I had the weirdest dream the last night. Words that send even the most devoted listener running for cover. What could be more boring and irrelevant than hearing someone tell you a story that didn't happen? Not that I'm completely innocent of this conversational sin. I've had bizarre dreams that involved people I know and then felt the need to tell them about it the next day. It's a habit I'm working to break. If I ever do it to you, you have my permission to just walk away.
The only thing worse that telling me about a surreal, disjointed nightmare is writing about it. While I know that as soon as I say this, someone will give me an example of some brilliant writer who uses dream imagery expertly. But I am going to stand by my statement (and ignore the fact that I am about to do exactly what I am speaking against.) Dreams in fiction always feel like a device to me. How often in life do you have a dream that so perfectly reflects your inner thoughts/answers some deep question/reveals deeper truths? And yet, in fiction it happens all the time. A haunting visage or piercing incantation follows the dreamer into their waking hours chasing them into some life-changing realization. This shadowy image somehow becomes the hinge on which the entire story swings, and I, as the reader, can't swallow that the writer just stumbled onto that by accident. It had to be on purpose, and forcing an image just doesn't work.
Allow me to give an example.
The other night I had a dream. (Bear with me.) The dream started off as standard fare. I was being chased. Nothing new. That's when things got different and creepy. I came upon a towering mansion with doors that were a couple stories high. As I opened the doors, I stepped into a foyer area that was completely dark, except for a strip of light underneath two more doors in front of me. As the original doors went shut behind me, I somehow understood that they couldn't be reopened. I could only move forward. I opened the two doors in front of me and walked into yet another black foyer with two more doors with that same strip of light. Let me interject now that I am extremely claustrophobic. I desperately wanted to get out of the cramped, dark foyer, and I knew that the only way to get out was to keep moving forward, even though each new set of doors just led to another. This went on for awhile before I finally reached a marbled room complete with unlit chandelier. Then it was back to being chased.
I awoke shaken and temporarily afraid to move. Once I was awake enough to shake off the post-dream jitters, I couldn't stop thinking about the endless doors. It was one of the freakiest images I've had in a dream (that I can remember, anyway.) And at four o'clock in the morning, it seemed very original, very apt, very ripe for inserting into some story. I even considered writing it down so I wouldn't forget it. Fast forward to several days later. Sure the dream was scary, especially for somebody who won't even ride in the backseat of a two-door car. But original? Not so much. In fact, it seems like pretty standard horror movie schtick. So imagine, if I had decided to use this image in a story? I would either have to build a story around the image (can a dream be derivative?), or I would have to wait for just the right story to come along and then plug it in.
Of course, not every story or novel that uses the dream makes it central to the plot, and if you're going to use dreams, subtle is definitely the way to go. Just ask yourself, if it's really the only way to say what you want to say. If you're writing and completely lost in your story with the character acting seemingly of their own accord and he or she has a disturbing dream, go with it. Maybe. But ultimately, it's important to remember that you're already writing a story that didn't happen. Do you really want to include a fiction within a fiction? Will that create some sort of temporal disturbance causing your created world to spontaneously implode? Something to consider.