Dream Exposition

Yesterday’s dreamscapes were pretty, but that’s only one narrative use for dreams, and one that practically requires lucid dreaming or a way to get into someone else’s head. Most worlds aren’t up to dealing with that, and even those that are sometimes want to do something else with their dreams. But just about everyone has the potential to use dreams as exposition, getting across important plot points or subtle foreshadowing.

Sometimes, this takes the form of prophetic dreams. A character sleeps, and they get something that might be a vision of the present or the future. It can be an explicit one, but it doesn’t have to be; in fact, people are likely to be more impressed with or at least more interested in the dreams that require significant interpretation. After all, it’s a chance to match wits with the creator, maybe show off their own skills a little, and it’s a sign that more thought was put into the dream sequence. When putting together a prophetic dream, it’s best to come at the subject somewhat obliquely, particularly if you want the characters or audience to have trouble figuring out what it means. I’m not going to say never use a direct reference when a symbolic allusion will do, and the symbolism shouldn’t always be as obscure as possible, but the important parts shouldn’t be too blatant; it makes it too obvious, and transparency isn’t a virtue unless you want people reacting to the dream immediately. If they don’t get it, the audience reserves the right to mock them.

On the other hand, a dream can clue in backstory by taking the form of a very vivid memory. This can be something the character knows that the audience hasn’t had a chance to learn, though it might also be something the character wasn’t aware of either—repressed, mindwiped, simply forgotten, the memory of a prior self who wants to make himself known, any of a number of excuses. In this case, you have every reason to be explicit; it’s not supposed to hide something, and there’s no reason why it has to be couched in obscure symbology. It can just be.

But why should every dream be Grand, Important Information? I think anyone who gets Big, Grand and Meaningful every time her head hits the pillow is going to go insane soon, particularly if she doesn’t repeat herself. Sometimes, a dream is just a dream, and the point is more to look at what it’s like than what it’s saying. Even without social relevance or plot importance, a summarized dream can say a thing or two about the character dreaming it—what kind of person they are, what they think about, what’s eating them, even what their favorite color is. One of my favorite dreams of this sort actually wasn’t a dream, but a PC’s improvisation for my game; pretending to wake from a fitful sleep, he shouted “No! Not the syrup! Put it down, I’ll deliver the antelope!” (Amusingly, he still managed to give me complete dream-context for this snippet, giving new meaning to “cover story”.) The symbols don’t mean anything, but it fits the character.

Some of the best dreams bear hints of most of the above. A prophetic element sneaks itself into a flashback, imagery reflects in little ways the mindset of the character.

So give it a try; let the dream push the story.

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