“All a Dream”: When Is It Safe To Use?

Some plot twists just can’t get themselves taken seriously; just mentioning that a story ends in one is enough to make a hefty portion of its audience look for something else. “All a dream” is one such, and quite possibly one of the most reviled of the offenders. But that doesn’t mean that the basic premise, that the scene that just happened was just a dream, isn’t still usable. It just means that you have to be clever.

The first rule of “All a dream” is that you shouldn’t use it at the very end unless you have a twist to that twist. What makes “All a dream” such a reviled ending, after all, is the combination of two factors: one, that it’s so common as to be cliché, and two, that it’s a waste of potential. Sacrifices? Gains? Losses? All those motions of emotional intensity that kept the readers hanging so much? Not real even by the story’s standards. That subplot that could have been interesting if it’d been taken to its logical conclusion? Never going to happen. The plots won’t go anywhere, the emotions didn’t matter in the end; what’s the point of it? If you’re clever enough to find a new way to play with it, they might go along with it, but it’s going to have to be some pretty good artistry.

The second rule is that the dream should in some way matter to the story, even if it was just a dream. Does it push the story forward? Is it hiding something else that’s going to matter to the plot later on? What purpose does it serve? A dream without a purpose will likely be seen as filler, or [scene that could only have been possible through the dream] for scene’s own sake. You don’t want that.

Under normal circumstances, the third rule is that it shouldn’t be a way to try to dodge the implications of something that happened within the part of the narrative that was designated as just a dream. For one thing, it’s seen as cheating, and for another, sometimes people want to see where the new situation would lead. But this isn’t always the case. In a game, for instance, everyone agreeing that a certain situation is in nobody’s best interest can be an excellent reason to declare it a dream and carry on from there; likewise, people in semi-collaborative works (expanded universes and comic series usually) often use this as a patch to deal with differences in author style. (It’s usually more acceptable when a character’s creator is trying to salvage a serious case of derailment.)

And of course, if it’s not trying to be a twist, you can get away with a situation that’s clearly a dream easily; the characters might even seek it out.

I’ve seen a game in which “All a dream” was done successfully (if inadvertently): the GM had run a rather major plot twist that just about all of the players had some sort of problem with (power level, playstyle, general improbability, and a few other things), and midway through it was adapted into a dream sequence and finished as such. It led to some interesting results; the GM had to actively think about why we got the dream in the first place, one character was influenced to what we called “the shortest betrayal ever”, and we were using bits and pieces of the sequence as clues to later people’s behavior pretty much until the end of the replacement story arc.

Was it all a dream? Think about it carefully; answering yes may well be plausible.

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