Last night I dreamt I was running, running through a forest of trees with number two pencils for their trunks. I was running toward the sea, except instead of waves there were the gentle, symmetrical humps of a book lying open on its spine, and where seagulls should have wheeled and swooped above the water, there drifted flocks of uncoiled paperclips…
No, I’m just kidding. But seriously: why are dream sequences in fiction so tricky and often so poorly executed? I ask because I’ve seen a lot of them, good and less good, come through the slush pile this summer and because, upon reflection, I couldn’t think of a single dream sequence I liked in any book, except, maybe, the opening pages of Rebecca (which just came to me, finally, as I was writing this sentence).
In movies and on television, it’s a different story, so to speak. I can think of lots of really haunting, effective, memorable dream sequences from the screen. (Tony Soprano’s ominous dreams about people he’s “whacked” are the first that come to mind.) But the advantages of the visual arts are easy enough to pinpoint. A producer and director and editing team can work together until a dream matches their collective vision exactly. Their toolbox of special effects and background music and quality acting seems somehow vaster than that of an author, her pen, and merely all the words she can think of.
Also, depending on how heavily laden with symbolism a dream sequence is, a character’s dream can seem too much like telling instead of showing. If the glamorous lead cheerleader in a YA novel keeps up a confident façade with her peers but then dreams about a mortifying situation, the author is taking a shortcut to tell us the character has self-esteem issues instead of showing us, perhaps through interaction with other characters, that there’s a problem. Also, a dream like this would be hard for readers to swallow because, come on—whose dreams are that clear?
On the other hand, if a dream is too full of abstract symbols and metaphors and the author is showing without any interpretation at all, readers either won’t be able to visualize the scene “correctly,” or they won’t understand the significance of the dream, just like the character probably won’t.
So I’d like to know your thoughts, readers. Are there fabulous dream scenes out there from which we should all draw inspiration and formulate strategy? What are some advantages to fitting a dream sequence into your novel? What are some disadvantages? How have you struggled with, or why have you avoided, scenes from the REM cycle?