February 9, 2011

Dreams in Fiction

I'm not a big fan of dreams appearing in fiction. When a character dreams in a story, the dream tends to be either highly coherent and relevant to the plot or highly symbolic but clearly interpretable. Either way, that's rarely what real dreams are like. These fictional dreams stretch credibility, and most of the time when I read one, I think the story could have gotten on just fine without it.

So imagine my surprise when I read through my manuscript and discovered just how many dreams I'd included. Now, I hasten to explain that the dreams don't exactly happen in the narration but rather are described in hindsight, and then only briefly. For example, "During the little sleep I got that night, I dreamed of children without faces." As if that makes it acceptable.

I know I wrote the dreams in with the thought that it helps to show what the characters are worried about, since all the dreams reflect subjects of concern. But it's not as though the reader might otherwise be unclear about whether the characters are preoccupied with these topics. And my own dreams are hardly ever about things I'm actually worried about, unless my subconscious thinks it's really important that I know what I'll do when I find a public radio personality naked in my bathroom.

When I realized I had all these dreams in my novel and that I should get rid of them, I started coming up with excuses for why and how I should keep them in. So I knew they had to go, according to the rule I've just decided to name:

Lisa's First Rule of Revision: If you're considering whether something should be cut, it should. If you're wavering between cutting it or justifying its presence by somehow making it more important, it should absolutely be cut.

So, sweet dreams to the dreams. Which means that the character who used to suffer from frequent nightmares is now spared. I hope he appreciates it, since in all other ways I've made his life worse since the first draft.

What do the rest of you think about dreams in fiction? Are there ever good reasons to use them? Have you seen it done well?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ The Book Roadie took a bookbinding class and posted photos of the books she bound.


Kevin Fenton said...

I'm pretty much against their use, for the reasons you outline. And since fiction already IS a kind of dream, it seems like cheating and telegraphing your concerns and symbols. That said, I never rule anything out.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Kevin, I agree that writing dreams does seem like cheating. As writers, we get to make anything at all happen in a story, but it does have to be convincing. Using a dream is sort of saying, "Now you can't complain you don't believe this, because it's a dream!"

Anonymous said...

...unless your story IS a dream! :). But I do agree that dreams are overused in the way you've stated. I also think that you should not cut something out just because it is a dream, though, as dreams can still add to the substance of a story.

Anonymous said...

Ann Patchett uses dreams in her wonderful novel State of Wonder to help deepen the main character.

Unknown said...

The dream of the beaten horse in Crime and Punishment is particularly unforgettable, as are many of the dreams detailed in Bolano's masterpiece, 2666. Then there's the old man's dream of the lions in The Old Man and the Sea. These are just the ones that spring immediately to mind. I don't see the wisdom in shrinking the scope of our fiction by refusing to adresss one of the most enigmatic and yet vitally characteristic components of consciousness, of experience--of what it means to be alive ( perhaps the true subject of all accomplished fiction). Are there other parts of life which we willingly declare ourselves powerless to address because of a rule, a fashion?! A powerful dream can really color your whole day, or your whole way of looking at something. For example, I have a character whose childhood dream of killing a turtle causes him to imagine he has latent violent tendencies; he lives in dread that these will one day emerge and becomes a bit compulsive about overt demonstrations officer kindness. Anyone who has ever had a surreal or intimate dream about a coworker will attest that it can create a certain awkwardness within the dynamic. These things are potent; their purposes are mysterious. Imagine what life would be like without them. Why strike them from our art?

Unknown said...

Of* kindness. Have no idea who Officer Kindness may be.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Thanks for the examples, Joshua. My general dislike of dreams in stories is a personal preference, I realize. And some authors use dreams so well that I'd have to admit there are always exceptions.

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