“Should I delete my dream sequences?” he asked us.
Working on his first book, this writer incorporated numerous dream sequences into the storyline until he found out that it is considered amateurish. He wanted to know if he should remove them. He could, he insisted; it wouldn’t take a major rewrite, but they added an artistic side to the work and revealed a little bit more about the characters.
My diplomatic answer was more true to my philosophy: “If you like them, leave them in and wait until you get some feedback on the actual scenes before making a decision. See what other people think and give yourself some time to decide how you truly feel about them.”
Time helps writers digest opinions, lose their biases, and become more analytical and objective about their decisions. A choice to remove an aspect of the story should be founded in personal reasoning; the author should always make the decision he thinks is best (even if that might be trusting someone else). It is possible for a dream sequence to not look like an amateur work, and without reading it, I really can’t say if it does or not.
But if I had to make the decision for him, the answer would be yes. If it was my book, knowing what I do now, I absolutely would remove those scenes.
1. Dream sequences really are boring.
I’ve tolerated them, to be sure, mildly been amused by a few jokes here or there, but usually I find myself drifting, skimming, and wouldn’t ever be bothered if they didn’t exist. It’s rare for me even to be okay with a dream sequence; most occasions I’m bored out of my mind.
The only exception coming to mind was the episode in Adventure Time where the main character is trapped within a dreamscape, but it is the story of him escaping, worms from the real world affecting his ability to wake up.
A common factor in people’s boredom has to do with lack of progress. They don’t feel like the information being delivered is getting them anywhere—whether that be a dream scene or a tangent on the avocados the protagonist likes to eat. When sections sound like the writer is just talking for the sake of talking, the readers tend to tune out. Dream sequences can give you some new information about characters, but many times we’d rather see that same information delivered by memories, flashbacks, or dialogue. Watching “real” experiences are just more interesting because…
2. When anything can happen, you can’t invest.
You know how kids like to count down the number of days until summer? Readers like to see how many pages are left in a book? It is easier to work with a deadline than without? Running for a finish line is more fun than running until someone tells you to stop?
You can only feel you’re making progress when you have some sort of idea what you’re trying to do and where you’re going. Many writers will try to lure in readers by being purely unpredictable—and this makes sense. Why listen to stuff we already know?—but if they can’t predict anything that might happen, it means they’re not hoping for anything to happen and won’t ever be able to.
Dream sequences have minimal effect on character and almost none on the world. Most of the information being delivered can be discarded as just being about the weirdness of the dream, and the little we can discern from character either tends to be far too subtle for us to realize it’s actually important (unlike the monkey with the banjo), or hits us over the head with what the author wants the character to be.
It’s hard for them not to feel like a complete waste of time.
3. It is amateurish and you are an amateur.
The quality of writing is mainly determined by comparison. Once someone does something great, you can’t just do it again and have it still be considered genius, and when a bunch of “crappy” authors start doing something, it becomes wrong purely by association.
There are, unfortunately, some choices that will label you as an amateur and that’s the only reason you shouldn’t do them. Nothing artistic about it, no real reason outside of superficial labels, nothing that will help or hurt your story. Just don’t because you shouldn’t.
But that’s not necessarily an end all. They say “learn the rules to learn to break them” for this very reason; you can do something “amateurish” and not look like you are one by, in essence, establishing you’re not before the question comes up.
Establishing your credentials is done by either being genuine or being superficial (having a good resume and following the better known writing rules). Write a great deal and you will naturally start easing out typical, easy decisions in favor of more complex and unexpected ones. A person who has written for a long time will be more capable of working a dream sequence into the storyline, more likely to recognize if it’s important, and know how to combat the “amateurish” aspects of the sequence.
Because this is his first book, it is likely it will read like a first book in many places outside of just the dream sequences. It is also probable that he wants to keep them for reasons other than what he thinks is best for the story.
His biggest concern is about whether or not he will look like a beginner if he keeps them in. For the various above reasons, I think it’s very likely they do.
4. Artsy for the sake of artsy usually reads as such.
Perceived motivation of the creator factors into a reader’s enjoyment level, and when the reader feels the author is being self-serving or showing off, that’s a primary reason he’ll consider the writing bad.
Readers need to feel poetry, metaphor, and any other of that artsy fartsy crap comes from a place of depth and genius. A good way to manage this is to achieve actual depth, diving into your own psyche and telling the world what you feel they need to know in only the way you can tell it. It takes a lot of thought to be truly artistic, and it’s definitely a sink or swim sort of action. Either you awe people with your genius, or they think you’re a hack.
If the only reason you’re keeping your dream sequences in is for the artistic aspects they add, they have to be truly, astoundingly artistic. Your readers need to get something from the creative choices, some sort of feeling—probably awe.
From how he said it, I don’t believe that they were truly creative, but rather an excuse in hindsight.
5. You said you can take them out.
No, I don’t believe you should remove something just because it can be, despite many writers suggesting otherwise. But the major thing you should consider when contemplating a change is the cost-benefit ratio, and part of that ratio is the work involved.
Does the choice benefit the story in some manner?
Does the choice hurt the story in some manner?
Do the benefits outweigh the consequences?
It’s about prioritizing. He suggested that the benefits are character development and adding artistic aspects to it. He is worried that it will make him look like an amateur, and I believe they are probably not that interesting. What is more important to you as an author?
I think the answer is obvious to you already. What you’re really asking is whether or not the dream sequences really do all of this things?
Do I think that it really does develop the characters? Probably not a lot. Add artistic aspects? For the sake of the argument, we’ll say sure. But yes, it’s likely you will look like an amateur and they probably aren’t entertaining… and I think you knew that.
But the real tie breaker is the amount of work it would take to make the change. A whole rewrite for a slight benefit may not be worth it, but in this case, the writer said that he could take them out if he had to, and, from my perception, the boredom factor takes precedent and neither character development or creativity supersedes that.
And let’s be completely honest here. This question impacted me so much because I’ve been through this very situation before. I still go through this from time to time. And while I have done everything under the sun when it comes to this conundrum (made the change, not made the change, sat on it forever, thrown away the manuscript), and had every result possible, I have learned one important thing: sometimes you know the answer and you just don’t want it to be true.
But that’s exactly why I stand by my original statement. You don’t need to make the change immediately. There’s something that’s holding you back. You need to get over it, solve the problem, and truly understand the issue. Maybe it’s doubt, maybe it’s not enough information, maybe it’s your gut telling you there’s something there. This is also something I’ve learned. As long as you keep working on it, you’ll find the answers come to you more and more gently over time. Keep it as it is, and one day, in the near future, you’ll realize it’s right in front of your face and you’ll want to take it.