I intend to write a science fantasy where dream world plays as important role as reality. The dream world stated has quite a distinct feel from the real world, and it is integral to the plot.

The dream—although absurd—feels like reality when we dream about it. Only after we wake up, we register its absurdness and pass it off as a dream.

In my story, dream world is the alternate reality. The characters, when in dream, feel every bit of it and perceive it as reality. However, when I write about it, the readers are bound to notice that it is distinctively​ different from the real scenario–which will drastically reduce the effectiveness of the narrative. I'd want the readers to get into the dream and feel it just like the characters and jolt out of it when​ the characters realize it is a dream.

So my question is, how do I blur the line between dream and reality so that it is difficult for the readers to identify if it is a dream or reality?

P.S.: The closest example I can find of such narrative is the movie Inception. It started with a dream sequence and had a scene in between where the dream seemed real. But it is not helping as I'd want the readers to pass absurdity as reality–the way we feel when we dream.

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    Well.. Since it's Science Fantasy, how "realistic" is the "real world" to begin with?
    – storbror
    Jun 22, 2017 at 7:56
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    Is your dream world shared by everyone? Does each person have their own dream world? Or is it a mix, with personal dream realms and a collective dream world? People can have very different "styles" of dreaming.
    – Patsuan
    Jun 22, 2017 at 9:13
  • The real world is as mundane as ours, @storbror. The magical aspect of the plot exists only in dream space, which is another aspect of the reality.
    – user39269
    Jun 22, 2017 at 17:41
  • You can say it is a mix of personal dream realms and a collective dream world, @Patsuan.
    – user39269
    Jun 22, 2017 at 17:47
  • I've seen tons movies and TV shows where a long sequence occurs and then suddenly the character wakes up. I saw a ST Voyager episode rerun last night that did exactly that. The trick is that the dream has to be self-consistent and believable enough so the reader doesn't know (or at least, isn't certain) that it's not real. It's impossible to prove that you're not dreaming or in somebody else's holographic simulation right now. Hindus see this whole universe as a manifestation of Brahma dreaming. Peers Anthony's The Blue Adept series is all about two worlds like this.
    – Joe
    Jun 28, 2017 at 6:03

6 Answers 6


You're unable to make the dream less absurd? Make the reality less real.

Give it some events that are absurd - things that happen, have a hidden, plausible explanation, but at a glance are bizarre enough to make it feel like a dream. Through some skillful stylistic maneuvers you can make the two realities equally eerie.

Some foreign dignitary is visiting the town, all roads blocked, armed forces preparing route for the column. And there's a demonstration of people dressed up in most fantastic clothes, medieval, fantasy, and just outright bizarre; these are actors from the local theatre, who protest a political decision of replacing their director with the nephew of the mayor. And they refuse to change the route of their demonstration and get in a fight with the police, and all you want is to get to your home, as you witness a cop in riot gear savagely beating the Harlequin with a baton, blood staining the white-and-black clothing and tall cone hat, and you're just angry that they must be doing it in the middle of the road, blocking your way, a big bouquet of begonias for your wife wilting on the back seat...

Then there's a scene transition, and the reality is entirely different, but equally bizarre. And the reader is completely unable to tell which is the reality, and which is the dream until you decide to make the distinction, explain one set of events, show physical absurdities in the other...

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    One thing that isn't clear to me is whether the characters are aware of the difference between dreaming and not dreaming. If they are aware of the difference, but you try to hide that from the reader, it's hard to get into deep point of view where the reader feels close to the POV character. Jun 24, 2017 at 4:13
  • @kamorrissey: When you are dreaming, you're very rarely aware you are dreaming - some people even don't believe such thing as lucid dreams exists at all. When you are not dreaming, tell me, how often do you consciously, purposefully verbalize the thought of "I'm not dreaming"? You are aware you are not dreaming, but this is normal, standard, you don't think about that. So - being aware is one thing, bringing it up is another. Don't "hide" it, just don't talk about it!
    – SF.
    Jun 24, 2017 at 17:58

What you're suggesting is very easy. It is probably the way you're thinking about it that makes it seem complicated.

There is no difference between a dream and an extended thought.

A man wakes up goes to the bathroom, looks into the mirror and proceeds to brush his teeth. He kisses his wife and child goodbye and sets off work. At work he has a really bad day. He gets fired. He goes to pub and gets drunk. Finally he has the courage to face his wife so he get into his car and drives home. On the way home he's not paying attention. He runs over a child on a crossing. During the collision the air bag is deployed. His lips and gums are damaged. He spits the blood out of his mouth. He looks down the blood is not red, it's white. He finishes brushing his teeth, kisses his pregnant wife goodbye, and heads off to work.

You were unaware he was daydreaming until you were told, right?

