Literary Trope of the Week: Bad Dreams

A literary trope in a story is like a cliche with impunity.  It’s a recognizable convention, but if the author knows what to do, it can be used to great effect.  Any writer looking for ways to add useful details and situations to a narrative will find tropes helpful.  As such, this series of posts analyzes the endless well of information that is (from a literary perspective).

The Literary Trope: Bad Dreams

TV Tropes defines the trope as follows:

The Hero has hurt in his Back StoryA world of hurt. Or worse, he had to Shoot the Dog and is wracked with guilt. Or, both.

Not that he will show it, not him, not The Stoic. (Perhaps just on this topic, but that’s where it hurts.) He won’t even say Don’t You Dare Pity Me!; he would if someone sympathized, but his pain is too hidden for anyone to think of pitying him. He won’t even suffer a Not So Stoic moment. Or Sand In My Eyes. So how do you show the readers (and sometimes the other characters) he’s not actually just cold and heartless? How do you humanize him without Character Derailment? Or inappropriate Character Development for the story?

You give him Bad Dreams.

The guy that pretty much ruined dreams for everyone.

Of the many types of conversation that I do not enjoy having with people, ‘conversation about your vacation’ and ‘conversation about your dreams’ rank towards the top.  Perhaps I’m just a horribly self-centric human being, but I cannot develop the ability to vicariously enjoy the vacations of others through photographs and voluminous description.  Similarly, descriptions of a ‘weird dream’ someone had usually bore me more than basketball games.

For that reason, I hate this trope.  While I can see the necessity for incorporating dreams into a narrative (as I will describe below), I feel that it is too often mishandled and becomes skim-bait–the type of text that my eye is going to instinctively realize it can jump over.

Why You Need Bad Dreams

You should incorporate dreams (bad or good) into your story for one simple reason: because people have them.  Not because they are good plot devices, not because they can be used prophetically, not because they can add a touch of weirdness to your writing.  People have dreams.  Characters should have dreams too.  The question is: how much of a dream do you show?  Do you narrate it in its entirety?  Do you describe it indirectly?  Do you have a character explain it?  My sense is that, just as in real life, less is more.

How to Make Sure this Literary Trope Doesn’t Become a Cliche

If a friend came and said “I had the weirdest dream last night: I ended up killing my brother and eating his heart”–I’d be intrigued.  I could have a conversation about that.  To me, a quick dream summary is all a conversation, book or film needs.

What if the friend came to me and said this?

“Last night, I closed my eyes and opened them to see myself in a field of black.  The grass, the sky, the trees, the animals–all black as pitch.  I walked on and on, sometimes quickly, sometimes with the pace of a glacier.  To my eyes, the blades of grass looked cool and damp, but as I trounced them, they burned me, each one, over and over again.  I winced at the pain, but I endured.  Finally, in the distance, I saw a clearing.  There was no grass, no dirt, nothing at all of nature–just a circle of white flooring.  A small land star in a field of black.  I stepped into the white and fell through, landing in the top bunk of my childhood bedroom.  Instinctively, I climbed down the bunk ladder, only to see the same black grass carpeting my room.  On the bottom bunk sat my brother, a toothpick sticking out of his mouth and a finger in his ear, twisting. … etc. etc. etc.

Most awkward dream scene ever?

I’d have stopped listening long before the end of this description.  If it were in a book, I don’t think I’d make it to the halfway point.  Are such visions of weirdness interesting in theory?  Yes.  When isolated, a character’s dream might not seem half-bad, but when sandwiched in between real events that I want to know about, a dream is deadly.  It is usually the worst thing you can be: boring.

I cannot tell you how many of Bran’s dreams in A Song of Ice and Fire I’ve skipped over entirely.  Of course, sometimes these dreams are visions, but same difference.  I cannot read them–especially after a riveting chapter that ended on a high note.

On the contrary, this dream of Frodo’s in Fellowship is not only readable and short, but beautiful and haunting:

That night they heard no noises. But either in his dreams or out of them, he could not tell which, Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind: a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to silver and glass, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.

That’s it.  Two sentences.  I think I’d like to make that a rule: no dream descriptions longer than two sentences.  I’m sticking to that, how about you?

Previous Tropes:

  1. Stuffed into the Fridge
  2. The Nice Hat
  3. The Bechdel Test
  4. Disney Villain Death
  5. The Common Tongue
  6. Chekhov’s Gunman
  7. Mr. Exposition
  8. Cassandra Truth
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One Comment

  1. Lauren Ipsum

    For the rare times I have used nightmares in a story, I presented them in first person, in dream-time, dream sequence, describing things like the sensation of trying to run when your feet aren’t touching the ground so you have to pull yourself along by trees and doorknobs or whatever. Words come in a jumbled, repeated stream of consciousness, which only emphasizes how terrifying the images are. It’s not a coherent story: it’s a nightmare. I had enough of them after that mishegoss in the city 10 years ago that I know what a real nightmare looks like, and what’s a literary conceit.

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