Writing

Narrating Dreams & Visions

Deanna Troi in a cloudy dream

Troi experiences strange dreams in the Star Trek: TNG episode Night Terrors

Writers receive lots of advice on making their scenes feel real. But what if a scene isn’t real in your story? Even stranger, your protagonist might not know this. They could think the carnivorous, striped umbrella chasing them down an alley is genuine. Dreams like these come with special considerations; no doubt that’s why Kathline asked us:

Do you have any tips on writing characters falling asleep from their viewpoint and writing dreams?

I do now! Here’s some things to consider.

Interesting Facts About Sleep & Dreams

Even without magic or mad science, dreams provide storytellers with fascinating material. These interesting phenomena might inspire you.

Retrograde Amnesia

After ten minutes of sleeping, people can’t remember the last five minutes or so they spent awake. This means that when people wake up briefly, they are unlikely to remember it later. In the morning, people may wonder how their alarm was turned off or conclude they turned it off while they were asleep. Retrograde amnesia is also why conditions such as sleep apnea, in which someone wakes up continuously to breathe, can go undetected for a long time.

Recurring Dreams

Dreams that repeat themselves are usually unpleasant, and they are probably a response to stress in the sleeper’s life. Being chased is the most common theme. A recurring dream could also feature something mundane like missing a test or fantastical like discovering new rooms in your home.

Recurring dreams can happen throughout the sleeper’s life or just for brief periods of stress. They can also disappear and then reappear years later.

Lucid Dreaming

A lucid dream happens when the sleeper knows they’re dreaming. Distinguishing between a dream and reality isn’t hard; the dreamer just has to realize they could be dreaming. People can increase the likelihood of a lucid dream by repeatedly asking themselves if they’re dreaming during their waking hours.

Assuming their realization doesn’t wake them up, lucid dreamers gain some control over what happens in their dream. How much control depends on the sleeper, but it’s usually enough to banish anything spooky that shows up.

Sleep Paralysis

For most people, this condition might occur for a single minute only once during their lives. People are normally paralyzed during sleep to prevent them from acting out their dreams; sometimes they begin to wake up before that paralysis fades. People in sleep paralysis frequently have terrifying hallucinations, probably because they are half asleep and freaked out at being paralyzed. These visions are often about a threatening intruder of some kind. Much rarer, sleep paralysis can be a reoccurring condition, in which case it could last longer than an hour and involve out-of-body experiences.

Night Terrors

Night terrors are not dreams; they happen during deeper stages of sleep. A person going through a night terror might cry, flail, sleepwalk, and exhibit other signs of intense fear. The sleeper will often appear to be awake, but they’re not. They usually have no memory of the occurrence later, just a sense of deep fear.

Night terrors are most common in kids ages three to twelve and usually fade away at adolescence. They appear more rarely in adults, and when they do, they are often associated with other mental and physical ailments. Night terrors are probably hereditary, but the mechanism for inheritance isn’t known.

A word of caution: If you are including a real condition in your story, please depict it accurately and sensitively. The more serious the condition, the more careful you need to be.

What’s the Purpose of the Dream?

Like flashbacks, normal dreams don’t directly impact future events. For that reason, dream sequences are more likely to be superfluous than other scenes. So before we get into the details of narrating, let’s review what purpose your dream or vision might have in your story. Luckily, speculative fiction gives us extra options.

  • Foreshadowing: Your dream sequence could be a haunting omen. The hero might dismiss their scary nightmare when they wake up, only to experience a random event their dream accurately predicted. This leaves your audience wondering if the scary monster in the dream is real too.
  • Internal conflict: Dreams can be a great way to illustrate feelings your character won’t acknowledge. In The Princess Bride novel, Buttercup’s guilt at leaving Westley after the fire swamp is brought to life through her dreams. In each one, someone tells her she’s a horrible person for abandoning him.
  • Realizations: Inside a dream, your character might piece together observations they’ve made during their waking hours, finally discovering whodunit. An important life lesson might also click together while a character is sleeping.
  • Information: The dream might be a vision showing real events that are happening elsewhere. J.K. Rowling uses it in the Harry Potter books to tell readers what Lord Voldemort is planning, even though the books are almost exclusively in Harry’s viewpoint.
  • Communication: Your hero might establish a physic link with someone else during their dream. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Night Terrors, the telepathic character Troi manages to coordinate with an alien species through dream communication.

