Saturday, July 19, 2008


One recommendation given to new writers wondering how to begin a story is “not with the main character dreaming”. Such a start can be problematic. If the reader knows the character is dreaming, then the reader’s not going to be too worried by anything that happens in the dream. Unless this is set in a Nightmare on Elm Street-type world, the worst consequence is that the character wakes up and needs to get a fresh pair of pyjamas. If the reader doesn’t know that this is a dream, that can be worse, since the suspense will end sooner or later when the character wakes up. “It was all a dream” is a bad way to end a story, and not a great way to begin one either.

What surprised me was how different – and effective – dreams can after the start. Once the reader has hopefully come to care about the characters, even their dreams can be interesting. By the middle of the book, the reader should know enough of the story that the author can drop in details and hints that the dreaming character might miss but that the reader won’t. What happens in a dream can also reflect a character’s growth - for instance, Jaime’s dream of Brienne in George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords. A dream in the body of the novel can be a warning, a turning point, a prophecy, a hint to the reader or a twisted reflection of what’s happening in reality, whereas at the start, a dream is usually just a hook, and one that annoys as often as it snares.

There’s even a book (Iron Dawn, by Matthew Woodring Stover) which utilized the “it was only a dream” ending to a scene where a character was apparently murdered, and I was so relieved that he wasn’t actually killed that I didn’t mind the device. But this happened in the middle of the book, by which time I’d come to like the character. If I’d read it at the start, it would have been too much like a cheap trick. The dream also turned out to be somewhat prophetic, since the events in it happened to the character later, but that’s normal for dreams in fantasy novels.

While dreams in fiction are often imbued with more accuracy and significance than they would be in real life – which is how it should be – they shouldn’t reveal everything to the character. I love it when characters figure things out on their own. I’m not so keen on the characters learning too much from a dream, even if it’s a dream sent by the gods or the character’s future self. That’s too easy. Give them dreams that are ambiguous, difficult to interpret, like the dream sequences in Rosemary’s Baby. The first time I read them, they just sounded like gibberish, but the second time, I realized that the dialogues in them are the cultists’ discussions as they search for a woman to impregnate. Rosemary, of course, doesn’t know this until it’s way too late for her.

Dreams and nightmares can be psychic attacks and communication devices and portals into another world. They may not be the best way to begin a story, but after the beginning, there's plenty of scope and potential for them.

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