Dream twists just spoil our senses of disbelief. I can see how that can be excetuted carelessly, but if done for the need of showing what the main character wants or fears most then maybe it would be the better way of involving the trope.

My story is about the issues between good-lawyer Adrian and his brother Isaac. Coming to the climax, there is a brief but painful sequence where Adrian finds Isaac has shot himself together with Adrian’s wife Noelle;

The deal with the brother characters are several issues such as Isaac’s own wife cheating and his paranoid suggestions about her ‘sneaking around at night’, whereas the tension building up with Noelle who is going through clinical depression is a subplot.

The importance is that when the dream is revealed and that it never happened, it is very well shown to the reader that from the real events of the story, Adrian is genuinely so afraid that the two people he loves very much will come together and ‘free’ themselves from their misery if he doesn’t negotiate with them first.

Should this be a good strategy?

  • 2
    Just to clarify, is your plan to write a scene which will be revealed (to the reader) as a dream a) right after it's over; b) at a later stage?
    – user16555
    Sep 3, 2018 at 11:54
  • I remember a story or rather the movie where this was done very nicely. However the first rule was to never talk about it. Sep 3, 2018 at 11:58
  • @DigitalDracula yes Sep 3, 2018 at 12:02
  • 2
    Yes what? :D a) or b)
    – user16555
    Sep 3, 2018 at 12:03
  • @DigitalDracula B) at later stage Sep 3, 2018 at 12:08

7 Answers 7


The trope you're referring to is called All Just a Dream (tv tropes warning). While some authors can pull it off, it is usually considered a bad trope to use. The reason for this is that the "it's all just a dream" reveal is anticlimactic: there's something very dramatic happening, but then it has no consequences; the character instead gets a reset button to prevent the dramatic thing from happening in the first place. If you introduce a plot element, as a reader I would like to see that element followed through to the end, with its consequences and implications, not reset and prevented.

Another problem with this trope is that it strains the reader's willing suspension of disbelief. Real dreams are weird: things happen in random order, reality shifts, and to add to the confusion - your brain flushes most of it upon awakening, so you only remember bits and pieces. Think of your own dreams: how often do they make much sense?

  • "your brain flushes most of it upon awakening, so you only remember bits and pieces." What about when there is someone on the outside looking into the dream interpreting it? Like with sleeptalk or with hypnosis? Sep 3, 2018 at 12:55
  • That's an interesting aspect, but I don't think it removes the surreal nature of dreams. In other words, it's not only the temporal disconnect that renders dreams surreal. Some time ago I dreamed I was Kim Jong-Un's personal physician, and I was telling him he needed to lose weight. "Doc," he said and smiled with his boyish eyes, "I swear, I really don't eat that much".
    – user16555
    Sep 3, 2018 at 13:40
  • @DigitalDracula if that makes sense and is relevant to your story, why not add it? It is a fine line. It can be done very badly and feel disconnect. But I also believe that if done correct it can give you a nice plotdevice.. Sep 3, 2018 at 14:16

My issue with the setup you're describing is that it is predicated on misleading the reader. Generally speaking, that is not a problem as long as there is a justification for it. The longer the delay before the reader finds out the scene was a dream, the stronger the justification needs to be.

The thing is, I'm not entirely convinced that showing how scared your character is provides enough justification. This is particularly the case if you plan to withhold the revelation for long. There is a clear danger of it coming off as simply a cheap trick.

I'm an ardent believer in "inevitable" narratives; plots where everything is a logical consequence of what has preceded it. If you manage to somehow show that in your idea, then it would work.

Couple of tips:

  • your setup is heavily based on psychoanalytic theory. Do some research on the matter (if you haven't already), it might provide you with ideas.
  • the fear revolves around something pretty obvious: if your wife is depressed and your brother's wife has cheated on him, it's not a great leap to have a dream as the one you're describing. This places further strain in the justification for withholding the information.
  • alternative idea #1: instead of withholding the information (i.e. that it was a dream) for long, change the dream, increase the shock value, make the scene shorter, and reveal it immediately. The effect will be more intense, and it will not come off as misleading. Remember that scene from Disclosure where Donald Sutherland's character attempts to kiss Michael Douglas's character in the elevator? It lasts for 10 seconds, but the character (and the viewer) really, really feels it.
  • alternative idea #2: discard the dream idea and have the protagonist have "reveries" instead. Short, paragraph-long impressions he's seen something that doesn't really exist. Say, he sees his wife preparing dinner, then she's holding the knife against her throat (only, he only thinks what if she did that). Don't overdo it though
  • 1
    +1 for talking about 'inevitable narratives' and how important not misleading (or in bad cases, outright lying) to a reader is. Sep 3, 2018 at 14:20
  • The suggestion about reveries is really valuable also.
    – Liquid
    Sep 6, 2018 at 8:31

My two favorite depictions of nightmares in fiction are the Nightmare Song in Iolanthe and Harry's nightmare in Sorcerer's Stone:

Perhaps Harry had eaten a bit too much, because he had a very strange dream. He was wearing Professor Quirrell’s turban, which kept talking to him, telling him he had to transfer to Slytherin at once, because it was his destiny. Harry told the turban he did not want to be in Slytherin; it got heavier and heavier; he tried to pull it off but it tightened painfully–and there was Malfoy, laughing at him as he struggled with it–then Malfoy turned into the hook-nosed teacher, Snape, whose laugh became high and cold–there was a burst of green light and Harry awoke, sweating and shaking. He rolled over and fell asleep again, and when he woke the next day, he didn’t remember the dream at all.

The point is that nightmares are weird, and almost universally readily identifiable once the dreamer wakes up.

