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):
- It’s so beautifully and simply written.
- It glides from image to image, never dwelling too long in one place.
- It’s short.
- 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:
- Choose a character whom you’ve already created and written about.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.