• Cait Levin
  • [What's Next?] I Had the Strangest Dream
[What's Next?] I Had the Strangest Dream
Written by
Cait Levin
November 2013
Written by
Cait Levin
November 2013

Whenever I think of dream sequences I think of that moment in horrible movies or TV shows (I’m looking at you, Saved by the Bell) when the screen gets all rippled and the edges blur, and everything is sort of glazed over with white. Something silly happens that makes me roll my eyes and then the program goes back to the real timeline. Dreams were never something I really enjoyed or felt were worthwhile in fiction, and I certainly never used them as a tool in my own writing.

That is, until this book.

I don’t know what it was--I was at a point where I didn’t know what to do but I knew what I had to convey. I had saddled myself with a main character who doesn’t share her thoughts with the people around her. The story was written in third person. There just didn’t seem to be another way. Let’s just throw this in, I thought. It turned out totally funky and it felt, to me, like it wasn’t getting anything done. But I kept it, and then I turned it in to my workshop class to see what would happen.

The group had over twenty-five pages of my book to look at, but during the open comments almost everyone pointed out the dream sequence and how great they thought it worked in the story. I pushed back in disbelief. Seriously? It's not too weird? Their overwhelming response was no. In this situation, the dream accomplished what a conversation between the main character and someone else could not--insight into both how disjointed she felt about what was going on and also the revelation that she was incredibly nervous about something else.

I didn’t believe in dream sequences before, and honestly, on the screen I still don’t. But in fiction, I’m starting to think that maybe there’s something to it after all. I’ve already added a second dream, and I think it’s doing good work to move the story along.

Since that experience, I’ve been looking for good books that use dreams in an effective way to actually get something done. Now that I’m revising, I’m thinking of going back and inserting another one, further along in the story. I’m still pretty nervous about them, and very conscious of the danger of causing eye-rolling from my readers.

This week, I’d love for any good recommendations you all have. Have you read any books or short stories that used dreams in a really great way? I’m also looking for your opinions on this--how do you feel about using dreams in your own writing?

Cait Levin is the Community Manager at She Writes. You can read more of her blog (when she stops watching so much Dawson’s Creek and actually writes more of a blog) here.

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  • Jane Davenport Platko

    As a Jungian psychoanalyst I find dreams to be a wonderful medium for deepening a story. As an author, in my recently published book, In the Tracks of the Unseen; Memoirs of a Jungian Psychoanalyst my dreams inform the reader of the unconscious storyline that I am mining as I move through sixty years of my life. In writing psychological memoir I believe using dreams can offer the reader a particular and intimate point of view that is hard to capture any other way. I imagine in fiction too dreams can offer a subliminal reality that as you say are hard to capture in conversation.

  • Rebecca Ferrell Porter

    I think dreams fit into some genres better than others. They are present in my fantasy writing, but as an element of the magic that flows throughout the story. I've had good feedback from readers who appreciated the vague concepts in the early sequences that evolved over time as the dreaming character gained confidence in his abilities. It added a layer of mystery, but was NOT the main focal point of the novel.

    I'm working with non-humans here so as a mere human, how do I know that dreams aren't lucid?

    That said, I don't think a dream sequence fits into thriller or mystery novel. I might work in romance, but i don't personally read those so don't quote me.

  • Johnnie E Bruce

    Yes I would like to recommend to you this dream and spoken Word.

    Whispered Words Of Wisdom

    [email protected]

  • Cait Levin

    Thanks Kamy! I'll have to grab that one.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    I LOVE the way Milan Kundera uses dreams in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 

  • Toi Thomas

    @ Emily

    When I think of dreams in literature it's usually a subject matter following some spiritual quest or, every now and then, a scientific investigation. I think many people stay away from dreams for this very reason. They are afraid to tackle anything spiritual and don't feel like being frustrated by the scientific aspects. When they are done well, I really enjoy reading dream scenes. 

  • Emily Belcher

    Interesting! I have always looked at dreams as more of a spiritual light. I had a vivid, odd dream last week and still remember it. It bothered me so much that I wrote it down and am still analyzing it. Check out some dream dictionaries, maybe there is a reason that you dreamed what you did. :-)

  • Nancy Madore

    This is interesting. I can't recall any memorable instances of dream sequences being used in fiction but I imagine it could be done!

  • J. Dylan Yates

    So amazing you wrote this post! I just received some encouraging feedback for the dream sequence in my upcoming novel. I'd been obsessing about it's relevance and the inclusion of a dream in a genre that doesn't normally include dream narrative. So keep it! It's really all about connecting with a reader, right?

  • Karen A. Wyle

    I have used dreams in several of my novels, when they seemed like a vivid and concise way to share some aspect of the character's past or personality. In my WIP (for National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo or Nano), I have a lucid dreamer (someone who can control her dreams -- under normal circumstances) as a fairly important character.

  • Toi Thomas

    @ Mary H.

    I like your breakdown. There are many different types of dreams, but it might be a little annoying if they all appeared in one story. ;) Everything in moderation.

  • Olga Godim

    As a rule, dream sequences in fiction don't work for me as a reader. Most magazine editors also state that they don't want submissions where dreams are prominent parts of a story. Sometimes, dreams work, conveying a message, but most often, they don't. Although as a writer, I must say it's tempting to insert a dream into my story. It's an easy way out for many situations. (How did she learn about it? In a dream.) But IMO it is a lazy way out. How often do I, as a person, learn anything from my dreams? Never! They are always silly, although sometimes, I dream up a plot twist for one of my stories. How often do you, as a person, learn anything from your dreams? Your characters' dreams should appear with the same frequency, I think.

  • Mary L. Holden

    There is the daydream: a characters thoughts.

    There is the night dream: a new angle on the story.

    There is the nightmare: a lightning bolt change in the story.

    There is the dreamy dream: jumping from fictionfictionfiction to  pOeT"r"y  then fictionfictionfiction.

    There is the convenient dream: like the one you've described.

    There is always use for dreams--after all, isn't writing a dream in itself?

  • Toi Thomas

    I can't think of any titles to offer on the spot, but I have read some dream scenes that were pointless and some that were amazing. I use dreams in my book because the dream world is where a lot of the action takes place, so I don't know if this is the same. Because I the idea of my book came from a dream and my main character does some pretty unusual things, using dreams to show a lot of that against reality made sense. 

    If the dream scene makes things more complicated, you might receive some eye-rolling from readers, but then some readers like complicated. For me, I find that any dream that doesn't make sense on it own, as if read separate from the rest of the story, might not be such a good thing.

    I think it's great that you are opening up to the possibilities of what dreams can be and do in writing.