In any given year, I read so many screenplays as a professional “reader” that you could pave the Yellow Brick Road with them and still have enough left over to start a recycling program in the Emerald City. Okay, so most of the scripts I read are in digital form and aren’t on paper. But you get the idea.
One of the screenplay errors that I see again and again shows me that many writers don’t understand the differences between and among dreams, visions and fantasies. These scripts get readers really mixed up about what’s “real” in the story … and what isn’t. But clarity is a writer’s most important mission. There’s a big difference between keeping your audience guessing about what’s coming next and confusing the heck of them.
To quote song lyricist Oscar Hammerstein (“Do-Re-Mi” in The Sound of Music), “Let’s start at the very beginning …”
The History of the “Dream Sequence”
“Dream sequences” in movies and plays are nothing new. According to NPR film critic Bob Mondello, the first dream sequence was probably in a Greek play called The Persians by Aeschylus, way back in 472 B.C. Unless I miss my guess, that was a long time before Inception writer-director Christopher Nolan was born. And Mondello says that the first famous movie with a dream sequence was Buster Keaton’s technically and conceptually brilliant Sherlock Jr. (1924), which featured Keaton as a movie projectionist who falls asleep and dreams that he is walking “into” the motion picture screen in his theater and becomes a character in the movie-within-a-movie. Woody Allen used the same idea for The Purple Rose of Cairo decades later, only in reverse (a movie character steps off the screen and joins the real world).
Dreams, fantasies and visions have all been ingredients in many a classic movie. One of my favorites is Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), which introduced the average American to the notion of dream interpretation and psychotherapy.
But just because dream or fantasy sequences can be a great tool for screenwriters doesn’t mean that these tools don’t have to be handled properly. And the biggest mistake screenwriters make in using these techniques is that they use them haphazardly and interchangeably. If you don’t learn to distinguish visions from fantasies, and fantasies from dreams—and master their correct functions in stories—your screenplay just may turn into some professional script reader’s worst nightmare.
So, let’s try to sort it all out.
This almost goes without saying, but dreams only happen when you are asleep. If your character is having a dream, the film audience is going to have no idea if what they are witnessing (“the dream”) is something that actually happened to the dreamer in his waking life, or not, unless the dream is put in context. Note well: A dream is not necessarily the same as a MEMORY. It is also not the same as a FLASHBACK, which is one character’s memory of real, true, past events. If you want your audience to know for sure that what your hero is dreaming about is something that really happened to him, a dream may be the wrong way to convey this information.
Remember, too, that if you have a dream in your script, it must serve a purpose. It can’t just be a lazy way to do exposition. What purpose might dreams serve in your script? For starters, let’s go to no less an authority on dreams than Sigmund Freud. Dr. Freud believed that dreams fall into three categories: fears, wish-fulfillment, and “day residue” (which, in essence, means all the real-life boring junk left over in your head on any given day after you’ve commuted to work, walked the dog, or done the laundry). Yes, according to some, dreams may also be “premonitions,” but that usually falls under the category of “fears.” People may remember actual events from their pasts while dreaming but the dream overall probably relates to a wish or a fear.
Dreams are an expression of the unconscious. They have “manifest” content, and “latent” content, and often communicate through symbols.
If you remember only one thing from this article, remember this: A dream is not usually a good way to show us a memory or a flashback, and it’s not reliably “real.” So it’s not the best way to reveal backstory. A dream is about a character’s fear or desire, and we can’t tell if it has any basis in reality without having context. In a dream, one thing may “stand for” or represent something else. In one of my novels, which is the basis of a movie in development, the young heroine, Betsy Balcombe, interprets her own dream. The real-life villain in the story, a British general, is represented in Betsy’s dream by a giant rat wearing a military uniform. Symbolism is the language of dreams.
If you want to show us something that actually happened to the character in the past, then show us the actual event at the time it occurs, use dialogue, or (less optimally) use a flashback. But keep your character awake—even if you have to fill him full of espresso to do it.
But, what about writing the kind of movie in which we find out at the end that “it was all a dream,” as in that notorious old episode of TV’s Dallas? My advice to you is: “Put your hands up and step away from that cliché or I’ll shoot!”
How often have I read scripts that show characters bolting up in bed in a cold sweat after a bad dream? More times than Donald Trump has said, “You’re fired!” It’s true that if a character is having a terrifying nightmare, we will probably understand that this is something he fears, which either actually happened to him in the past, or might happen to him in the future.
If, for example, we know that your main character is an Iraq War vet, and he wakes up screaming from a nightmare about a firefight in Baghdad and the dream included him, then we can probably conclude that this event really happened to him.
How can you let us know that a character’s nightmare or dream depicts his actual memories? By setting up the context in his waking life. We have to know something about the dreamer’s life in the present, his past, or his fears and desires in order to understand why he’s having this nightmare and whether it’s based on anything real.
Fantasies occur while your character is awake. Daydreams are one form of fantasy. Fantasies are usually about things that are improbable or “impossible”—unlike dreams, which sometimes depict just slightly exaggerated versions of reality. Fantasies usually reflect wishes or fears, but on a grandiose scale. One old movie that was about a character’s fantasies was The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Danny Kaye and based on the James Thurber short story. It was about a milquetoast (today we’d call him a “nerd”), a writer, who keeps imagining himself doing daring and glamorous things.
Have you ever seen old romantic comedies in which a woman meets a handsome stranger, and we instantly flash forward to their wedding day in her imagination, and then we’re zapped right back to present-day reality? That’s her ideal vision of the future—a fantasy (even if it later comes true) rather than a vision or a dream.
Unlike dreams, visions usually occur when your character is wide awake. Visions often have a supernatural element to them. I read a lot of screenplays about people in exotic locales who are “followed around” by mysterious, ghost-like shamans—who are trying to send them some kind of “message” or warning, or influence their destiny. Visions are usually a projection of something from somebody’s own mind. In scripts like this, it often doesn’t ever become entirely clear what’s real and what isn’t. And that’s not always a bad thing. But in scripts containing dreams or fantasies, I think it should eventually become clear to the audience where the line between fantasy and reality is. Of course, in fantasies, the writer often teases you at the end, making you wonder whether what you and the main character experienced was real or not (which is much better than cheating the audience by implying it was definitely “all a dream”). And a great example of effectively handling the dream sequence in film is … ?
The Wizard of Oz, of course.
In Conclusion …
There are exceptions to every rule—and I’m sure you can cite many examples of good movies that break the rules I’ve described here. But even if you decide to break the rules, you must first know what the rules are. So, learn the difference between a dream and a fantasy, a vision and a dream—and your fantasies of winning an Oscar® just might come true.