This week: It was just a dream, right? Edited by: Lilli Munster ☕️ 🧿
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|But dreams come through stone walls, light up dark rooms, or darken light ones, and their persons make their exits and their entrances as they please, and laugh at locksmiths. |
~ Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
At a single strain of music, the scent of a flower, or even one glimpse of a path of moonlight lying fair upon a Summer sea, the barriers crumble and fall. Through the long corridors the ghosts of the past walk unforbidden, hindered only by broken promises, dead hopes, and dream-dust.
~ Old Rose and Silver by Myrtle Reed
|One of the challenges in fiction writing comes down to rendering situations realistically using only words. While it can be difficult enough to conjure real-world scenarios in a believable fashion, the task can get exponentially harder when you add more fantastical elements into the mix. |
Certain genres, like fantasy and science fiction, allow for wildly imaginative worlds, but it takes a bit more effort to make the crazier components of a scary dream click in the minds of readers. It's helpful to have some sort of internal logic that keeps things consistent, if not terribly realistic. And that’s the name of the game—consistency.
Dreams and nightmares have always provided writers with all sorts of fascinating material from which to work their magic. For example, surrealist painter Salvador Dalí based many of his most well-known paintings on his own dreams, and author Stephen King drew inspiration for his novel Misery from a dream he had on a flight.
That means dreams would be an easy thing to write about, right? After all, everybody dreams. What’s more common to the human experience than our vivid, nightly hallucinations? Dreams are colorful and chaotic in nature, which is the same thing that makes them so vibrant and interesting. Subsequently, it is also what makes them difficult to “realistically” describe.
A dream sequence needs to be more than a page or two of trippy imagery. Dream sequences are scenes and they need to be written as such, helping develop your plot or characters in some way. So before you start writing your dream scene, know what you intend to accomplish with the dream.
So, what makes a great dream sequence?
1. A touch of logic
Don't forget, you’re writing a scene first. A scene that readers need to be able to follow. Much like science fiction and fantasy stories maintain a kind of internal logic to keep readers engaged, your dream sequence needs to establish its own brand of consistent “dream logic” to ensure that the scene actually functions as a scene.
Even the most surreal and chaotic dreamscape needs something that ties it all together. As bizarre as dreams can get, they still have a narrative of some sort. If you decide that your story would be best served by a wildly inconsistent dream sequence, you can at least be consistent in your inconsistency. Basically, keep the chaos running at the same level at all times, and the events within will hold some semblance of internal consistency; even if they’re actually coming apart at the seams.
2. Use Narrative Distance
I'm sure you've heard of the “out-of-body experience” dream. It's where the dreamer watches their own actions as though they are a spectator instead of being “in the driver’s seat. Well, there’s a way to capture that floaty feeling in fiction using a narrative technique called "narrative distance".
The term narrative distance describes the proximity of the story’s narrator to the subject he is describing. In other words, narrative distance is the distance between the narrator and other elements of a fictional world, such as the story’s characters, setting, and events. Narrative distance ranges from small to large.
Narrative distance, also called “perspective distance,” refers to the implied “space” between the reader and the narrator or character in the story. Is the reader privy to the narrator’s private thoughts and opinions about what's going on? If so, that’s "close narrative distance".
The first-person perspective has the closest and most intimate narrative distance, but the third-person has varying degrees of this as well. Can the third-person narrator omnisciently “hear” the thoughts of all your major characters or does the narration function more like a viewer, observing the action only on a surface level? Perhaps the narrator can only “hear” the inner monologue of one central character; or maybe a select few? These all affect the narrative distance of your story.
How does this apply to dream sequences? In order to create that floaty, dreamlike feel, simply increase the narrative distance in your story for the duration of the scene. If you’ve got a first-person narrator, switch to third-person limited. If you’re already in third-person limited, “pan out” even further. The goal is to create a shift in perspective so that it makes the reader feel like they’re dreaming as well. “Zoom out” from the dream’s events, set your character loose inside then watch the mayhem!
3. Details! A little or a lot?
There are two basic settings for fictional dreams.
First, there are dreams that take place in vast voids with little detail and only a few characters and concrete objects within them. This creates an empty, lonely, and often eerie atmosphere, appropriate for both nightmares.
These dream-voids aren’t merely seen, they’re experienced. In this type of dream, a lamp should go from “the lamp with the gold-colored lampshade and the base shaped like a crouching cat” to simply “a lamp on a low desk.” Be vague. Be infuriatingly vague. Withhold details. Use sentence fragments. Leave gaps in your descriptions for your readers to fill in: after all, that’s what they’d do if the dream belonged to them!
The other kind of dream cranks everything up; the noise, the saturation, the colors, and the mayhem. These dreams may feel overcrowded, bursting at the seams, and difficult to navigate without stepping on something unpleasant. I dare say, your "show don't tell" skills will need to flex here!
They are a different sort of nightmare and be used to communicate stress, illness, or indecision, the product of a split, fractured, or divided mind. Embrace that chaos in your writing. Go into great detail. Describe things in a florid or even grotesque fashion. Especially things that wouldn’t normally be either florid or grotesque. Throw in some random, surreal elements that intrude into the central narrative of the dream, and make sure these intrusions are as unpleasant as possible. Make your readers uneasy with the descriptions.
These are suggestions, not rules. Dreams are so scattered and mysterious that there is no one right way to render them on the page. Be creative and experiment!
| ||Dream House (ASR)|
A man thinks his dreams are telling him something he can’t ignore
#2282658 by Sumojo
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