I'm as novice a writer as one can get so please bear with me. I have read many times that a writer shouldn't mislead the reader otherwise the reader will lose trust in the author and lose his engagement to the story. Near the very start of my book the protagonist, passes out from blood loss and poisoning, after which he dreams of waking up fine uninjured and continuing on his way. As he progresses things start to slowly deteriorate and the dream slowly turns into a nightmare leading to him eventually waking up right where he passed out initially.Here comes my problem, I handle the transition from reality to dream like normal wihtout informing the readers of what is happening exactly, somewhat like that. (not what i'v actually written just a hasty example)

Sitting in the side of tree, he sowly closes his eyes to rest for a few minutes.

A drop of water fell to his bare hand jolting him up from his sleep. Scared he jumped up to check his suroundings........

Would this constitute tricking the reader since I dont specify that he wakes up in his dreams?

Also in the next chapter I do something similar with the introduction to another protaginst to draw a parallel between them. Even if it alright to do it the first time, would using two dream sequences in such close proximity alienate the readers?

  • Inception might be a good movie for you to check out. They do something similar.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 15:17
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    @ggiaquin I have seen it actually, the problem arises with the change in medium, I dont think this particular type of scenes translate all that well to written form
    – Mikailo
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 15:45
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    I changed your tags, since this seems to be a question about writing a book, not a screenplay. BTW, check out Eternal Sunshine for an example of this being done really well --perhaps because the main character figuring out what is happening to him is a major plot point. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman thrives, in general, on breaking that rule and deliberately confusing the audience. Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 16:09
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    Welcome to the site! Thanks for the interesting question, and please feel free to check out our site tour if you haven't already. Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 16:57
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    It may also be worth distinguishing between misleading the reader directly, and misleading the reader via the POV of a character who themselves is misled. Not that the former can't be justified, but the latter is very commonplace. So applied to this case -- for the reader to gradually realise, along with the POV character, that things are very wrong, is much easier to handle than if the POV character knows all along that they're dreaming (lucid dreaming, then), but the author neglects to mention this rather important thought they are having while relating the character's other thoughts. Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 1:54

4 Answers 4


"Don't confuse the reader" is not a rule, but it is an action with consequences. You can decide to break a rule, but you cannot decide to exempt yourself from consequences. The consequence of confusing the reader is a confused reader. The probable consequence of a confused reader is an abandoned book.

However, there are circumstances in which the reader may enjoy being confused. In a certain type of whodunit mystery (most mysteries are not really whodunits these days) the reader is expecting to be mislead and misdirected and much of their pleasure comes in trying to see through the misdirection. If the writers does succeed in fooling them honestly, however, they will regard it as a game well played and be pleased with the experience. If the writer fools them dishonestly, however, by outright lying, for example, rather than misdirection, then they will not be pleased with the experience at all.

So, the question you have to ask yourself is, what pleasure are you preparing for the reader by being unclear about whether the protagonist's experience is waking or dream? At some point, presumably, you will have to make the reader aware that that experience was a dream. So why? What is the payoff for the reader in having that information revealed only then? How will it seem satisfactory to them, rather than a cheat, or simply outright confusion? Unless you have a very clear idea about these things, and are very confident in your ability to pull it off, confusing the reader about the protagonist's dream sequence is only likely to annoy them.

And remember, while you may have the entire arc of the story fully in your mind as you write, the reader is mostly enjoying the story they way you enjoy scenery from the window of a train. The experience is enjoyable in the moment but in not necessarily retained. Making any long back-reference in a story is likely to leave the reader scratching their head unless you have taken extraordinary measures to make that event memorable -- which is the very opposite of what you do when you obscure the dream/waking distinction. How can the reader remember the dream if they were not told it was a dream at the time?

So, while not a rule, it is good practice to be as clear and transparent as you can at all times unless you have a very good reason -- a big payoff for the reader -- for doing otherwise, and are very confident in your ability to pull off the deception.

