Early in my MFA, a teacher warned us, “Dreams are exposition in a ball gown.” And if you think about it, it’s pretty true most of the time. How often have we watched a character wake screaming from a nightmare that had revealed bits of his backstory? How many musical dreams have we suffered through in order to understand the roots of a farm animal’s anxieties?
I must admit that expository dreams are a step up from listening to a character talk about her backstory. At least we get to watch chase scenes and flying elephants instead of listening to a voiceover while the main character drifts glumly along barren streets.
But still, it seems like dreams have more dramatic potential than that. The first thing that comes to mind when I try to think of a dream with actual dramatic weight is The Wizard of Oz where almost the entire story takes place in a dream. Or Alice in Wonderland where the heroine creeps into a dream world through a rabbit hole. But in both these cases, the dream world functions as the real world, while the “real” world acts like an expository dream. In it, we meet characters that will show up later in altered form, or we learn of problems that the protagonist will find the fortitude to overcome while in the fantasy world.
So again, the dream–the reality alternate to the main reality of the story–functions as exposition.
As I consider what I’ve written, I suddenly realize that I’m defining dreams as alternate, ephemeral realities that have no impact on the “real” world. I also realize that this definition of a dream is historically pretty recent. Looking back on older literature, such as the Bible, I remember that people considered dreams as valid playesr in the real world. Pharoah took them seriously enough to hire dream interpreters. Joseph followed a dream and whisked his young family to Egypt. The premise of Revelation is that a dream can show a hidden reality that affects seen reality.
So there seem to be two basic approaches to dreams. The first treats them as valid realities. The second considers them mental phenomena that have only symbolic meaning. It seems to me that the second approach is considered the more realistic one these days. Thus, when a story treats a dream as a reality equal in validity to the “real” world, we call it fantasy or magical realism, while a story that treats a dream as unequal to the “real” world is called realism.
When a dream is a valid reality in a story, it obviously has all sorts of dramatic potential. We have thousands of years of literature to prove that. But the current conception of a dream, and the demands of realist literature, seems to strip a lot of that potential away, leaving us with the imaginative but dramatically limp dream scenes we read and see today. I even admit, with great sadness, that one of my favorite movie scenes–the dream sequence from Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries–though a masterpiece, is exposition.
In order to regain their fertility in realist writing, I think dreams need to become more like characters than settings. They need to be an antagonist or ally to the protagonist, working for or against the character’s goals and dramatic needs.
One metaphor for what I’m getting at is the movie Stranger than Fiction where a man discovers that he is a character in a novel-in-progress and tries to derail the plot. At one point, he decides that his best course of action is inaction and he holes himself up in his apartment, watching television, refusing to move even to change the channel. But suddenly a crane tears down the outside wall of his apartment and it becomes apparent that the plot, refusing to be stopped, has come to get him.
Judith Guest’s novel, Ordinary People, has a good example of a dramatically weighty dream. Conrad, a teen who survived a boating accident his brother didn’t, is the victim of nightmares that push him toward suicide. He spends the book wrestling with these dreams with the help of a psychiatrist, trying to beat them before they beat him.
I’m on the lookout for dramatically weighty dreams in realist literature or film. Any suggestions?