Utilize literary dream device with caution

The purpose of our nightly dreams remains unclear, for they appear to be void of any consistent meaning. In literature, however, dreams are quite the opposite. Chock full of symbolism, they can help define the character and advance the plot by foreshadowing events. This device in fiction is known as a literary dream.

For a literary dream to work, the often surreal images seen by a character must be meaningful and metaphorical. For example, in the novel Wuthering Heights, Catherine accepts a marriage proposal after linking their union to her dream about going to heaven.

The literary dream can benefit a story in a variety of ways. First, it can help define a character, such as by showing his fears or desires. For example, if a character dreams of being caught up in floodwaters, this could symbolize that he feels a lack of control over his life. Literary dreams also can help advance a plot by being prophetic. Suppose that your character dreams of sacrificing a lamb at an altar and when turning over the beast sees the face of a close friend in the book; in the climax, the protagonist’s friend might lose his life to ensure the central problem is resolved. Third, literary dreams can provide clues to the reader about the meaning of symbols used elsewhere in a story. If the letter “A” is used in the novel to represent superiority and grandeur, the character may dream that he is an emperor in his throne room with the letter “A” on his chest. Finally, a literary dream can add element of exotic or the whimsical to the story. Since dreams in real life can take us anywhere without the limitations of rational thinking, so literary dreams can be surreal and imaginative, providing relief in a dark story.

Still, writers should be wary of using the literary dream. Most importantly, it doesn’t advance story in an action-oriented way. While the dream may be a roller coaster ride of activity, the character comes to his revelation of how to solve the problem driving the plot through an imagined state of being rather than by experiencing the world and making decisions. This solution feels like cheat, as if the author is saying, “I don’t know how my character can fix this problem, so I’ll just have him dream the solution.” In addition, literary dreams are overused as a plot device. They’re an easy fallback position for when writers are uncertain how to resolve the story’s central problem or when they need to add something exotic or surreal to an otherwise vanilla plot.