Deconstructing Dream Sequences

Dream Sequences Article3 Dream Sequences You Must Avoid Writing

Few things are as electrifying to write for a screenwriter as the dream sequence.  These sequences come in many shapes and forms and serve many purposes: Prophetic visions of things yet to pass; flashbacks hinting at a character's tragic backstory; abstract visualization of a character's psyche—the variations are endless!  But all too often, even an experienced screenwriter will fall back on a dream sequence to advance their story, and cause these complex narrative devices to feel familiar, forced, and out of place.

But why do so many writers feel the need to include dream sequences in their scripts? The answer is quite simple: Dream sequences are fun and easy to write because they allow a greater freedom to defy the rules. But writing a dream sequence because it’s fun can’t be the only reason to insert one into your script. Unless the dream sequence is established in such a way that it feels fresh and purposeful, it will ultimately become just a narrative crutch.

Always be sure your dream sequence clearly advances your story and your character’s journey. Like the often-overused voice over, if it doesn’t fit seamlessly into the narrative and gel with the tone of the film, it will only serve to distract your reader.

Here are three overused dream sequences you will want to avoid unless it serves a clear purpose to your story and your characters.

1. The Flashback Dream Sequence

Usually appearing early in the movie to set up and explain the past, we recognize our hero, younger than they were, in a gently lit room.  Mom is cooking at the stove and dad is reclined in his favorite chair reading the Sunday paper.  Everything seems wonderful, and filled with nostalgic fancy.  Nothing at all like the turgid future our protagonist leads in the present.  We learn about how grandpa taught him to fly a kite; or his first kiss with Susie down the street. 

Perhaps, we're given a flashback to the tragedy that shapes their present.  The day their spouse died in a boating accident; the time they came home early to find their mom cheating on their dad, etc. 

As far as dream sequences, flashbacks are the ones I'm most lenient about.  Flashbacks can be a valuable tool for fleshing out a character and giving contrast between past and present.  The problems with these kind of dream sequences occur when the past begins dominating the present.  Flashbacks should tie directly into your protagonist's present.  Don't flash back without motivation; if new plot information isn't revealed you've wasted the audience's time.  Also, unless your plot hinges on seeing the same event from multiple perspectives, don't start giving other characters their own flashbacks. If you must go for the flashback dream sequence, always keep it to your central character’s perspective.

2. The Metaphorical Dream Sequence

At some point while overcoming the biggest hurdles of writing Act II, you suffer the inevitable anguish of writer's block; your story is dead in the water. You don't have any idea how to advance the plot and you’re sure the theme is not getting across to your audience.

But wait, of course, the Metaphorical Dream Sequence!

You’ve convinced yourself that the only way the audience can understand what our hero is going through, is to literally show them what’s in his head. You've got some trippy ideas: the protagonist can be pursued by a monster; only it's not really a monster, but a metaphor for their abusive father!  His brother who died in accident when they were young will appear with blood pouring from his eyes asking why the protagonist didn't save him—now you're on a roll!  Now they're in a gothic mansion, an unseen woman will call their name.  This is exciting, this is visual, this is cinema! 

You lean back and ask: But how am I advancing the plot? 

Well... maybe you killed 5 pages with some visually extravagant padding but did you make the point in the most effective way? On further reflection, it’s easy to see this is a heavy-handed, on-the-nose way to convey the thematic points of your story. Be honest, it there a subtler, more original way to show our hero’s inner turmoil?

3. The Fake-out Dream Sequence

Somewhere towards the end, as the climax and anticipation grows, we find our hero out of their element; battered, bruised, outgunned and outmanned there doesn't seem to be any way of getting out of this one.  A dastardly villain places a gun to the hero's loved one and our hero is helpless as they pull the trigger when...

The hero wakes up; the Audience groans. 

The fake-out dream comes in several flavors.  The Rom-Com fake-out, as our high school freshman dreams kisses the senior cheerleading girl of his dreams, only to be woken by the school bell and to realize it was in fact, all just a dream. Or the horror fake-out, when the ominous premonitions of the victim clearly blur the line of foreshadowing and have us sure this nightmare is indeed really happening. Then aphone rings and our victim snaps his head forward with bulging eyes, a deep breath and a cold-sweat. Oh, it was all just a dream…

It's easy to understand why we, as writers, find these scenes attractive.  Dream sequences are stream of conscious passages for screenwriters; fun to write, but seldom necessary.  Last year's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was an obvious offender of such extraneous dream sequences. Throughout the film Batman/Bruce Wayne has a series of dream sequences: Flashing back to his parents' death; having a bat monster jump out at him for a quick scare; imagining a world where Superman's taken over the world with his own Gestapo-like thugs and a race of crazy winged aliens. These scenes offer some striking visuals for the film's trailers but only serve to further bloat a nearly 3-hour movie.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that you shouldn't write these sequences. I've written all the dream sequences above, and will probably write them all again. Your first draft isn't going to be a finely tuned machine, and you shouldn't concern yourself with making it pretty.  Occasionally you'll experience bursts of inspiration, but most of the process of writing is clocking in, powering up your word processor, and mashing your fingers on the keys until you have something resembling a scene.  If one day all you can manage is to write a dream sequence that's okay.  What's important is that you write as frequently as possible.  Revisions and rewrites are where you pretty up the prose and iron out the plot; and where you'll decide how important those dream sequences really are. 

Now, crack your knuckles and write whatever comes to mind—but carefully consider if your dream sequence serves its purpose.

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