Friday, September 24, 2021

The Delight and Danger of Using Dreams, Journal Entries, Texts, Letters, and Other Passive Devices in Your Book

Ever been with a friend who wants to tell you a dream? It starts with a circus, then they're fishing off the coast of Mexico, then someone is in a diner listening to bad C&W music. On and on the telling goes, one weird scene after another. If you're like me, you begin to feel like you're watching bad home movies.

Dreams are super important in my personal life: I've recorded my dreams since I was in college and still do it faithfully. I know my dreams are often quite meaningful to me. But I don't impose them on anyone else. Hard to make sense of if you weren't there.

Have you also noticed that dreams aren't used a lot in published writing? Maybe because they are part of the backstory of a character's life, but a wobbly, illogical part of that backstory, which readers rarely can make sense of.

Using dreams is, as one of my writing mentors once said, a cheater's approach to revealing meaning. I'm not sure I buy that; sometimes dreams work really well in story, in my opinion. But the point my mentor was trying to pass on: if you can't show that meaning in scene, don't resort to the magical revelation of a dream to deliver it. Makes sense.

I find dreams are a good placeholder of meaning, in early drafts especially when you don't yet know the depth of a character's inner life. I often plug them in as markers that remind me to bring in more meaning just there. But as I revise, I trim them way back. I've learned not to lean on them to reveal meaning in final drafts because they read like a shortcut.

Devices are shortcuts to meaning. Something a writer employs with certain purpose, to get a certain effect. Other devices might be using present tense throughout a book. Or short chapters. Or choppy sentences (called fragments).

Used skillfully, devices can be amazing tools and make the writing feel almost magical. But if the reader discerns the magician behind the magic, it ceases to be magical and interesting.

Letters, emails, texts, and journal entries are also devices, or shortcuts to revealing the narrator's inner thoughts or feelings. Therapy appointments in a story are similar. These are considered passive devices because the action goes only one way. The narrator is talking to herself, even in a therapy setting. We don't see the therapist as a real person, most of the time.

So I'm also very cautious about using excerpts from journals or texts, etc.

Some writers make a show of these. I loved the novel by Maria Semple, Where'd You Go , Bernadette? It's partly about the Microsoft community and the device of texts, emails, memos, etc., echoes the distance of the online life, at least to me.

So, back to dreams. If you love dreams (like I do) and want to use them in your fiction or memoir, here are some things to watch out for:

1. Since dreams read as shortcuts to meaning, they can feel to the reader as if the author is standing on the sidelines, telling us "This is what her angst is all about" or "Here's why he has to be a hero right now." Ask yourself, Why do I need this shortcut? Why not show the meaning through developed scene? Granted, more work involved, but the payoff in tension and reader engagement is worth it.

2. If you use dreams as placeholders, a kind of mental note that you intend to show meaning but can't think of how at the moment, be sure to add a clear note to your revision checklist to scan for all dreams. Most writers don't realize how often they use them! Plan to rework the majority into scene.

3. In some genres of fiction, and in some memoir, dreams can denote a bizarre parallel to reality--alternated states. Or prophetic dreams can be useful for foreshadowing. But again, watch out for overuse. These stand out, and too many make your reader stand back and disengage.

Your weekly writing exercise is to check out this great article from about the top ten uses of dreams in literature. Note the kind of book cited. If yours is similar, and you're eager to use a dream here and there, study how the author did it. What transitions are used between the dream and the present-time story? How long is the dream excerpt?

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