Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Other Kind of Dream

You know that moment between dreams and waking? That moment when realities are shifting and you can't pin the truth down? Sometimes there is an intense sadness cutting through, because in your dream someone you love died and in your head they are still gone. Or, even worse, you dream someone alive, then wake up to discover they were dead all along. Last night I dreamed that one of my friends said something hurtful to me and I woke up feeling miffed at him. 

Go far enough back and memories are interchangeable with dreams. I remember both with the same clarity. A few of my childhood dreams were so vibrant that I don't know if they will ever leave me.

Dreams are often a tool for writers and filmmakers to reveal a character's subconscious state. I have to be honest, much as dreams fascinate me, most of the time I don't connect to their portrayal. They feel like a cool thing thrown in there because the creator thought it would be nifty. But, they end up taking away from the propulsion of the story. I just want the character to wake up so that they can get on with things! It can be a lazy way of explaining your character's feelings to spend a couple of pages describing some bizarre dream. Brilliant as you may be, I'm looking at you, Agnes De Mille.

I can't help but feel like Oklahoma! has some of the laziest storytelling ever. Sure, the Zeitgeist is fabulous, choreography stunning, music legendary, etc. But, the pivotal moment of the story comes about because Laurie takes some drugs that a peddler gives her and falls in love with Curly in a dream. Really? That's what caused the main female character to decide she loved the main male character? A drug-induced dream? Not any moments of truth based on things the character might have actually said or done in real life? Of course, it has been set up since the beginning that these two characters should end up together, so that makes it alright. Oh Rogers and Hammerstein, you make me want to laugh and cry, and not for the reasons you might think. Don't even get me started on Carousel.

Now, to compare one of the greatest classic films of all time to a television show about slaying vampires.

In the finale of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, season 4 all the big bads were gone and the whole episode revolved around the scooby gang crashing on the couch post-slaying. Each character nods off and has a dream.

Remember the guy with the cheese?

Why does this particular dream sequence work? Some might argue that it doesn't. Okay, why does it work for me? 1.) Unlike in Oklahoma!, the whole momentum of the plot does not depend upon it. 2.) The truths it reveals are foggy and open to misinterpretation, as in most dreams. Lots of other disjointed information weaves through the plot. 3.) The universe within which the show takes place has already established the fact that dreams can be prophetic. Because characters are running around killing vampires, it is easier to believe that a dream might have real significance. 4.) There is an intention behind the dream. It is driven by something other than chance and that is clearly stated. 5.) The story does not depend on the dream to do all of its character work. The decisions characters make in regards to each other are based on actual, real-life experience, not moments within the dream. Waking returns them to their conscious state.

The buffyverse uses dreams many times with varying levels of success.

As writers, if we're going to devote a lot of page space to dreams, I think we have to consider whether there is good reason to do so. Can we do it differently and meaningfully, or are we just looking for something simple and cool? Because dreams are fascinating. They tend to mesmerize our waking minds and we forget to use our analytical talents to consider that: yes, this has been done many, many, many, many times.

Our characters, ultimately, are going to be more interesting when they are awake. That's where the consequences and rewards exist.

Unless, as in Inception, you can figure out how to raise the dream stakes.

What dream sequences work or don't work for you?

Reader's log
5. Fire - Kristin Cashore


  1. I always thought that Laurie is already long gone over Curly, knows it and just doesn't want to admit it to anyone (because she's afraid of being weak). I think I might be projecting here. But anyway, I though the dream just showed her what she might lose if she continues down her current path.

    That being said, I usually try to avoid dream sequences because I find them boring and what they reveal are usually only half truths...maybe because it's not really the character's chosen actions (and they are always way too long.

    Except Inception (of course).

  2. It's true they flirt on and off a whole bunch, but Laurie expresses an anguished desire to know what she should do before taking the drug. She seems pretty conflicted. I'd argue she isn't all that aware of how she feels about Curly prior to her dream. She just likes messing with him.

  3. Stupid pre-feminist flimsy farmgirl flirt.

  4. Not to mention the fact that Curly won by a) paying the most for her and b) beating up the competition.

  5. I love that you have Flight of the Conchords on your blog! Kiwis represent!!
    Also, I love Hyperbole & a Half. And I love Alot.

  6. Flight of the Conchords is great! I love the episode on racism where they get in a fight with the guy who thinks they're Australian. :) Lots of brilliance.

    Every time I see someone type alot I want to point and start giggling. Alots are cute.