Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Have you ever tried to write a dream sequence or a flashback in your novels? What did you think of it when you were finished? Were you happy with the end result, or did it leave you feeling a little flat when you read back over it?

The school of thought on dreams and flashbacks is divided. Some believe that the use of these devices exhibit the writer's immature efforts at crafting backstory and plugging it in, resulting in an amateurish debut into the literary world.

If not done well, this could prove true.

But why pick on flashbacks and dreams? Even plain storytelling without the use of these literary devices can sometimes result in what dissolves into, at best, a "freshman effort." It's not necessarily due to using these tools, though some critics may call upon this as their "rule of thumb" to judge by.

Another argument against flashbacks and dreams is that they lead the reader out of the actual moment of the story, and may somehow "confuse the reader."

Oh, come on.

The only bit of confusion that might occur is not the result of the dream or flashback itself; rather, the inability of the writer to make his meaning clear--again, resulting in an immature presentation.

Yes, flashbacks and dreams are sometimes tough to transition to and from, and make that transition "work." But they can be invaluable tools in creating your backstory.

What are the advantages of dream sequences? They can foreshadow events to come, or provide information about events that the dreamer witnessed.

In my book, Fire Eyes, U.S. Marshal Kaed Turner is being tortured by a band of renegades, so he isn't paying attention to some of the details of events and conversation that is taking place around him at the time. (SEE EXCERPT BELOW) But later, when he's safely recovering, he dreams about what happened to him. This dream does two things for the reader:

1.) It lets us know what, exactly, was being done to Kaed through the conversation and actions of the participants. We see and hear what is happening, as if we are there, in the moment, without Kaed having to re-tell it to someone.

2.) It allows Kaed (and the reader) to seize upon a very important piece of information that's pertinent to the plot.
He was not aware of it consciously, but his subconscious thoughts had picked it up, and it was revealed in the dream.

If you are writing a story with psychic or paranormal happenings, dreams could be a shared link between characters. This device is used often in novels that include time travel, as well.

One thing to consider when writing a dream sequence is the way your character sees life, and what his or her culture is. Make your dreams and flashbacks reflect this appropriately. In Native American culture, an owl is a symbol of impending death--not wisdom. It might mean different things to people from other cultures. Yet, a raven will probably hold much the same symbolism for everyone.

Your characters can solve problems in their dreams. This happens in reality--it can happen in fiction.

Remember, like the presentation of a gourmet meal, a seamless story is in the telling, or the writing. Backstory is sometimes essential, as are clues to the story that might not be able to be presented any other way. Make your transitions to the past, or in and out of the dream state, as flawless as possible.

If you do this, your readers won't be confused, and you'll hold them spellbound as they see the story unfold along with your characters.

Do you use dreams and flashbacks in your writing? I'd love to hear your comments and thoughts on this. I personally love both dreams and flashbacks, and use both quite frequently in my writing. Let me hear from you!


Finally, he fell into a deep sleep, giving himself up to the blackness, then the dreams that he could not stop, or change.
He had been here before. Waiting. The mists swirled and parted. Dreams were not always kind, but could be a powerful tool to search for clues that the mind kept veiled. From where he waited in the dense underbrush he could see and hear everything—all over again.

“Maybe we oughtta let ‘em go,” Abe Moseley suggested. “Bein’ as who they are.” He shot Fish Edwards a dark look.

“Hell,” Fish mumbled. “I didn’t know they was related to any chief when I took ‘em.”
Fallon stood up and eyed Edwards shrewdly. “It sure puts us in a hell of a place.” He walked slowly toward one of the tall cottonwoods and leaned against it. “Standing Bear will stop at nothing to get them back.”

Mosely hung his head. “I won’t never do that again—screw the merchandise, I mean. I’m awful sorry.”

Fallon shook his head slowly. “We don’t have a buyer anymore, and now we have Standing Bear to deal with.” He came slowly toward Mosely, halting just in front of him. “What should I do, Abe?”

“Hell, General, I know I made a mistake. But I hadn’t had any for so long, an’—”

“A mistake!” Fallon gave him an incredulous stare. “You cost us, Mosely. You and Thomas and Connors. Pritchard is paying us for virgins!”

Pritchard! Kaed’s mind seized on the valuable piece of information he had missed the first time. Pritchard. The Honorable George Pritchard—the Federal judge in Dodge City?

The rest of this was unimportant, but he couldn’t seem to manage to shake off the sleep, wake himself up. He was on fire; burning—and he couldn’t do a damn thing. Everything blurred, and once again he felt the rough hands seizing him, tying him. There was a sudden hiss of burning flesh, the smell of it searing his nostrils, and just as the pain washed over him, he realized it was his own skin.

