A former writing coach once stated emphatically, “Never start with a dream.” He had lots of other rules about beginning a novel: never in a moving vehicle, never at a funeral, or with an alarm clock, with the weather, dialogue, and a whole host of other stratagems of setting. In fact, there were so many, it paralyzed me to the point of not being able to write that opening scene. He taught me many things, and as a newbie I followed every single one of his directives to the letter. As I look back, I see that some were valuable, and, of course, the more unique the opening, the better the chance of hooking your reader from the get-go. I’ve written about this in my blog Rock that Opening Scene. But in my growth as a writer, I’m feeling a little more rebellious and thought I’d do a little research about the use of dreams.
I do believe that each writing should stand on its own merits and never be subjected to a set of arbitrary edicts leveled by a writing coach, or even an agent or editor for that matter. I had an agent once tell me that she loved my story and she thought me a great writer and I deserved to be published, but she just couldn’t sell paranormal right now. Not sure if that was her standard brush off or not, it didn’t seem to be when I checked with other writer pals who also received rejection letters from her. And I’ll agree that the YA paranormal/fantasy market is probably saturated, but in my heart-of-hearts, I believe that if it’s a good story and the writing is great, it shouldn’t matter what the market says. A great novel will always sell. I hear the same lament about Vampire stories and Steampunk. And they said the same thing about dystopian tales in recent years, and now we have a flood of new ones (and the accompanying films) inundating the market: The Hunger Games, Divergent and Hollywood even dug up that old classic The Giver.
However, we need to write the stories we love and I don’t think we should over-think to the point of paralyzing us and if I want to write a dream or open my novel in an airplane, I’ll do it. I believe you should write the story you want, the story that is inside you. I know first hand how difficult it is to keep the soul of something you write intact, especially when tons of people weigh in on your story. I’ve talked about this too, in my blog Surviving the Biology of Negative Feedback. Receiving critique from lots of fellow writers or even paid professionals can pervert your story into something you never intended. Sometimes it begins to feel like someone else’s story and yes, you’ve lost your voice and essentially your soul.
Dreams are tricky devices in writing and admittedly, they are frequently misused. Myself, I’ve often grown annoyed reading a novel or watching a movie or TV show, to learn that what I thought was reality turns out to be a dream. It’s fun to trick your reader but just like I mentioned in my post about killing a major character you need to be careful that the response you’re after is the one you get.
It seems dreams are becoming popular in recent YA books and I wonder if sometimes really smart writers find a tenet such as this and break it intentionally just to spin it and knock all those “rule-makers” on their literary asses. (Check out Across the Universe by Beth Revis and 3:59 by Gretchen McNeill). I commend these writers on going against the general consensus that dreams are a no-no. I would still agree that opening with a dream is dangerous. It essentially takes your reader to a time and place of your choosing and just as he’s getting his feet firmly planted in your story you pull the rug out from under him. Now, he’s not happy. You might think it’s a great way to keep your reader off guard, to freak him out, to hook him, but what you’ve really done is hoodwinked him.
There are lots of uses for dreams: a premonition or psychological insight- often brimming with symbolism, or perhaps as part of the backstory. And then there’s the repeating dream. Personally, I find this one annoying. It feels like the writer is hitting me over the head with a virtual hammer. The other negative aspect of using a dream is that once your reader knows it’s not real-live action it seems as if the story has stalled. Sort of like too much backstory or description. The plot isn’t moving along if you’re dallying in too many of these other devices. All of these reasons for crafting a dream are interesting to consider. But many are overused, mostly in thrillers, horror and speculative fiction, to the point where they actually bore your reader, whereas you were probably going for the complete opposite reaction.
So feel free to break every rule in the literary tool box, even the edict about not using dreams. However, plot it, carefully, soundly, and use it to give a window into what the character is experiencing emotionally at the moment. It can be a useful method to get us inside the character and show us just how the conflict is getting to her… if you do it well. And if you’re going to shatter a well-accepted notion, make it spectacular and let the shards scatter deep and wide for full impact.
Up Next from Caryn: Ignorance is Bliss