To Dream or Not to Dream…

Ah the dilemma of the ‘Dream Sequence’. It is often said that dream sequences in novels are a bad idea. That readers skip over them, or that they’re too contrived. But it also seems to be agreed that this isn’t always true, and that when handled correctly, or when integral to the story/character they can be quite interesting.

Stuart Evers on the Guardian Books Blog says of dream sequences…


“For the most part, the realist novel uses the dream as a way to see deeper into a character’s soul. This causes problems. Dreams are, by their very nature, random, teasing, confusing and otherworldly. Taken cumulatively, someone’s dreams may expose some of their inner workings – but taken individually, I suspect, they wouldn’t provide much insight. Which means that when I read a dream that “says” something about a character, it tends to strike a false note. And yet if it doesn’t say something about the character, and conforms to the peculiar randomness of real dreams, I’m likely to be bored and skip the pages.”


But I believe, it kept short and if recounted in the prose as opposed to told in present tense while the character is supposedly experiencing it, dream sequences can tell the reader something subtle about the character that perhaps the character can’t articulate themselves, or doesn’t even know about themselves. In a third person narrative, the reader need not assume that the character even remembers the dream. Perhaps it is only being recounted to offer them a glimpse of the character’s subconscious.

*warning: excessive use of dead animals ahead*
The first draft of my first novel had a dream sequence in it. One that was inspired by an actual event that felt so surreal that it would never have been believable if written into the main action of the story. However, due to the first person, real time, immediacy of the novel, the dream sequence did seem out of place. Additionally, it did everything that I have come to hate in a dream sequence. It was told as it was happening (although this choice was made because the narrative is constantly in the narrator’s thoughts as they’re happening, so I felt a dream would have to be described as it was happening in her mind) and it was put in italics, making it stand out from the rest of the narrative. Eventually I cut it. I recreate it for you here in it’s entirety. 




“A loud noise. 
Whirring. 
No. 
Fluttering. 
Violent flapping. 
I’m standing in the middle of my apartment. It’s dark, but there’s light pouring in through the windows. Street lamps. Something dark flashes past my head. I feel the soft pressure of feathers and muscle against my ear. I duck. I can see it slamming itself into the ceiling’s high corners. 
A pigeon.
I run to the windows trying to pry them open. They stick tight. I strain and push against the glass, dodging the panicked bird as it zigzags the room, crunching itself into walls, spattering them with blood.
I’m crying. Willing the window to please open. The bird barrels through the air straight for me and just as I crouch to the ground, glass shatters over my head. Raining down on me in stinging little pieces.
I’m up, unhurt. The lights are on.
There are feathers creeping into the far corners of the room. Pushed along by a breeze from the now open, but unbroken window. There are flecks of white shit already drying into the carpet, and a wet glistening puddle of green/white goo soaking into my sheets.
For fuck’s sake.
Blood is turning from bright red to dark brown on the walls. Clumps of feathers and blood are clotted to the ceiling.
The dumb thing practically bashed its head in slamming around this fucking cage.
I lean out the window and peer down to where it’s flopping around on the sidewalk below. The flapping of its wings echoes in the empty street. Making it too loud for what it is. The fluttering of soft feathers against each other. The sound is made more than the action. It rings in my ears.
The pigeon can’t get itself upright and in the pearlescent peach streetlight I can see dark spots forming on the pavement as it struggles with itself. Wills its body to heal. I consider dropping a book on it. But am afraid I’ll miss. I should go down there and grind my heel into its skull, save the godforsaken thing some suffering. But I know that I won’t. That I can’t. I’m not able. Not strong enough. 
So I close the window and turn my back to its pathetic death.
And my stranger is there in front of me. Holding the bird in his hands. It’s broken and twisted and its blood runs over his fingers and soaks into the carpet at his feet.
He steps closer, offering the twitching thing to me. Sheer fear flashing in its darting eyes.
“Here.” He says. “This is yours to deal with.”


