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.

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20 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.

  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.
    http://www.imantra.org/terms.php

  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.

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

    I love it so much

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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

    […] Write a short and fresh dream sequence that shows us something. https://readtowritestories.com/2013/08/20/how-to-write-a-dream-sequence/ […]

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