I plan to use a dream or flashback as a way to show the reader the story has more going on behind the scenes. As well to sprinkle in a little of my main characters back-story.

I haven't written it out yet so I can’t post a piece of it for people to see. However, my real question is if I should inform the reader that it is a dream or should I just open the chapter with it.

The flashback will take place directly after the end of the third chapter, which was a large action scene. My main character ends up knocked out, but saved by her companion. My plan was to open chapter four with her dreaming. I wanted it to be kind of a surprise to the reader, explaining that the small scene was a dream at the end of the flashback. However if that will confuse or anger readers I don't want to do that.

Either way the flashback will happen, I just wonder if I should "inform" the reader that it's a dream to start with or just jump into it?

1 Answer 1


You have two things going on: a flashback from the main narrative, and a dream.

If the dream is taking place in the past, that may be a literal flashing-back, but it's not actually a flashback. A flashback is reliable (in the sense of "reliable narrator"), realistic, and a memory of someone. It's a detour from the forward narrative.

A dream, on the other hand, can take place at any spot in the timeline, or several over the course of a dream. It can be reliable or unreliable, realistic or fantastic, true events or imaginary ones, memory or imagination.

Remember that dreams rarely have coherent narratives, unless it's a "lucid dream," in which case the dreamer knows she's dreaming. Dreams are full of symbols and are often non-linear. The POV changes, the dreamer changes character (that is, she starts as watching the events and then becomes part of them, and then becomes someone else in the same dream), physics are ignored, etc.

So first off, decide whether you are introducing your character's past as a dream or as a flashback.

If it's a dream, then it depends what you want to accomplish with it.

Do you deliberately want to mislead the reader for the shock value? Will the dream be so close to reality that the differences start subtle and slowly grow, until it's clear that something has gone horribly wrong, and then the dreamer wakes up?

If you don't want to mislead the reader, putting the text in italics will quickly signal that the text is outside the main narrative. You don't need to do anything else to introduce the idea that "this is a dream." The italics will alert readers that something's going on, and they'll figure out pretty quickly that it's a dream rather than reality.

Making the reader angry or confused is a product of the actual story — that is, did the technique work, or did it just piss me off? — so we can't comment on that until we see it.

  • Let me give you a short explanation of what i have in mind. Bare with me though, as i have a harder time explaining my ideas then i do just writing them. She is dreaming a memory, like say the last ten minutes. I would describe what she sees, burning homes, charred flesh and what not. I planned to have her shoot some one that was fleeing, then the person that she is with would turn on her and then things she hears in the real world would start to filter though. Thing this person says in the dream would actually be what she is hearing while she sleeps. Then as he attacks, she wakes up.
    – Lokiie1984
    Feb 19, 2013 at 18:04
  • I'd call that more of a hallucination or a waking dream. She's not asleep and in REM state. She's unconscious because she was knocked out and injured. I can see how she can be playing back a bit of memory which gets jumbled as she comes back to awareness, and then reality filters in. But that is not a flashback or a dream, strictly speaking. In any case, you could still treat it as regular text or put it in italics, and then we'd have to see how it actually unfolded to tell you whether it worked. Feb 19, 2013 at 18:51
  • If i did put it in all italics would i keep thoughts in italics or put em in normal type? During it i have her think something about the guy she is with (her employer.) I like the italics idea though, that way there is no question its a dream, or what ever you would want to call it. Anyway once I'm done i will post it as a new question (i assume that's what i should do, sorry not entirely sure on this site) and see if it works out. Thanks for your input too by the way.
    – Lokiie1984
    Feb 19, 2013 at 19:03
  • If you are setting a chunk of text in italic to indicate a hallucination or dream state, you can violate a lot of typographical and narrative conventions. It can be stream-of-consciousness, running back and forth from thoughts to narration, it can be disjointed, it can be non-linear, incoherent, etc. Normally yes, when you emphasize something italic you put it in book text, but in this case I actually wouldn't, to emphasize the odd mental state. Feb 19, 2013 at 21:31

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