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    I think the issue in the OP, is focused on accepting absurdity as reality. Sure, "your man" gets fired, drunk and kills a child, but these incidents, though sudden and intense, aren't that absurd. I Believe @User39269 wants the unrealistic to seem realistic. I'm not criticizing your real/dream shift and reveal.
    – storbror
    Jun 22, 2017 at 7:55
  • I really appreciate your approach, @Surtsey, but it won't be of much help if the man encounters his manager sitting on a flying dragon which literally fires him, drinks his elixir to heal himself of burns, and runs over a demon child who is keen on petrifying him into stone. And when he returns to reality, he'll be expecting his termination letter waiting for him in his workplace.
    – user39269
    Jun 22, 2017 at 18:04
  • @user39269 - I've added to my original answer.
    – Surtsey
    Jun 22, 2017 at 19:01

You, the author, are creating both the "real" world, and the dream world. From that point of view, neither intrinsically has more reality than the other. Bizarre things may happen in the dream world, but then, bizarre things happen in reality all the time. When things that contradict reality happen habitually in a narrative, we call that "fantasy fiction" and it's something that many readers are happy to suspend disbelief for.

The upshot is that if you treat this secondary world as its own, legitimate reality, and respect whatever rules you set up for it, it will be just as real to the reader as the primary reality. YOU are creating the rules for this universe. There's no way for the reader to judge that the secondary world isn't a valid alternate reality unless you undercut it in some way.

With that in mind, make sure that everything that happens in the dream world has real stakes and real consequences. Everything that happens in the movie version of "The Wizard of Oz" is a dream, but it doesn't feel like a cheat to most viewers, because it has a complete story arc, in which Dorothy genuinely has to grow and change. The dreams that cheat the readers are the ones that short-circuit the protagonist's journey or that give him or her unearned escapes or rewards.


A situation is as real as the characters take it to be

In Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail, there's a scene where Arthur battles "the black knight," who will not let him pass. After each brief bout of fighting, the black knight has had another limb chopped off. The situation of battling with swords is plausible in the setting. The bloody consequences are not entirely unbelievable. The reason the scene is silly rather than horrifying (besides the corny special effects), is the character reactions.

The black knight is utterly undeterred by having limbs hacked off, showing exactly the same confidence with just one leg as he did with two arms, two legs, and a sword. (He's ready to call it a draw, but not to concede, after he has neither arms nor legs.) Arthur, at the same time, goes from confident, to disbelieving, to mildly annoyed. His reactions, while less absurd, are still not entirely realistic to the horror that a real exercise of hacking arms and legs off would entail.

If your characters experience pain and fear, the scene is real

A little bunny jumps up and bites through someone's neck? Hilarious!

Unless that was your wife of 17 years, the mother of your children and your partner in life, and she really just fell down dead in a mess of her own gore. Then it's not funny at all.

People can be terrified of clowns; there's a fine line between absurdity and terror. Likewise with the other aspects of human experience; it is the realness of the feelings that makes something real. Love and hatred, terror, confidence, hunger... If you want the reader to believe the reality of a dream, you just have to convince the reader that your characters feel it, however absurd the events themselves are.


Make unlikely events happen one after another and put people and animals in real-life situations where you wouldn't usually see them. A lion standing in a queue at a post office, for example.


One thing Inception does that actually works is their use of "Totems", little devices that have a certain distinct feel or property to them that the dream world cannot replicate. A lot of dream logic behaves like this (for example a lot of people will do a "switch test" as the lighting in a dream will remain constant when you turn the light switch off. Other people will read something or write their name, as dream worlds don't always replicate written words/numbers well (Personally, everytime I read in dreams, the words are formed fine... not all of these work on everyone)). There are certain recurring elements to dreams, some common, some not. For example, the "I have a test I did not study for in a class I didn't know I was taking" or "I'm naked at school/work/in public" or "I'm falling". Some can get personal (for example, I have occasional dreams where I see my father for the first time in over 15 years. Often I'm upset with him because he left us or he and mom divorced. In real life, he passed away when I was in High School).

One terrifying way to confuse readers is a condition some people experience called "Sleep Paralysis" where they wake up and sense an entity in the room but have no ability to move to hid, or look directly at it or defend themselves. What's actually happening is they awoke suddenly while in REM sleep (when dreaming happens) but their brains haven't stopped REM sleep functions. The inability to move is a feature of dreams, not a bug. While dreaming, your body stops your dream thoughts from actually sending movement singles to the relevant body parts. This lets you "walk" in a dream while not walking in your sleep (which is dangerous). The entity is a dream figment, but because you have actual sensory function, your brain is super-imposing it onto the real world as if you are sensing it for real. This condition is thought to be responsible for a lot of odd phenomena including ghosts, mythical creatures, witches, even alien abductions and typically the entity is a regional folklore creature of the local culture the victim is from. A European suffer, might see a witch or a devil, a Japanese person might see an Oni, and an American might be visited by an alien.

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