Which is not to say that realistic seeming dreams aren't done all the time to add drama to the story. But a dream which is indistinguishable from reality is unrealistic, which is why most sequences like to start with a reasonable scenario that, as the scene progresses, gets more and more bizarre and unrealistic until the subject wakes up and figures out what's going on.

The other thing you can do is to use the nightmare to illustrate that your main character is becoming increasingly disturbed. The fact that your character isn't identifying the discrepancies that indicate that the dream isn't real can be an indication that he's losing his ability to distinguish reality from imagination. For this to work there needs to be clues that the dream is a dream, because if the reader can't figure out that the dream is a dream then they won't pick up on the instability of the character.

  • 2
    I think this is generally a good answer, but I take exception to some of your comments. I have compellingly real-seeming dreams often, some of which are surreal and some of which are not. And I've had very realistic nightmares on more than one occasion. People's dream lives are very idiosyncratic. You don't have to be insane to have realistic dreams (not that I'm necessarily an ideal representative of sanity). Sep 6, 2018 at 19:18
  • 2
    @ChrisSunami You are entirely correct, and I have rewritten the problematic parts of the answer. Sep 11, 2018 at 21:21

I do not think this is a good strategy at all; for the same reason Galastel has cited: It is anti-climactic. There are no consequences to the drama, and the reader feels deceived by the narrator. Those all contribute to a decision to stop reading.

One way you might use something like this is to use it several times so it is the dreams that have consequences. That could be an interesting story; the MC has dreams, as readers we know they are dreams but they are a bit cryptic, still somehow they manifest themselves in his real life, and he sometimes fails to recognize how the dream applies to let him avert a disaster (but realizes what the dream was saying after the fact) and sometimes succeeds in averting a disaster because of the dream.

So from the beginning this is part of the MC's normal world; he pays attention to his dreams and they influence his actions and decisions. Then, even though the reader is not tricked into thinking the dream is real, they are engaged because they know it has consequences and needs to be interpreted. The fact that the MC might fail to interpret it correctly adds tension, once the MC is back in his real life. This could (but doesn't have to) have a slightly supernatural element of prescience; but the situations he sees in the dream could also just be predictable things that might happen.

For example, take an easy one: He wakes up with his heart pounding in a panic, Isaac and Noelle are dead in his dream. Later that day, he realizes Isaac will come to his house next week, he shows up unannounced every May 17th, on the anniversary of their father's suicide. But he will be at work that day, so Isaac and Noelle could be alone for several hours. Discussing suicide.

He changes his plans to take the 17th off; and sure enough, Isaac shows up right after lunch.


In narrative fiction, dreams are best used for two things:

  1. To tell the reader something about the character's state of mind.
  2. If you have some sort of higher power in the tale, to provide communication between that entity and a viewpoint character.

The fact that a misleading dream was only a dream should be set forth as soon as the narrative permits, so that it can be established that the character is being influenced by a dream instead of by actual events. Misleading individual characters is okay, in the right circumstances, but the reader should always be provided a way to avoid being misled.


I'm a big fan of dreams, in real life and fiction alike, and I think they they can definitely be deployed well... or poorly. The key is playing fair with the reader. If the point is just to fool the readers, and toy with their emotions, then they'll rightly feel betrayed. However, you seem well aware of that danger.

I think this dream could be very effective as a way of increasing the pressure on your protagonist. Does the fact that it is a dream need to be concealed? You could present it as a dream from the beginning, either in the narrative, or through the device of him remembering it or recounting it after awakening. Or he could have a sudden flashback to it later in the day.

If you are determined to conceal it being a dream, I think you can still make that work, given that it's meant to highlight and/or dramatize what for the protagonist is a very real danger, and not just to make the readers' hearts thump. William Goldman deploys a fake-out dream effectively in The Princess Bride for similar reasons. However, it's worth noting that he lampshades his use of the technique, that he's a very good writer, and that he still doesn't quite entirely manage to erase the sense that he's played a trick on you.


I'd pull back from the "dream gotcha" because it feels like a red herring. There are audience gotchas which are the cliche of all bad television, and there are character gotchas where the character had everything wrong and now it is too late to change.

To be an effective character moment, Adrian needs a more profound reaction than "Oh whew! It was all just a dream." That would definitely be anti-climactic. To treat the moment as something the reader should care about, runs the risk of painting Adrian as a bigger victim. "I felt so bad when I imagined that everyone else was brutally murdered, why did this happen to meeee?"

That would be tone-deaf in my opinion, valuing Adrian's vicarious worry as narratively more important than the other characters being clinically depressed, being homicidally paranoid, and (potentially) getting murdered by their brother-in-law.

This should be a call to action, not a gotcha. One way that could work is if Adrian has actually been avoiding thinking about that nightmare outcome, then ignoring it, and then repressing it. The dream would not be an audience gotcha because there would be cracks in Adrian's world the reader can see, but it could be a character gotcha where Adrian is confronted by the thing he has been denying.

There are other ways to show this event to Adrian that don't involve a television-style dream-sequence. Adrian could experience it as a waking dream (an hallucination or PTSD trigger). He could hear about a real incident and be convinced it involved his wife and brother, becoming inconsolable. Or his fear could grow slowly, as he sees warning signs in mundane exchanges between the family that point to disaster. He could also be briefed on an unrelated court case handled through his law practice, where the parallels are all too clear. Any of these would feel more "psychologically grounded" and less deus ex machina.

There is the added benefit that Adrian is perhaps also suffering from his own issues (maybe he is a good lawyer, but a lousy husband and brother), and maybe it's not too late for him to change his role in the family situation.

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