Don’t place part of story’s plot inside a dream

If you’re tempted to trick readers by having a portion of your story’s plot occur only in a dream, give serious second thought to it. Especially if writing science fiction, such a gimmick is a plot cliché.

When initially used decades ago, the plot within a dream was a clever twist. It suggested a hallucination on the part of the main character and left in question his sanity and even the nature of reality. Often it included symbolism that played a role in understanding the character or answering the story’s thematic questions.

Somewhere along the way, though, it became gimmicky and an inelegant solution to resolving story issues. Because of that, editors sometimes refer to it as the Bobby Ewing Gambit, named for a television show character who was killed off then after a season was brought back to the series; to explain why the character was dead for 20+ episodes, the opening scene of the year he returned shows his wife awakening from a dream. Yes, the entire season in which he’d been dead had only been a dream.

Having part of the plot occur within a dream poses all kinds of problems. One is the timeframe. In the Bobby Ewing show, the big question was how did his wife dream 20-plus hours of episodes in a single night of sleep. Guess she slept through the morning. Still, it strains credulity. In addition, if your dreamed plot is realistic then the overall story ceases to be as dreams generally are fantastical. In real life, people can’t fly and don’t just suddenly appear naked in public, yet in dreams that’s commonplace. Finally, you must be extremely careful in plotting how anything that occurs in a dream then relates to the real life portion of the story, Generally, what occurs in the dream should have no cause-and-effect connection to what occurs outside of the dream.

One last note note: Don’t confuse placing part of the plot inside a dream with the device of a literary dream. The term literary dream refers to showing a character’s inner feelings or to reveal some symbol key to understanding the story, not to actual dreaming.