A mountain of a man stood beside him, his leering gap-toothed grin filled with malicious intent. Kaed felt him take his right arm in his huge ham fists. It seemed as if he stood that way for an eternity, both hands locked on opposite sides of Kaed’s arm.

At Fallon’s grinning nod, the man tightened his grip and began to slowly twist in opposite directions. The bone snapped and crunched as it broke under the ponderous pressure. An excruciating blast of agony shot through Kaed’s entire body as the jagged shards of bone cut through his skin from the inside out, until the ends protruded completely.

Blood spurted across his twisted face and corded neck, soaking into his shirt in spatters. It flowed freely in the next moment, turning the ragged edge of chambray sleeve into a crimson flag of agony.

He cursed himself for the guttural, half-conscious sound he made in the back of his throat. Only by sheer force of will did he choke back the animalistic screams that threatened to tear apart the bloodthirsty air of this hideous night.

“Felt that, didn’t you, Turner?” Fallon leered at Kaed. “Where do you reckon ol’ Standing Bear is right now?”

Kaed remained silent, his puffy eyes slitted murderously in the flickering light of the campfire.

“Well, let’s see. I know one place he’s not, Marshal Turner. He’s not here rescuin’ you, now, is he?” Fallon’s blade arced wickedly across Kaed’s belly, and he gritted his teeth at the slashing fire. He could almost feel his shoulders separating from the rest of his body.

“Is he, Marshal? Now, I ast you a question, boy, and I want a true lawman answer.”

Kaed tried to speak, to tell Fallon to go fuck himself, but it wouldn’t come. His throat was dry and rusty, aching with the effort he’d made to keep any sound back.

“What?” Fallon asked, his grin widening hellishly. He leaned closer in mock concern. “I think the marshal’s tryin’ to talk, boys. Go ‘head, Turner. Ol’ Standing Bear ain’t much of anything to be afraid of, cause he sure hasn’t shown his cowardly, red ass around here.” He winked. “Don’t believe he’s comin’ to help you.”

“He…will,” Kaed gritted.

At the certain tone of Kaed’s response, some of the men hooted and whistled. Seconds later, the first arrow caught Bodie Johns in the throat. The other men turned, running, scrambling for guns, cover and horses.

All except Andrew Fallon. Drawing his revolver, he pointed it at Kaed’s head. “Now, you die, Marshal.”

As Kaed watched Fallon’s eager finger ease the trigger back, he felt a strong vibration in the ropes at his wrists, heard the accompanying whine of the well-placed arrow. He dropped to the ground as the rope unraveled, sliced in two.

Fallon’s gun exploded, and once more, Kaed felt the hot streak of fire at his side.

As he hit the ground and rolled, the blackness took him.


  1. Cheryl--Thanks for clearing this up for me. I've been confused and conflicted about both ever since I began writing. I don't use flashbacks, becasue I don't like to read them--usually. the sort I don't like is; a 1st chapter in 2009, 2nd chapter, flashback to 1940, back and forth. I simply won't read a book like that.Dreams, though, are different. I have used dreams--but have felt guilty of commiting a writing sin! Cela

  2. I love to use both flashbacks and dreams, Cheryl. The way I see it, life isn't necessarily linear, so why should fiction be? I'm a great believer in dreams. Oftentimes important story stuff comes to me in dreams. I've learned to listen. I like how Kaed latched onto Pritchard's name. He knew he'd heard something important too.

    Always a fan!

  3. Hi Celia,
    I am sooooo with you about that kind of flashback (the ones you don't like!) That DOES jerk you out of the story, back and forth, doesn't it? I think you have to be judicious about the use of flashbacks, but I do like to read them if they're done properly.

  4. Hi Maggie,
    I am the same way. Dreams are very important, I think. Wasn't it Eli Whitney who dreamed how to invent the cotton gin? I believe it was him...some great inventor, and probably truth be told, more than one! I think dreams and hypnosis are very closely linked and many times accomplish the same thing, because your mind is in a "different state."
    Thanks for being a fan! LOL

  5. Hi Cheryl, I had a writing teacher nix a dream sequence once, and I've been afraid to use them since. I do use flashbacks, though not the roller coaster kind. Just subtle remembrances that add layers to a character's motives. As long as the reader isn't confused, I don't see why a writer can't use whatever devices will tell his/her story. Nice post!