Very glad I cut that now…

However, it made another appearance in one of my many unfinished attempts at a second novel. Perhaps because I was so obsessed with the imagery of it. This time, although still in first person, the narrative is in past tense and the dream is recounted after waking. Also, it is shorter, less detailed and gets right at the heart of what’s important about it, which I feel does make it more approachable…

“There was a night when the whole story seemed to take a turn for the darker. I woke suddenly, a dream still fresh in my mind. I had been in my own room, but it wasn’t my room. It was much smaller and had high slanting ceilings. There had been a bird, a pigeon, trapped in the room with me. It was battering itself against the corners of the room trying to escape. There were blood and feathers everywhere. Next, I was on a dark street, in a circle of orangepink lamplight. At my feet was a dark sputtering lump. The broken pigeon lay flapping on the sidewalk, bent and twisted at unlikely angles. The echoing of its wings so loud it was hard to believe it was just the sound of feather against feather. Its dull eyes rolled. It didn’t know I was there. Too panicked to notice anything but its own life fading. And then, back in a room that wasn’t my room, I turned to find my mother in the doorway. Even shorter and rounder than she had actually been. In her outstretched hands the bird twitched feebly, its blood running over my mother’s fingers and pooling on the floor. She looked at me and said,
“Put it out of its misery.”

Sitting up in my bed, damp with sleep sweat, the possibility for tears diminishing, I felt real anger towards the pigeon for being so stupid. For bashing its own damn brains out trying to get out of it’s pathetic cage.”

Now, in my second novel, I found myself writing another dream sequence. Again past tense, and recounted but now also in third person. It started like this… 
“She’d had a semi-waking dream where she’d been riding a horse, like she did the previous summer, when her Grandfather had given her six weeks of riding lessons as a birthday present. But in the dream the horse had no saddle and no bridle. And suddenly the boy had appeared in front of her. The horse reared up, startled, but she’d managed to calm it down. ‘What’re you doing!’ she’d screamed at him. But he didn’t say anything. Just pointed at the horse. ‘What? What do you want?’ ‘Your horse…’ he kept pointing. ‘Your horse is dead.’ And she looked down at it and it was. The skin was sagging and dried out and its eyes were empty holes. Flies buzzed out of its mouth. And she’d just laughed.”
I wanted to show something about her innate morbidity. I wanted to show how this boy she’d met was infiltrating her thoughts. I wanted to give a glimpse into what they’re relationship would become. But after giving it to a reader for suggestions, I was told that the first three instances of dead animals were all fine and made sense, but the dead horse stuck out as…oh no, not another dead animal. And that her morbid preoccupations were made clear enough without it. So I reworked it to this… 

That night, as her fever broke, she dreamed she was riding a horse. A chesnut mare. It had no bridle and no saddle and she kept herself atop it with fingers full of tangled mane. And the horses hooves were beating the ground like jackhammers and its muscles were writhing and the heat of its exertion burned her thighs, but they were going nowhere. The scenery was stationary. The wind whipped violently through her hair but they were stuck in one spot. And she could see him in the distance, on the horizon, but they never got any closer.”

But this didn’t seem to tell as much about her relationship with the world as I wanted it to. Or about how she feels connected to the boy who she doesn’t even know. So I opened up write or die and just thought about her disconnection from the world, and just wrote dreams. Including this one…

“She dreamed she had a box made of glass. It was a small box, the size of shoe box, but the whole world was inside it. Except her. There was nothing outside the box with her. The whole universe consisted of her and the contents of the box. She could see everything going on in the box, but she wasn’t part of any of it. And then suddenly the boy, Brandon, was there next to her, in the nothing. And he took the lid off the box and turned it upside down and tipped all its contents…the whole of creation, out into the nothing, where it all evaporated and disappeared.”

Far too esoteric. But it got me on the right path. And eventually, I got to this…
 
“In the night, as her fever broke, she dreamed she was in a movie theater, but she was the only one there. And on the screen the whole world and all of history played continuously forever. An unending film with no overarching narrative. And she was never in it, but always watching it. She couldn’t leave the theater and she couldn’t get into the screen (although she’d never really tried), she could only watch. And then suddenly the boy, Brandon, was sitting in the seat directly beside her. In that theater full of empty seats. And he had a box of popcorn, which he held out to her by way of silent offering.  And they sat together, eating popcorn and watching the film of everything, forever.”
Will it stay like this? Will it stay in the final book? Who knows. But for whatever reason I’m still drawn to the succinct, interesting dream sequence. Is this a weakness as a writer? I don’t know. I’ll have to see.
 
Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: