Writing Dreams in Fiction

When is it okay to add dreams or flashbacks to a story?

I'm afraid there is no clear and defining answer to this question. Most of the research (or opinions) I've found on the subject imply that dream sequences and flashbacks can work in story if certain conditions are met. All of my research indicates that the current view on beginning a story with a dream or flashback is, if you actually want to sell your work, don't do it.

Of course, for every rule of writing, there are countless examples of that rule being successfully broken.  So, what are these rules? Again, no definitive answer, but I've found some considerations for using dreams and flashbacks in fiction.

If you follow K. M. Weiland (and everybody should follow K. M. Weiland) she expresses her opinion on using dreams in fiction on her youtube channel.

Others share K. M. Weiland's views on when to use dreams in fiction. Below, I've compiled a short list of generally agreed upon rules that apply to dreams and flashbacks in fiction.

  1. Is the dream or flashback absolutely needed for the story?
  2. Is your proposed dream or flashback clear and succinct?
  3. Does the dream or flashback contain or add to tension and/or conflict in your story?
  4. Does the dream or flashback provide character growth?
  5. Does the dream or flashback provide information to the reader they could not get any other way?
I'm sure there are more rules that might apply but these five seem to be the consensus among numerous articles on the subject. I do not believe that your dream or flashback must positively answer all five of the above questions, but it should be a yes for at least two or three. Of course, all five would be great and anything less will require it to be written in such a way that it grabs at the readers and keeps them reading.

Keep in mind that others have done this successfully so, with practice, you can too. Although most successful dream sequences come from literature, there is plenty of room for success in the commercial fiction market. Click HERE for 10 stories with dreams.

I was looking for a way to provide backstory in a current WIP and thought that a dream sequence may be a possibility to achieve this. So, I wrote quick draft of a scene using a dream to provide some backstory.

The jury is still very much out on whether writing a scene this way relays backstory while meeting at least some of the criteria listed above. I'm providing this scene below for evaluation (yours and mine.) I'm not certain this will ever be used in the WIP but the exercise proved useful regardless of the fate of the draft.

Some background first. In this story, Kat Mckendry is drawn into a murder investigation when an old friend's husband is poisoned during a large celebratory get-together. Now, while she's trying to help her friend, she's also dealing with a recent break-up after finding her husband literally in bed with one of his clients.

I stormed into the room as I'd done every night in my dreams for the last few weeks. This time was different though. This time I was armed with a baseball bat. Last time it was a pair of hedge shears. Before that, a tazor. I remember the first time I was armed only with my foul mouth and a dangerous right hook.
Same as before, my philandering photographer husband was busy doing the horizontal bop with one of his stick-thin models and too busy to notice me until the echo of the slamming door pierced the cacophony of his lover's yelling and moaning. By that time, I was half way across the studio apartment with the bat raised over my shoulder. When I got close enough, I was planning on swinging for glory. I had no questions. I didn't want any explanations. I mean, it was all pretty much laid out there in plain sight. I should've seen it a long time ago. After all, I was once one of his clients.
By the time I reached the edge of the bed, the waif model had covered up and was staring at me as if I were an uninvited guest while Jake whimpered and pleaded for me to calm down. He was naked and exposed without the bed sheet, and his little soldier still stood at attention. That's why I had the shears last time. I raised the bat over my head, preparing to bash it onto the bed or into his head - I was still deciding - when a phone started ringing. Jake was now holding my phone with that smug look still on his face. Why was he holding my phone out to me? How did he get my phone? The phone kept ringing and Jake faded into the darkness.
"Hello?" I mumbled into my phone. It was still dark. My phone was the only light except the little bit creeping through the closed curtains. The caller ID showed "unknown." 
I'm hoping the reader can get a sense of Kat's personality - her snarkyness - in this scene. But does the scene positively subscribe to the rules above?

Was it absolutely needed for the story? I suppose only I can answer this as I'm the only one, at this point, that knows the whole story. I say yes, because it is the foundation of the subplot. Kat's soon to be ex-husband will make an appearance later and make things worse than they are for Kat now. See, Kat has moved back to her home town hoping to get away from the situation with her husband and to think about what to do.

Notice that this dream sequence was written strictly for story. Yes one wants the story to be realistic but real dreams are muddled, unclear, cryptic, and usually forgotten soon after waking. This dream was written in what I call "story realistic form."

Was it clear and succinct? The reader will ultimately decide this but I think it was made clear in the sequence, what caused her to leave her husband.

Does this scene add tension or conflict? I'm not so sure. It is difficult to develop tension or conflict in backstory. I think there is tension in the scene but also feel it is dissipated as fast as the dream when the phone rings. Just a preview for my loyal readers. The call is from the police asking her to come to the station to answer some questions. I mean, she was serving drinks and likely served Robert Chase the poison that killed him.

Does the scene contain character growth? Again, not so sure. I believe the scene may show some character depth but this scene by itself may support character growth as it provides a basis for Kat's decision to start a new life.

Could the reader get this information any other way? I certainly could've had Kat recount her experience during conversation with another character. So, while this may not be the only way to convey information to the reader, it may be the best and most efficient way. Again, the decision can only be made when the scene is put against the rest of the story.

The decision (and yes, it should be a conscious decision by the author) to use dream or flashback in a story can only truly be tested and confirmed by readers. The writer is often too close to the story and has inside information that affects their perception. Really though, the decision to use these tools in storytelling should be made only after thoughtful consideration, and trying different methods. The reader, whether it be an editor, beta readers, or yourself after putting the work away for awhile, are the only true measure of success in writing dream sequences and flashbacks.

Personally, I can say that writing this scene in dream sequence, even if it is not used, is a valuable exercise. It still provides valuable insight into how the story might form and develop.

What are your thoughts on dreams and flashbacks in story writing? What are your thoughts on the scene shown above? Was it readable? Was it easy to understand what was going on? Post your thoughts in the comments section below.

Photo Credit: josephinewall.co.uk