01 #

    Like 👍


  1. What This Year Will Be Like – shewhodaresnothing - January 30, 2017

    […] Write a short and fresh dream sequence that shows us something. […]

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