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!
DREAM EXCERPT FROM FIRE EYES:
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.