  • Excellent. An example of a great pay-off: Atonement, novel by Ian McEwan, movie directed by Joe Wright. Another typical example for me would be the movie A beautiful Mind by Ron Howard, that tells the story of a paranoid schizophrenic and naturally misleads you for the first half.
    – Filip
    Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 8:49

Note: I upvoted Mark Baker's excellent answer, but wanted to add this as well:

The issue with misleading the reader is often not confusion, but betrayal. A lot of people don't mind being confused in a story, but a betrayed reader is an angry reader. Consider The Wizard of Oz, the entire storyline of which is (at least in the famous movie version) revealed to be a dream. What makes it work is that the narrative arc has already reached completion. Even within her dreamworld, Dorothy has defeated all the foes, and achieved all her goals for her friends, so the story feels fulfilled. Imagine instead if Dorothy had awakened right before her climactic fight with the Wicked Witch of the West. The viewer would have felt betrayed.

An extended, unreal episode in which nothing real happens, nothing is overcome and nothing is gained (or lost) is a bad idea. When it turns out to be illusionary, the reader thinks "what a waste of my time!" But that same episode could be doing good and valuable work for you instead of just taking up space. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the main character spends most of the movie inside his own mind and memories. But he has a real goal, to save his memories of his ex-girlfriend; he learns something real, how much she really means to him; he grows and changes, symbolically letting her into to his most secret self; and he even gains something valuable he can take back to the real world, the secret of how to reconnect with her. So the viewer doesn't feel cheated that the majority of the narrative isn't "real."

Similarly, in the work of Japanese author Haruki Murakami, the reader and the characters (and possibly even the author himself!) are often confused as to what is real and what is not. But because the main impact of the books is psychological, the confusion and the superficial discontinuities are not off-putting (at least not to the millions of readers who made Murakami an international best-seller).


To add to the excellent answers already given, here's a simple way of thinking about it:

As long as the reader knows just as much about what's going on as the point of view character does, it isn't misleading.

For example, if the character is in a dream, and doesn't know they're dreaming, and the story is written from a limited point of view, there's no reason for the reader to know that the character is dreaming either. It's fine for there to be confusion about that by the reader, because the character in the story is experiencing the same thing.

On the other hand, if there are things that the characters know about that the reader doesn't, or if the reader has been led to believe something that the characters know isn't true, that would be misleading the reader. If the point of view character knows something, and it's pertinent to the current story, the reader should know that thing as well.

  • I disagree. The reader is always conscious that they are a reader. If they pretend to be the character, they are conscious that they are pretending. They never experience what the character experiences. Re dreams: The reader is awake, a state fundamentally different from dreaming. When we are dreaming, we don't know we are dreaming. When we are awake we know we are awake. And dreams are recalled only in wakefulness. We have no access to dreams except through our memory of them on waking. Therefore neither the reader nor the character can be aware of the dream except in the waking state.
    – user16226
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 11:09
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    Perhaps I should rephrase: It's certainly fine for the reader to to more than the characters know, but the reader definitely shouldn't know less. If the character is dreaming, but they don't know it, the reader could still be informed that it's a dream. If the character does know it's a dream, however, the reader should also be informed of this. The reader should not be given the impression that it's reality. Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 14:32
  • Yes, I like that formulation. There may be specific exceptions -- the detective before the big reveal in a classic whodunnit knows more than the reader, for instance, and of course a messenger who has not yet delivered their message knows something the reader does not yet know -- but as a generality, I think this is right.
    – user16226
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 14:55

"Don't confuse the reader" is one of the rules that exist to be broken. As usually, "when to break the rule? When you know what you're doing."

In this case, straighten it out immediately after he wakes up.

No branch, no tree, no sky. Just murk of the cavern, drip of water.

He shook his head to get rid of the last of sleep, and tried to recall the scraps of the dream, fleeting from his mind rapidly.

Deceiving the reader for no good reason is not good. But a small deceit that goes right hand in hand with protagonist's confusion, straightened out as soon as confusion vanishes, is good to improve immersion. A big deceit may make for a great plot twist, but it must be carefully engineered, both with foreshadowing and with clear reason. Definitely don't deceive the reader if the reader is the only one getting deceived - you may follow up with the same deceit the rest of characters fall for, but if there's an elephant in the room and everyone can see the elephant, don't inform the reader it's a gazelle, and then at the end laugh "ha ha, it was not a gazelle in the first place, it was always an elephant!"

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