  6. Hi Pat,
    I'm glad you said that about the writing teacher. So many times, we are taught to do or not to do certain things because "them's the rules!" My favorite example is Stephen King, because he has broken most every rule out there, and that's one of his mottoes--basically that rules are made to be broken. His stories use a lot of dreams and flashbacks, and boy, if you've ever read THE STAND, that book couldn't have been the masterpiece it was without the use of the dreams that drew the people together in the first place. I believe, like you, that if it's done well, and not confusing, a dream or flashback can really add to the story. Thanks for the comment!

  7. Cheryl! I love a well done flashback or dream sequence! I use them, also. My first book has a lot of flashback because her past with her recently lost husband is a major part of what she's dealing with. No one has ever said it made it hard to follow.

    I agree with Maggie. We flashback and dream in reality and it doesn't throw us out of our lives. Why shouldn't we in fiction? Readers are smarter than that. Of course, it does have to be done right.

  8. Cheryl,
    Great post about dreams and flashbacks. I think they work well, but they have to be used well, if that makes sense. It goes along with the same premise of a prologue. In my story, "The Wolf's Torment," I use a prologue to show two things: To establish that my world is a supernatural world, but to to also show why Mihai abhors the supernatural. Dreams are used throughout the novel to show Theresa's power as witch. These literary techniques work very well to enchance story, but they do have to be done right. It takes practice and patience to "nail" it, I think.

  9. LORAINE!!!
    You know, I don't understand where this idea comes from by publishers that readers are too dumb to follow a flashback or dream sequence in a story! I LOVE THEM. But like you say, they have to be done right--if they're hokey, boy, it's the hokeyness that jerks you out of the moment, not the flashback or dream itself! I think many times it's the ONLY way to get information across that needs to be told. Many writing instructors say it's a "lazy" way to do it, but I totally disagree. I think it's one of the most interesting and sometimes necessary! Thanks for commenting.

  10. Steph,
    I think that what you are describing in your book makes perfect sense, and that by using a flashback (your prologue)to establish the supernatural world and the dreams to show Theresa is a witch are excellent ways of getting those points across to your reader without having to belabor a point. Your main characters can't go around explaining themselves all the time. They need to have some subtlety about them, some mysteriousness. And they must be fighting their own demons. But you are so right about the practice and patience. Those are hard scenes to write.

  11. In a well written book that is captivating I don't even notice it. It's when it makes no sense to the story that it's bothersome.

  12. Great topic, Cheryl.

    I don't mind flashbacks or dream sequences. I have used both in my writings to provide tension or conflict. I believe you can use any technique you prefer as long as you entertain the reader.

    Flashbacks can be used to remind the reader of information previously mentioned. I think this is great with a long novel. Usually people don't read a 100k novel in one sitting and reminder of an important event would prove helpful.

    In real life, don't we all look back at the good times we shared? It's only natural and our writing should emulate life.

    If flashbacks are used correctly, it can enhance the story and give it richness and depth.

  13. Nicely stated, Cheryl! I agree--with you and Maggie--who said life isn't linear. How true. And if you skip a well written dream sequence and try and cram in necessary info in a conversation later it is far likelier to stand out as, "Well, you know, Bob..." stilted dialogue.

    Not to be used as a crutch, but if used with discretion and skill, dreams and flashbacks can contribute a lot to a story.

  14. Hi Cheryl, and happy release day!

    I like reading and writing dreams and flashbacks. As long as they aren't too drawn out and they're threaded into the story seamlessly, they add color and depth, in my opinion.

    Great post!

  15. Cheryl- (CAITLIN!!)
    Very nice job covering a topic that many find confusing. It isn't always easy transitioning smoothly from present to past and back again. I don't mind reading flashbacks and just them from time to time myself.
    Laura - (ISOBEL)

  16. ISOBEL!!!
    SISTER it has been forever! I'm so glad you liked the blog entry. We must catch up soon. I love flashbacks and dreams, myself, if they are done right. I like writing them, too.

  17. Hi Helen!
    Thanks so much!!! Yes, I agree. They have to be done right though, so as not to be "hokey."

  18. Hi Lainey!
    YES!!! I so agree, if you try to somehow fit it into the conversation like you were saying, it just makes it stilted and weird. Sometimes a dream or flashback is the only way to go!

  19. Hi Karen,
    I use flashbacks a lot in my books, because I usually have a wounded hero in there somewhere and he will flash back to his childhood or younger days...something that reminds him of what is going on at the present time. It is a way of making him be able to have some backstory without him having to tell it to someone.

  20. Hi Mary,
    I agree. If it is done well, I don't notice it, either. It's just part of the book. I really like the way books like that hold together. There are some authors who use flashbacks and dreams that make it confusing or throw too much "stuff" in the game, and if that happens more than once, I just put the book down.