Dreams are overdone, this is true, and a lot of people—myself included—do cringe a little bit when an author uses dreams in a story. However, the use of dreams is not the core problem; it’s the cliches that come with writing dreams that irritate people.
Most of the time, when someone writes a dream, they make it seem very clear. The dreamer knows what is going on at all times, there is a logical progression, they can tell when something is wrong, etc. If you really think about dreams that you’ve had before, there usually isn’t much logic involved. One moment you could be looking at a salad and the next moment, it’s your best friend from grade school dressed in a lettuce outfit, and you don’t question it at all.
We don’t remember most of our dreams. Unless you are writing your dreams down or immediately telling them to someone else, you’re going to forget them entirely. Within the first five minutes after waking, we forget almost all of what we dreamed the night before. In writing, a huge cliche is for characters to remember their dreams with perfect clarity. This just doesn’t happen unless, as stated above, you’ve done something to try to retain the memory of the dream.
If you are going to use dreams as a major portion of your story, you need to try to convey how dreams really are. They should be chaotic, things should randomly appear and disappear, things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with your story can happen in order to make the dream feel real. Your audience should be able to see the purpose of the dream sequence—in this case, showing your captive character—but they should also get the erratic, belly-twisting feeling of having a dream that’s not quite right.
Let your characters forget what happened. Maybe they have the same dream a second night, or a third night in a row. If you have a character that writes their dreams down, you need to establish their reasons for doing it. They might be trying to get lucid dreams, or they might be in therapy, or they might be a writer, a poet, or just someone interested in dreams. Whatever their reasons are, they need to have them. You need to let the audience know so that their journaling is part of their personality, not just a plot device.
It’s not that dreams themselves are overdone in writing, it’s that they’re not written as dreams. If you’re going to use them as a plot device, you need to ground them in reality—as much as dreams can be considered reality. They need to read like dreams, feel like dreams, and your characters need to react to them in a realistic way.
- Dr. M