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And It Was All A Dream…

I walk down the darkened alley underneath the old Smith and 9th Street subway station, on my way home from a publishing mingle in Midtown. The humidity is thick and there’s nobody else out on the street. They’re all huddled ’round their AC, exactly where I should be at the moment. But then I hear footsteps approaching behind me. I glance over my shoulder and see a man with a black velvet cloak hanging from his tall frame. He walks faster, his footsteps echoing. With a jerk of the hand, he draws something from the folds of his garment. It flashes in the streetlight. A dagger! I gasp and will myself to scream. A shriek pierces the night…

and it’s my alarm clock. I jerk awake, cozy in my bed, and listen to the reassuring hum of my air conditioner.

HA HA HA! I fooled you all! This is the best novel beginning ever. Right?

Wrong. If I read one more “it was all a dream” or “I’m actually in a video game” fake-out beginning, I am going to make like dagger man and stab someone. This is a huge cliché. And perhaps a cliché squared because it’s piled on top of the cliché of having a character waking up at the beginning of your story.

I don’t care if you are writing a book about dream worlds. I don’t care if your character is the Sandman. I don’t care if she absolutely positively has to experience the first morning of school, from alarm clock to breakfast to shower to bus. I don’t care if “That book by that really famous author that was published last week does this so why can’t I?” I simply don’t care.

Everyone else has ruined this cliché for you. It’s cheap and it’s fake. It disrespects the reader and sets them up not to trust you from page one. It’s a flimsy Band Aid that’s doing nothing to address the problem of otherwise low tension in the beginning you’ve chosen (which may not be the right beginning). And I am on a personal vendetta against it. Why jerk your audience around with tricks when you can tell a story? Aim higher. Aim fresher.

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  1. Deb Miller’s avatar

    Thank you for this post and others equally enlightening. I dislike the dream trick in my own reading, feeling cheated when I discover it, especially if I had invested in the episode—but had guessed it must be considered good strategy by conventional standards since it happens often. What a relief to discover it’s not.

  2. Julie Daines’s avatar

    I have a 13 year old son who is an avid reader. He said to me the other day, “Mom, you know what story you should write? One about a kid who gets sucked into a different world where he has to battle an evil monster and has all these crazy adventures…” (This went on and on.) “And then, in the last chapter of the book–he wakes up and it was all a dream.

    I snorted my diet coke.

  3. Laura Stone’s avatar

    Amen to nixing the dreams. And not just for the beginning of books. I watched a TV series Awake—interesting dream vs. reality plot with alternate realities in each world—but they ruined the series with the finale. Turns out, neither his wife or son was murdered. It was ALL a dream. Gag! It made the whole series pointless. Can’t help it—in my mind, he’s waking up from a coma somewhere, realizing that he’s lost both wife and son, and he has to use subconscious clues from comaland to catch the killer. Much more satisfying!

  4. Traci VW’s avatar

    Agreed! We must have respect for our readers. Besides, my dreams are rarely so coherent and memorable. More like snitches and snatches of emotional images. Thanks for posting this valuable reminder.

  5. Shaun’s avatar

    @Laura: You should definitely go read some interviews with the writer/creator of Awake. The ending of the last show wasn’t Britten waking up and realizing it was all a dream, instead, going through the door into a third reality was him turning his back on the others and was an indication that he was actually getting worse. He wasn’t going to choose between the two realities, instead he was going to create a third, even more messed up one in which to hide.

    The writer said he would have spent season two exploring that idea, and that if the show had gone on, he definitely would have shown us which reality was real.

  6. Anita Laydon Miller’s avatar

    So true! This is an automatic STOP for me, when I see it in books AND movies AND television.

  7. Shelver506’s avatar

    A-freaking-men.

  8. Jesse’s avatar

    Haha, Julie Daines, that’s epic.

  9. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    Oh, wow, at first I thought, “No way she’s BLOGGING while being chased by a stalker!” I was so shocked at the wild twist of the alarm clock! You should have thrown in another clue, something like, “I tried to run but my legs moved like I was swimming in molasses!”

