Sweet Dreams are Made of This:
The Dream Motif in LITERATURE
by Marshall Tankersley
Humanity has a fascination with the unknown. The most interesting things are always the things we know the least about, and the depths of the human mind are no exception. Dreams and where they come from stump philosopher and layman alike - why did I dream about abnormally enlarged rabbits with the fangs of a snake last night, for example? - but their power to draw in an audience is undeniable. Dreams add an extra layer of mystery to a story, crafting an entirely new dimension for both characters and plotlines to play in and entertain their readers. So, how can one use dreams effectively as an author?
Two of the books that first come to my mind when I think about are John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection. Both of these novels feature dreams as central elements of their narratives, either as a framing device or as a key to unlock the rest of the plot. Pilgrim’s Progress, to those familiar with its basic storyline, features a dream as the main narrative surrounding the titular pilgrim and his journey through the allegorical Christian life. John Bunyan opens his story of giants and despondent sloughs with the tacit acknowledgment that the entirety of his tale is a dream and meant to serve as a kind of allegory. That allows Bunyan to craft a world and a path to the heavenly gates that tends more towards the abstract while also being clear that there is a deeper meaning hidden underneath the caricatures and Obvious City Names. On the other hand is Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection. If Bunyan is a prime example of the use of dreams as a storytelling frame, Berry shows how to use dreams as a more subtle motif. As he tracks the story of a lowly detective’s clerk attempting to find his missing detective through the rain-splattered streets of a city with no name, Berry sprinkles in references to dreams. Without spoiling any of the intriguing details, the novel’s antagonist seeks to use dreams in a sinister fashion against the city’s denizens, and Berry’s friendly clerk is forced to dance through a strange world of nightmares in order to stop him. Beyond using dreams as a basic storytelling device, Berry also creates an atmosphere throughout the entire novel that reminds one of an extended reverie, especially in his usage of abstract details - after all, a city that the author acknowledges is nameless tends to be something found in the fantastical realm of the beautiful imagination or the effervescent dream.
Why are dreams such effective tools for an author to use? There are many ways that question could be answered, but my personal opinion is this - dreams are most effective because they remind us that the greatest mysteries cannot be understood in an obvious, clinical fashion. When one dreams a dream, one does not expect to be told precisely what it means. In much the same way, when a story adopts a dreamlike effect it tells its readers on a subconscious level that they should read it for the experience, and not seek to grasp a singular, well-explained meaning as they might in another story. Dreams allow the reader to disassociate from the bulk of the narrative ever so slightly, shifting their perspective just enough to allow the story to emphasize a more ascetic idea than can be accomplished in something more grounded. In short, dreamlike stories feel more like imaginations and can be treated as artistic pieces better than those that seek to represent reality as it truly is.
Now, although dreams can be a beautiful, enticing method of writing, using them effectively can be a bit hard to manage effectively. An author cannot simply ‘write a dream’ and presume that it will come across as excellent as he or she expects. Utilizing dreams well requires a good and fitting story first. That may seem like common sense advice, but it still needs to be said. Using dreams requires a story suited to the abstract, not one that finds itself based solidly in reality - All Quiet on the Western Front would be a terrible dream-based story, for example. Even if an author finds a good, abstract idea, executing a dream motif without obscuring important details can be a challenge. Recording plot points in a normal novel is a fairly simple affair; everything falls into place as the author describes precisely what it looks like in their head. A dream story, however, tempts the author to such vague descriptions that the great ideas end up hidden. While this style begs a more indeterminate writing form, the author must always remember that nothing replaces effective words that accurately convey the bulk of what the author wants his or her reader to understand. In short, the author seeking to create a compelling dream story has to walk a careful balance between being too conceptual to be understood and being too based in reality to effectively use dreams to convey his or her point.
Dreams tap into humanity’s unconscious fascination with the unknown, and an author with a story about unknowns can do wonders by using them to propel his or her tale to new heights. Grasping the concept of the dream motif can be an enormous boon to a struggling story, allowing the writer to explore new perspectives and concepts without seeming altogether UPunusual. While it can be a hard thing to handle, the use of dreams in fiction can be just as rewarding to use effectively. I, for one, would love to see more modern takes on the abstract.
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