Maximize the utility of your dream scenes, particularly if they’re long. If you use a series of recurring dreams that slowly build up to something, keep each instance brief. If the dream adds flavor but isn’t important to your plot, consider summarizing it.

Should the Dream Seem Real?

Decide what your readers should think about your dream sequence. Should they think it’s a waking scene until they get to the end? Should they be unsure whether it’s a dream or a waking scene? If they’re sure it’s not a waking scene, might they wonder if it’s a vision showing real events?

Dreams Presented as Reality

If readers think your protagonist is awake, your scene will have more tension. Readers rarely worry about characters that are safely in dreamland, but if the scene is presented as real, nightmares can be terrifying. After all, the viewpoint character will think the dream is real, so why shouldn’t the audience?

Unfortunately, as this technique becomes more popular, it feels increasing disingenuous. Dreams presented as reality can come off as a cheap trick instead of a dramatic plot twist. And to be honest, they can be a cheap trick. They allow storytellers to neglect the main plot in favor of thrills that have no bearing on later events. However, if your dream matters to your plot, your audience will probably forgive your bluff.

Presenting dreams as reality will also limit your options. To be effective, these dream sequences must feel like a normal scene. Once readers discover the scene was a dream, they might look back and think it was unrealistic because it didn’t feel that way. To help avoid this problem, you can make the dream get slightly weirder as it continues, slowly revealing that your protagonist is asleep.

A good example is Buttercup’s first dream in The Princess Bride (the only dream in the movie). As the dream opens, the story skims over Buttercup’s wedding to the villain, declaring her queen of the land. The narration feels mundane until Buttercup encounters an unusually defiant old peasant who is disgusted with her and who knows things a stranger shouldn’t know. The author reveals shortly after that it’s just a dream and then summarizes two more dreams that are clearly in Buttercup’s head but that follow the same theme as the first. This increases the believability of the first dream and provides character development that is more valuable than a mere plot bluff. Motivated by her dreams, Buttercup then makes an important decision.

Dreams Presented as Uncertain

Dreams provide a unique opportunity to blur the line between reality and imagination in interesting ways. You can build suspense as the hero wonders not only if the conversation they had was real but also if the person they had that conversation with was who they appeared to be.

If you want readers to wonder whether your protagonist is unconscious or awake for most of your scene, make its ambiguous status clear. If readers are uncertain whether the dream is real, and they don’t know they’re supposed to be uncertain, they could feel confused. Instead of focusing on the story, they’ll pause to figure out what you were intending.

In some cases, you can use your viewpoint character to fix this. A character receiving a magical vision might wonder whether or not they are asleep. Or if you recount the dream after they wake, they could wonder if their fuzzy memory was from a real event. That will sanction your reader’s uncertainty and prevent them from feeling confused. But if you’re narrating a garden-variety dream as it occurs, it gets more complicated. People having a regular dream will gain some control over it once they consider they might be dreaming. Not only does this prevent character uncertainty, it will remove the tension from your scene.

If your character must believe they’re awake while the audience doubts it, the best way to signal uncertainty is with diligent setup. Long before the dream begins, you’ll need to establish a signal that your character could be dreaming. For example, in the movie Inception, the main character has a spinning top that only falls over if he’s awake. During a pivotal moment, the spinning top shows ambiguous behavior, bringing the status of the scene into question. In your story, your character could have reoccurring dreams about a shadowy monster with glowing eyes. You could depict dreams with this monster several times, or your character could mention it repeatedly. Then when you show this monster in a scene, your audience will wonder whether the character is dreaming or if the monster is real. Making the atmosphere slightly surreal but still plausible can also add uncertainty.

While borderline reality can be satisfying, you can have more fun when everyone knows you’re not in Kansas anymore. Let’s focus on narrating dreams that are obviously dreams.

