Amber Morn
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.

Writing The Dream Sequence

You know how dreams go. They make sense while we’re having them, even if the events are far out.

Using a dream in a novel. Some say never do it. Some say never start a book with a dream. Some say dreams slow the story. Guess I like to break the rules.

I agree, sometimes the better choice is simply to say in prose form (and in a few lines) that the character had a dream the night before about x, y, z. But when you want to write the actual dream sequence, here are some techniques to consider:

1. Make sure the dream moves the plot forward. Even though a dream is not a real occurrence, it can still enhance the plot in numerous ways such as: (A) It may push the character, after he/she awakes, to make a decision. (B) It may instill further fear in a character, which down the road will hinder his/her ability to make a logical decision. (C) It may provide backstory for better understanding of the character. But beware—this one’s tricky, as it’s all too easy to stick in a dream to tell the reader past events. If a dream is used for this purpose, it better be doggone compelling.

2. Be careful of the placement of the dream within the story. A dream will not go over well when placed in the middle of an action sequence. Believe me, the reader will skip over it and get back to the current story.

Some agents/editors have declared, “Never use a dream as your opening!” Likely they’ve seen too many manuscripts misuse this device. You have to be careful about opening a novel this way because it does delay real action. However it can be effective. My novel Color the Sidewalk for Me starts with a dream. The dream is a scene from the protagonist’s grief-stricken past. Since the book jumps back and forth between Celia’s teenage years and her current adult age, the dream sets up that motif by the immediate clash of her past and present. (You can read this opening HERE.)

3. Make the dream short. Page after page of dream sequence can bore readers.

4. The dream scene should have an “otherworldly” aura to it. You know how dreams go. They make sense while we’re having them, even if the events are far out. Things and people morph. You’re here, and suddenly—you’re there. One person turns into another. Emotions and actions don’t jive. What might mortify you in real life is perhaps only a bit embarrassing in a dream. For a reader to “buy” the dream you’re writing, it needs to have this strange quality. Therefore, I further suggest…

5. Write the dream in present tense. Doesn’t matter that the rest of your book is in past tense. Dreams always happen in the moment. They are present tense. Your reader instinctively knows this. He/she will respond, “This really feels like a dream.”

6. Use italics. This is a visual way of setting it off from the rest of the text. If the dream is written well, the use of italics is the final brush stroke that completes the painting. You’ll then have a sequence that both visually and aura-wise makes it a little “world” unto itself. And isn’t that how dreams are? They are detours from real life. They can seem very real as they’re happening, but the minute we awake, we’re jarred back to reality. The movement from italics back to regular print provides a visual for that re-entry into the real world.

In one suspense novel I did not follow guidelines 5 & 6, but I had a specific reason. I didn’t want the reader to immediately know it was a dream. But after a few paragraphs the sequence morphs into strangeness, followed by the character waking, scared out of her wits. I wanted the reader to experience that sense of reality-turned-bizarre along with the protagonist. (In keeping with guideline #1, this dream moves the plot forward by further scaring the protagonist, which ultimately affects her decisions.)

7. Make sure the dreamer’s re-entry into reality is believable. I’ve seen too many books in which a person, upon waking from a bad dream, bolts upright in bed. Have you ever done that? It’s not common. A person might jerk awake to a runaway heartbeat. May be sweaty or breathing hard. But few people go from true dream stage to such forceful movement. Neither is it common to scream oneself awake. In your dream you may be screaming only to wake to a rattling in your throat. Even if these extreme reactions do happen to you, they may not ring true with the majority of readers.

A well-written dream sequence can be effective. Learn how to write them as the “alternate realities” they are, then place them strategically in your story.

Brandilyn Collins

Amber Morn