Let’s Talk About Tropes #6: Dreams and Nightmares

Do you usually cringe whenever you have to read about the dream a character is having? Because I do.

So let’s talk about why dreams are written poorly, and what we, as writers, can do about it.

(Caveat: This is meant as a criticism and exploration of dreams in realistic fiction. If you’re writing a world where dreams work significantly differently on purpose, a lot of this won’t apply, but being aware of the potential pitfalls can’t hurt, right?)

Problem #1: Do you really need to include a dream?

A dream scene can accomplish quite a few things, if used properly. The most common attempted purpose I’ve seen is to show a character’s inner turmoil without needing them to freak out in real life, where it wouldn’t be appropriate or in character. And that’s fine.

But how many of us have dreams that lay out our inner turmoil in understandable literary metaphor? Speaking from my own experience, if I’m stressed about my day job, yes, I might have an anxiety dream where something has gone wrong there and I’m being yelled at, or trying to cover for three people who didn’t come in that day, or whatever. And then, if I turn around, suddenly I’m wandering an empty hotel looking for Smurfs (yes, I’ve dreamed that) or chopping veggies in a high-end restaurant kitchen (yep, that too.)

Which brings me to…

Problem #2: Dreams are often absurd.

Lots of people like to ascribe deeper meanings to dreams, but I’m not one of them. Science hasn’t fully explained the function of dreams in our brains to anyone’s satisfaction yet, but mine are usually a scramble of recent memories or daily actions, a smattering of long-term ones (my high school friends will occasionally make appearances if something has reminded me of them, even though I haven’t seen most of them in over a decade), and rarely some recurring theme involving a fear of mine, like spiders or the feeling of running out of time to complete a task.

I subscribe to the theory that dreams allow the brain to decompress, basically. It’s stress relief for your mind, a chance to process new or recent information without the needs of the conscious brain interfering.

So dreams, for most people, are not the clean-cut, detailed mini-stories they’re portrayed to be in books. Too much meaning is ascribed to them in order to justify their inclusion.

But that’s not how they work, so reading that style of dream leaves a sour taste in my mouth, because it doesn’t relate to my experience at all.

Problem #3: Lots of people don’t remember their dreams.

I’ve heard quite a few people state this as “I don’t dream,” but the science doesn’t back them up on this, because REM sleep deprivation has a number of significant effects, and the brains of individuals who are chronically deprived due to various forms of insomnia will overcompensate by falling into REM sleep faster and staying in it longer until the shortfall diminishes. (I don’t have a source on that because I read it in my biology textbook long ago, so feel free to holler at me if that’s no longer sound.)

It’s much more accurate to say these people do dream, but they don’t remember their dreams. I myself dream vividly, but I don’t remember them every night. So unless you make your character a vivid dreamer deliberately and weave that into the story in other ways, turning to dreams often to develop that character (or, blech, move the plot along) is just a plot device.

So what can you do?

  • Keep a dream journal for yourself, if you do remember your dreams. Write down as much detail as you can remember. This will give you an idea of how to write a more realistic dream if you do need one for a story.
  • If you want to have a dreamer character, use the meat of the dream in conversation instead of as a separate scene. (I often tell my coworkers about my strange dreams, because I can usually get them laughing over whatever crazy things happened.) It doesn’t have to be more than a line or two, and it’s a way to work extra information about a character into the story without dragging the reader through the dream itself.
  • Failing that, skip including a dream altogether and find another way to make the scene work.

Now, onto nightmares. If anything, the treatment of nightmares is often worse than regular dreams.

Problem #1: The plot-convenient nightmare.

People have nightmares. It happens. But in stories, it always seems to happen only when necessary for dramatic tension.



Problem #2: Nightmares as emotional manipulation.

Forgive me for not linking, but there’s no possible way I could find it again–but when Jenny Trout read and recapped the Fifty Shades series, she made the observation that Christian Grey only seemed to have nightmares whenever Ana shows signs of distancing herself from him. (I tried searching for it, but there’s a lot of individual chapters to dig through, and I read them all as they were published, ie, not recently.)

Now, if E.L. James actually intended Christian to be an emotionally abusive asshat, this is brilliant characterization, because Christian would be using/faking his nightmares as a lure to draw Ana closer, feeding on her nurturing instincts, with actual nefarious intent.

Since the author has made it abundantly clear outside the works themselves that Christian is not supposed to be an asshat, I’m left feeling like the readers are the ones being manipulated, that we’re supposed to fall for that nonsense.

Problem #3: Lots of people don’t remember their nightmares, either.

They just wake up feeling some level of stressed or panicked–breathing heavily, sweating, racing heart, etc.–without knowing what caused it. And that’s okay, too. It’s not realistic (for most people) to have a recurring nightmare, perfect in every detail, dog them night after night after night, as I’ve seen in some stories.

Recurring nightmares do happen, certainly, and are often caused by/centered on some recent trauma–that part, stories often do get right. Goodness knows I had my share of nightmares about a car crash that I was in–but over-reliance on the recurring-nightmare trope, again, usually to make a character sympathetic either to the reader or to another character, is overdone and stale.

So what can you do?

  • If you need to give your characters plot-significant nightmares, sprinkle in some throwaway nightmares too (just don’t devote too much page-time to them), and/or let your character wake up knowing they had a nightmare, but not remembering it.
  • Don’t rely on nightmares to try to make your characters more sympathetic. If he’s an unrepentant jerk while he’s awake, your bad boy love interest isn’t suddenly going to become appealing just because he has a squishy nightmare underbelly.
  • Failing that, again, consider leaving nightmares out entirely. They’re not a requirement for either character development or a good plot, so use them wisely.


4 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Tropes #6: Dreams and Nightmares

  1. I do get recurring nightmare themes rather than the same dream over and over again.

    I can only think of one dream scene I read that I liked: Ronan’s dream in The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. It revealed a lot about the character and it felt real (as in: this is how dreams actually are) and the chapter started with a sentence letting the reader know it was, in fact, a dream. The worst is the writer tricking the reader into believing the dream’s actually happening.

    In my current project, I’ve dream scenes, but I’m trying to figure out whether (and how) I can get rid of them.


      1. Fair enough, and also, I wouldn’t even begin to criticize The Dream Thieves under these criteria. I mean, the whole book revolves around fantastical dreaming, so the dreaming needs to be there. And I’m not opposed to dreams and nightmares being used in stories, just used badly, so don’t ditch them in your project on my account! (/wink)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s very true! I was just thinking about that one scene that’s very much a regular dream? You know which one I mean. But you raise a good point!
        I’ve been considering whether the dreams need to be in for quite a while but so far I’m leaning towards “yeah” but we’ll see when (if) I finish the project! XD

        Liked by 1 person

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