Sunday, 30 January 2011

Last Night I Dreamt...

In my twenties I learnt very quickly that there’s nothing more tedious than someone else’s drug stories. And this from someone for whom narrative of any kind is a consuming passion. Gurus of creative writing might exhort us to believe that there’s potential material everywhere – but lank-haired Physics undergrads sharing bad-trip tales? Spare me, please.
Recently two tales – different writers, different genres – I’ve polished off suffered from a linked malaise I reckon; that of the ‘extended dream sequence’.
Both novels had lengthy sections in which characters hallucinated or dreamt, and their writers choose to lead us step-by-step through these warped and magical experiences. The prison guards seemed to mutate into a wobbling amoeba. The walls closed in and became flesh. I seemed to float outside of myself. Toy soldiers marched across my field of vision chanting mechanically. Suddenly I was soaring across the mountains with wings at my heels... you get the picture.
Now, last night I dreamt I was stealing Haribo gummy bears from an indoor market. Why? Because my subconscious is cluttered with a mighty array of tawdry tat. You’re not interested in this dream. Hell, I’m not even interested in this dream and it was mine. So what’s going to make me want to experience the dreams of a fictional character?
Two things, I think. Firstly, if the dream foreshadows something. This is fiction. Let’s make dreams a little less mundane than they are in real life. If the hallucinatory sequence with the prison guards above had suggested to me something that might later occur; implied something that might be used to then ratchet up tension – I could accept that, even enjoy it. But it didn’t – it was there to show us the hallucinogenic properties of a particular fictional drug. Which I already knew about.
Secondly – if the dream indirectly reveals something profound about the character, theme, direction or mood of the tale. That’s why 'Rebecca' works so effectively: “Last night I dreamt I went to to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me…” is all about social status and exclusion, and establishes the narrator as an outsider. The following description of the overgrown garden and creeping ivy is an early indication that nature – the clipped and controlled garden versus the wild sea – is going to be important. So in this case, it’s a necessary and engaging device.
On the other hand: “Last night I dreamt I stole gummy bears from an indoor market...” well, I’m sure you’ll agree it suffers when compared to the heavyweights; the big hitters – Du Maurier’s lines, or perhaps Shelagh Delaney’s in 'A Taste of Honey' “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice”.
‘But the gummy bears thing,’ you might argue, ‘that’s how dreams are!’
Sure. But real dreams, like drug stories, are dull.


  1. Yes, we're all fascinated by dreams - OUR OWN. You're absolutely right - writers should use dreams only where they heighten the drama and illuminate the plot/narration and they need to be much richer than the usual 'I went to work with no clothes on again' type dreams. (What? oh not usual - just me then :))

    Enjoyable post - again,

  2. Thanks, Anne! Don't worry - the went-to-work-in-my-pyjamas thing? It's not just you...