Transitioning into a Dream

Once readers know your viewpoint character is dreaming, you have lots of room to maneuver. But how do you get there gracefully?

Narrating the Transition as It Occurs

The easiest way to narrate falling asleep is for your character to lie down and close their eyes. People just expect someone who does this to fall asleep. If you’d like, you can also describe the transition by saying the world grows dark, becomes distant, fades away, or any other metaphor for loss of perception. These metaphors can also replace lying down when your character becomes suddenly unconscious.

Alternatively, conscious thought can be warped into a dream, keeping the viewpoint character ignorant of their unconscious status. Your hero might rest their eyelids for a moment while they think or imagine something. That something could get weirder until they wake up and realize they were dreaming. As long as readers know from the start that they’re in the character’s head, this shouldn’t confuse them.

If your character intentionally goes into a state of altered consciousness, they’ll probably concentrate on a focal point to induce it. Use the focal point for your transition. For instance, if they are focusing on a beating drum, you might narrate how the drum beat merges with the thumping of the character’s heart, enveloping everything else.

Once you’ve signaled a likely change in consciousness, dive into your dream. Start the dream by establishing the character’s environment; it will be noticeably different than a moment ago. More often than not, you’ll want to establish a strong mood with your description. You don’t have reality holding you back anymore.

Some authors skip narrating the character going unconscious and jump right into the dream scene, particularly if the dream starts a chapter. This is a little trickier, but it can work if you do it right. To communicate that it’s a dream, include surreal elements as early as you can. It also helps if previous narration suggests the character might be unconscious. For instance, in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the character Bran is severely injured and slips into a coma. The narration switches to characters in other places for a few scenes, and then when Martin returns to Bran, the chapter opens with:

It seemed as though he had been falling for years.

Fly, a voice whispered in the darkness, but Bran did not know how to fly, so all he could do was fall.

This makes it obvious Bran isn’t conscious.

While I recommend giving enough context to clarify that you’re narrating a dream, italics can also be used to set off dreams or visions from the regular narration. This signals to the reader that something is different. However, I would only use this as a last resort, particularly if the dream is long. Reading italics can become tiresome.

Narrating Dreams as Recollections

You can also skip to the moment your character wakes up and recalls their dream. While dreams could still be fleshed out in a full flashback, this method works best when dreams are told in summary. In The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold uses it to retell a vision where an antagonist dies. The antagonist is a real jerk, so hearing about how he died is satisfying. However, the protagonists have no agency during that scene and the manner of death isn’t important to the plot. That makes it a good choice for summary. Here’s how Bujold transitions:

All was not drowned blackness since the night before–fragments of a dream still coursed through his memory. He had dreamed that he was [Antagonist], roistering with his friends and their whores in some torchlit and candle-gilded hall, the [table] gleaming with silver goblets, his thick hands glittering with rings.

J.K. Rowling takes this a step further. In the beginning of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, she narrates in omniscient as a throw-away character eavesdrops on Lord Voldemort. Right after the scene climaxes, Harry wakes up elsewhere. Then Harry vaguely recalls dreaming about it. By using a real-time scene instead of a vision to narrate the eavesdropping, Rowling keeps the threat high and shows the moment vividly to the audience. As Harry tries to piece it together in his head, she communicates that he doesn’t know everything the readers know about what happened.

Recollecting dreams enables the viewpoint character to offer much more commentary on the dream. During these moments, it’s easy to clarify what the character remembers from their dream and what they think about it.

Narrating the Dream

As long as readers know they’re in a dream or vision, you have a wonderful opportunity to switch up the style and form of your narration. Granted, some style changes make more sense than others. I don’t recommend changing between first and third person or changing the tense. Readers need to get used to large technical changes like those, so they usually offer more distraction than value. However, consider any of these changes:

