Wednesday, May 6, 2009


A few weeks ago, my SF-writing class critiqued a story that began with the protagonist's dream. The question rose: Do editors dislike -- or even "automatically reject," as one student had heard -- stories that start this way? Since I didn't know the answer, I emailed three editors, of which two responded.

Stan Schmidt at Analog said that he does not automatically dislike stories that begin with a dream sequence, although "it's a technique that beginners seem relatively likely to use poorly." He went on to say that "sometimes it can work very well indeed," at the beginning or anywhere else in the story. Stan once ended a story with a dream (he did not, alas, name the story in his email.)

Gordon Van Gelder at Fantasy & Science Fiction was more vehement ("Why oh why do writers keep coming up with stuff like this?") His stance was basically "it depends" -- how well is the dream is done, is it related importantly to the rest of the story, is it happening to a character he can care about. Gordon also included the interesting sentence "It's been so long since I read a story that starts with a dream sequence that I really don't know how I feel about them in general." That suggests that the slush pile is not overflowing with this technique.

I have started stories with dreams. My own take is that it can work if (1) the dream is kept short, (2) the description of it contains arresting images, and (3) it's completely clear when the dream is over. Usually I set off a dream sequence in italics so there is no confusion.

So -- dream on.


Kim said...

A different kind of fiction, of course, but the TV show Medium begins with a dream every single week. And it's relevant.

David D. Levine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David D. Levine said...

Gordon also included the interesting sentence "It's been so long since I read a story that starts with a dream sequence that I really don't know how I feel about them in general." That suggests that the slush pile is not overflowing with this technique.

Keep in mind, though, that Gordon has a slush reader (John Joseph Adams) to weed out the trite and overdone for him.

Jake Freivald said...

I run an online magazine called Flash Fiction Online, and in our slush pile we receive a fair number of stories that start with dreams. They're usually not by pros and not very well-written, and I think our staff has become a little prejudiced against stories that start with a dream.

Part of it has to do with reader trust: If I'm in the middle of something that's apparently real, and then suddenly it turns out it's not, then I usually feel cheated. Even if there's a really good reason for the cheat, I might not read farther to find out what it is.

If, on the other hand, it's clear that I'm in a dream (either through something impossible happening or through an explicit statement), then I could be okay with that.

I think that's why Medium works: The dreams are what the story is about, and the expectation has been set from the beginning of the series that the first scene isn't necessarily real.

Amy Sisson said...

I guess my take would be that if the story's author can articulate a very compelling reason why the story MUST start with a dream, and couldn't work as a story with any other beginning, then great. Otherwise, it's probably not the best idea.

TheOFloinn said...

"Most dreams are not well-plotted," the bar-tender told me as he polished the rabbit. "They are all full of concatenation and word associations," as in the case of the rabid locomotive. His motives were loco. So running through the office he became aware that he was naked. He stopped and, being tired, began to pant. The bartender offered him a sloe gin, but he was in a hurry and had time only for bare essentials. "What," he asked himself, "does this have to do with the story?"

Unknown said...

As Jake Freivald points out, starting with a dream is a warning sign that you don't know how to start your story. The dream is usually irrelevant, but serves as filler before you wake the character up and actually start, the way we all start our day. Guilty until proven innocent, as far as I'm concerned.

escoles said...

1: I've recently encountered this idea in critique groups, as I'm working on a novel that has several chapters either ending or beginning with dreams. (They're not meant to reveal hidden plot elements -- I hate that as a device, myself -- but rather to reveal things about the emotional and physical state. Or, in one case, to imply background without my having to explicitly state it.)

People seem to like them; they're just afraid no one will buy the book, because of them. So, at least until it's finished, I'm inclined to keep them.

2: One of my favorite books is nothing but dreams: Dreams of an Imaginary New Yorker Named Rizzoli. It's a beautiful example of oblique story-telling -- you get nothing, nothing but the guy's dreams, yet at the end you have a story (loses job, loses girl, keeps going). (Great ending line, too: "Now there is just one person running through the streets wearing a t-shirt that says 'New Yorkers Are Real People.' He's running as fast as he can.")

[disclaimer: line from memory. actual line may vary. can cause dry mouth, excessive aural bleeding, hangnails or coarse hair growth. consult your physician before reading.]

cd said...

Also, I wonder if there isn't an element of the metafiction problem: a dream in the story draws our attention, when it ends, to the fact that the whole story is a dream. It breaks the willing suspension of disbelief by drawing attention to that suspension.


escoles said...

cd, I don't know about that. I suppose I can only speak for myself, but dreams per se have never had that effect for me. Third-wall stuff (fifth wall?) is much more likely to take me out of the willing-suspension than dreams.

Dreams done badly, though, can bring me right out, but not in the way that you mean. So many people write dreams that don't seem dream-like to me, and that really bugs me. When I see those, I'm reminded that I'm in a story and someone has just used a device. Even more so, sometimes, than when they're using a self-consciously post-modern device like speaking directly to the reader.

But that's just me. I tend to have a somewhat idiosyncratic view on a lot of things.