    Seriously, this is one Class A smackdown. Nicely done.

  10. Laura Stone’s avatar

    @Shawn: The writer may have wanted to develop the idea of a third reality, but, alas, that didn’t happen. And although the psychiatrists alluded to the idea of a third dimension in a watered-down way, his family being back together at the end of the episode with all those you’ve-been-a sleepy-head-this-morning discussions was off-putting. The final episode came across as being a lame dream, with few hints of other possibilities thrown in—probably in case of future funding. The third reality might have worked as a concept, if it had actually been developed. Unfortunately, the neutral door just came across as lame.

  11. jh’s avatar

    @Laura, I’m with @Shawn. I thought the Awake ending was brilliant. It was clear to me that instead of facing reality–the loss of his wife or son–he’d created a third reality as a coping mechanism. This only showed his psychosis was increasing. You might want to watch the show again.

  12. Laura Stone’s avatar

    @jh: It’s not that I don’t understand your interpretation or Shaun’s. It’s that I thought the ending was weak. His mental instability was never in question—with the random penguins and the introduction of both psychiatrists into the same world—but the third dimension was only alluded to. If this was the direction the writer was going, he could have made the episode much more powerful. A third color tone? A bizarre twist of utopia? Something more creative than suggesting that in Britten’s mind he has explained the whole season away as a dream. With the show coming to an end, it was completely unsatisfying. But I’m not going to suggest that you watch it again or that you read all the angry posts on the internet of people who agree with me. I’m glad you enjoyed it, but I didn’t. I thought it was a sorry end to a really good show. So, I guess we can agree to disagree.

  13. rymrytr’s avatar

    “A cliché or cliche is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.”

    Julie Daines wrote:

    I have a 13 year old son who is an avid reader. He said to me the other day, “Mom, you know what story you should write?

    Julie’s son has a good point. As stated in the above definition, “overused” is the problem, if you are well-read. But for young Mr. Daines, at 13, he may not have an established list of clichés. So we need to be careful with the “all or nothing”, and consider our audience.

    But, in agreement with the general purpose of the post, here are my three top, hated clichés:

    “It was a dark and stormy night. The ancient Vampire raised the lid of it’s coffin and swooped down upon the neck of the beautiful, young maiden. She screamed. Again and again.
    Then she awoke!”

    :o)

  14. Joan Stradling’s avatar

    I was reading this blog post about dreams, and then I woke up and realized it was a dream. In reality, Mary was telling me to write a book with a character who wakes up and discovers everything that had happened was all a dream.

    Just kidding. =)

    It’s been said that there aren’t any “original” ideas/everything’s been done and that a writer’s job is to take the old and tired and make it new again. I agree with that, except when it comes to the “it was all a dream” scenario. I really don’t think there’s a way to make that new again. Just let it stay asleep–don’t poke the sleeping bear or you might get your arm ripped off. ;-)

  15. Rose’s avatar

    Can we include time travel stories where the main character goes to the beginning and changes things so that everything that happened in the book that you cared about suddenly DIDN’T happen? I read a series and a stand-alone recently that both did this, erasing major characters from the main characters’ lives. So. Annoying.

  16. Catherine Johnson’s avatar

    I’m glad I read this since one of my pbs uses a dream to go from ordinary world to fantasy world. Someone did suggest starting in the fantasy world and ending in ordinary. Hmm….

  17. Jack Heath’s avatar

    It’s particularly disappointing when after the explosive shoot-out is revealed to be a video game, the remaining 200 pages are about garden-furniture-based fraud. Val McDermid is a talented writer, but “Kick Back” was not her best work.

  18. M.’s avatar

    But what would you say if all the characters wake up and realize it wasn’t just a dream and what they saw or lived in their mind, has real effects in their lives ?

    Maybe that’s cliché, and i don’t like tricks, but the idea of dreaming can be a really good plot. I happen to love Inception for example and I don’t think it’s weak.

    Pardon my french, like they say, i’m actually french and my english is kind of weak ;)

    M.

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