  • Amount of description: You could dramatically reduce the amount of description, making the dream feel like an empty void or white room. Or you could increase it, creating a slow motion inspection of normally insignificant details.
  • Presence of character thought and bias: A character’s dreams can be more a reflection of how a character sees the world than how it actually is. In reality, the character can’t receive paragraphs of communication just by looking into someone’s eyes, but in a dream they could. Events could slow down as the sleeper analyzes them in detail or speed up so the sleeper barely registers what happened before the dream moves on.
  • Narrative distance: Your narration could become more distant, making the character feel like that are looking down on themselves as they go about their business, their feelings and emotions barely registering. If your narration is already distant, the dream could be further into their head, magnifying emotions and creating more vivid sensations.
  • Tone: Your story might be a gritty noir with dour imagery, but in a dream it could feel like a tropical-island paradise. A house that feels warm and welcoming during waking hours could be portrayed as a sinister version of itself during a nightmare, with cracked mirrors, sinking boards, and moaning hinges.

J.K. Rowling injects lots of ellipsis when describing dreams, like so:

He had hurried straight toward row number ninety-seven, turned left, and ran along it. . . .It had probably been then that he had spoken aloud. . . . Just a bit farther . . . for he could feel his conscious self struggling to wake . . . and before he had reached the end of the row, he had found himself lying in bed again, gazing up at the canopy of his four-poster.

While this tactic is somewhat effective at making the dream feel distant and fuzzy, I personally find it rather heavy-handed. Once you notice them, all the ellipsis jump off the page at you.

In speculative fiction, having a vision can also mean the character inhabits someone else’s body or perspective. In the Curse of Chalion example, the hero experiences being one of the villains, and in Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix, Harry briefly inhabits a snake. This can complicate the narration, as there are two viewpoint characters in the same moment. Unless it furthers the purpose of your dream, don’t include thoughts from both characters. That becomes confusing quickly. Instead, choose which character’s thoughts should be present, or exclude them altogether. Including thoughts from one character plus simple instincts or emotions from the other can also be manageable.

When experimenting with your dream narration, focus on the experience you want your readers to have. Let the technical implementation follow. If you focus on novel, technical details rather than the experience, you could end up with a technique that’s distracting, disorienting, or just annoying.


Dreams can provide a delightful change of pace for both you and your readers. Just remember the flair they offer is secondary to their purpose in your story.

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Comments

  1. Justin

    excellent work!!!

  2. Tyson Adams

    Excellent article. Just one point I’d like added: please, please, do not use a dream sequence as a red herring. The “and then they woke up” trope is annoying.

    • S.D. Miller

      Oh gawd yes. Remember the TV show “Dallas”? Here’s a quote from Wiki: “Bobby Ewing’s death in the season eight finale, alongside his subsequent absence during the following season, was explained away at the beginning of season ten as a dream of Pamela Barnes Ewing, thus effectively erasing everything that had happened during season nine.”

      Worse even than Fonzie’s jumping a shark.

  3. S.D. Miller

    The first time I used a dream sequence my protag was entering adulthood and struggling to put childish things behind him (his love affair with an A.I. in virtual reality) and his fear of what awaited him in reality (he lived in a matrilineal society and his father had abandoned the family when he was little). The V.R. world he’s in is attacked and devoured by rapidly replicating nanobots (black slime). During his escape a few attach themselves to his tablet and he ends up in his nexus (the computer interface of the future and a bit like ST:TNG’s holodeck when it’s not running a program). That scene ends with: “He struggled to move away from the black death and managed to roll onto his back before he passed out.”

    Scene break, dream sequence (very weird and obviously a dream, but logical), and scene break.

    The next scene starts: “Tedd stared up at the charcoal-gray ceiling of his nexus. /I must be going nuts./ He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. /Oh, the crazy things one’s subconscious will dredge up./”

    I’ve go other examples, but one is enough.

    I’m not fond of writers who try to fashion a dream into reality–unless the story is /about/ dreams being indistinguishable from reality (e.g. “Inception”).

    I used to follow one fellow who was writing a fan-fic and publishing it online. He seemed to have an allergy to editing his work. If he painted himself into a corner, the story would abruptly change. He had a whole chorus of sycophantic fans who would chortle “dream sequence” on his forum. The only thing worse than trying to pass of a dream as reality, is trying to pass of reality as a dream. (It never happened.)

    For that and other “crimes” against writing, I stopped following him.

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