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The Trouble With Dreaming

I dislike most dream sequences in fiction (novels and short stories, TV shows, movies, comics, etc). I feel like very few people get them right, and that includes myself when I’ve written them in stories. Unless my own dreams are significantly different from other people’s dreams (which I doubt–I’m special, but not that special), most dream sequences are nothing like real dreams, to the point where I find them jarring and painful to read or watch.

First of all, dreams don’t begin. As they say in the movie Inception (which does get a lot about dreams right, even if the actual dream sequences never really feel like dreams to me), “You never really remember the beginning of a dream do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what’s going on.” I could never tell you when a dream of mine begins, there just seems to be stuff happening, and I’m in the middle of it. My dreams don’t usually end either, unless I wake up. They transition into other dreams or they just kind of fade away like a pop song.

Dreams aren’t weird, except they are. All too often, I read or watch a dream sequence where the dreamer is confused by the dream’s differences from reality and the dreamer is some sort of advocate for reality, like Alice’s reactions to the oddness of Wonderland. But to quote Inception again, “Well dreams, they feel real while we’re in them, right? It’s only when we wake up that we realize how things are actually strange.” Last night, I had a dream where I was a college student, involved in playing a tabletop game that used a huge, elaborate board and big polyhedral dice. I didn’t understand the rules of the game and I complained about it to the other players. But I wasn’t at all confused about being a college student at a university with a large, Gothic common room and dorm rooms that were like hospital rooms with no doors. In the dream, it all seemed perfectly natural, to the point where not knowing the rules of the game was stranger than if I’d automatically known them. And in dreams, I usually just know things and take them for granted. I know I’m a college student (even though it’s been almost 10 years since I was last in school in real life). I know which dorm room is mine. I know which study carrel is mine. I know the desktop computer in the dorm room is mine and I know the laptop in the carrel is also mine. I know which room is the common room, I know I’m playing a game (even if I don’t know all of the rules) and I know the other players, even if none of them are people I know in real life. While things may be frustrating in dreams (and they frequently are in mine), none of it seems the least bit weird…until I wake up and think back on the dream.

Dreams change constantly and they aren’t linear. In my dreams, geography is always shifting. The path I took to get from my dorm room to the common room was not the same as the path I took to get from the common room to my dorm room. The dorm room I left was not always the dorm room I went back to, but it was the same room. The game I played in the common room was a big part of the dream, but it wasn’t the only big part–lots of things happened in the dream. People in my dreams change from one person to another, sometimes while I’m talking to them. Sometimes I’m not myself in a dream, sometimes I am, sometimes I’m both myself-as-the-audience and someone else-as-the-main-character at the same time. Time will pass slowly, time will pass quickly, things will happen out of order, emotions will change instantly. And often, places that I know of in real life will be drastically different in a dream, but in the dream, I know it to be that real life place. And again, none of this seems at all weird in the dream. It is what it is…until I wake up and think back on it.

The problem I have with most fictional dream sequences is that they aren’t nearly as weird real dreams, yet they’re portrayed as weird to the dreamer (and the reader). Maybe that makes sense, in that dreams are surreal (literally), but that’s the reason true Surrealist fiction isn’t all that popular. Most people want stories that make sense, and real dreams rarely make much sense. For me, that’s what makes dreams so interesting and affecting. Having a dream sequence that is a weird, confusing situation for the dreamer that directly and obviously presents them with important story information is…well, I was going to say “unrealistic,” but stories are unrealistic by nature (because reality makes shitty stories), so that’s not it. It’s…boring. It’s a dull, trite way to impart important story information to a character and it’s a poor attempt to give a story a strange atmosphere. Basically, if your dream sequence isn’t massively stranger than the “real life” in your story, I hate your dream sequence.

(That being said, there are some dream sequences in stories that aren’t at all as weird as real dreams but I still like them in the context of the story. What can I say? I’m inconsistent–like a dream.)

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