Why It’s Hard to Successfully Start a Story With a Dream

carousel horse

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Learn more about getting a first-page critique.

First Page

It was a lonely sound. A sad lament in the early morning. It was the quivering, somber sound of a wind organ. At least that’s what it sounded like to me. A man with a blue voice was singing and the quiet drumming followed. Plodding lethargically, and vacant… and a slow jangly guitar. The day was cloudy and grey, and there I was, in a bright sliver of sun, peeking through the clouds. I had no idea where I was, but I wasn’t scared. All around me were odd flowers. Startling rich nonagons, bright with color. Searing red, blazing yellow and lavish blue. I wanted to ask, “Why so sad?” but I couldn’t. I opened my mouth to speak and nothing came out. The man with the blue voice sang these words, “nothing is real.” How can that be? Nearby, a herd of horses escaped from a carousel, and headed towards a convertible train. I hopped on, and the sadness went away. The music of a backwards calliope accompanied the ride while hurtling through rolling hills, on loops and curls, like a roller coaster. The train blew its whistle to alert the horses. But the whistle was more like a siren not intended to warn, but to delight. The wind was blowing through my hair and I was smiling so big, my face hurt. It wasn’t a dream. I had been invited to this place through a song playing on the radio. I was really there, I went to Strawberry Fields.

I opened my eyes and I was in my bedroom lying in my bed. The radio next to my bed was playing, softly. My mother gave me the radio, because she knew it would help me sleep, and I was permitted to have it on through the night as long as it wasn’t too loud.

First-Page Critique

Two of the most common admonitions delivered to fiction writers are:

  1. Never begin a story with a character getting out of bed.
  2. Never write, “And then she/he woke up” (or the equivalent).

As with all rules, not only can these two be broken, leave it to a genius to break them brilliantly: “When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant beetle.” With that first sentence of The Metamorphosis, Kafka strikes a definitive blow not only against both rules, but against realism, establishing a parallel universe in which such things happen. No explanations; take it or leave it.

Similarly, in what has been credited as the world’s shortest story, Augusto Monterroso signs the death notices of rules #1 and #2. Here are all seven words of “El Dinosaurio,” or “The Dinosaur”:

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí. 

(When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.)

As with “El Dinosaurio,” this first page gives us a protagonist waking up from a dream, but instead of a dinosaur, what’s still there are the haunting strains of John Lennon’s most famous song, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” playing “softly” on the radio next to the narrator’s bed. In her music-inspired dream, the narrator is transported to a place where “nothing is real,” a realm of “odd flowers” in blazing, searing color, of horses “escaped from a carousel” hurtling toward a train “to the music of a backwards calliope.”

Dreams have their own logic, one that doesn’t play by the rules and is therefore hard to argue with. The same can be said of the best fiction: it makes its own rules by spinning (in John Gardner’s words) a “vivid and continuous dream.” And since a work of fiction is already its own dream, reading about a fictional dream puts us at a two-step remove from our own lives. It’s like kissing through two screen doors.

That said, dreams have played crucial roles in literature. Without Scrooge’s nightmare Dickens couldn’t have written A Christmas Carol. Before he murders the pawnbroker, in a dream symbolizing the soul’s dual nature, torn between bloodlust and compassion, Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov revisits a time when as a boy he watched a group of peasants beat an old horse to death. And what is Alice’s looking glass but a doorway to her dreams?

As Francine Prose writes in “Chasing the White Rabbit”, her fine essay on fictional dreams:

Literature is full of dreams that we remember more clearly than our own. Jacob’s ladder of angels. Joseph saving Egypt and himself by interpreting the Pharoah’s vision of the seven fat and lean cows. The dreams in Shakespeare’s plays range as widely as our own, and the evil are often punished in their sleep before they pay for their crimes in life.

The problem with dreams is that, translated into lucid, rational prose, they often sound artificial. Whatever “stuff” dreams are made of, words aren’t it. As Francine Prose goes on to say in the same essay: “What’s [hard] to recreate on the page is anything remotely resembling the experience of actually dreaming, with all the structural and narrative complexities involved, the leaps, contradictions, and improbable elements.” This may be why poets write the best dreams: they’re better at making those improbable leaps.

But a bigger problem with fictional dreams is that they ask us to invest emotionally in an experience only to have that investment rendered null and void when the experience turns out not to have been—by waking standards, anyway—“real.” Just as in life I tend to grow restless when someone buttonholes me with their dream, whenever I come upon a dream in a novel or story I read it with my emotions in check. Heck, it’s just a dream.

On the other hand, if the dream presents itself as real (as this one does) and I invest in it accordingly only to learn that it never really happened, like any bait-and-switch victim I feel cheated. Depending on how much I invested, I may just want to strangle the author.

Here the dream itself is quite well rendered, replete with the sorts of sensuous, specific details that make for a vivid fictional experience (the “quivering” wind organ; the man who sings in a “blue” voice,” those escaped carousel horses hurtling over hills). Though vivid, it’s also rife with the jump-cuts and non-sequiturs that characterize real dreams. And so I can’t help feeling disappointed when I learn that, as the song says, “nothing is real.” There are no carousel horses; there is no “convertible train” (whatever that is). It was all just a dream prompted by a song playing on a radio.

Your First Page SelginMaybe the dream has symbolic import; maybe it will resonate and/or recur throughout the rest of the story, thus earning back my initial investment. I hope so. I hope, too, that whatever story follows, this dream is the best place to enter it. Perhaps the point of the dream, and the radio that (softly) plays the song that inspires it, is to underscore the protagonist’s fear of the dark and—again, possibly—of the dreams she’d been having, not good dreams like this one, but nightmares that scared her so much she was afraid to sleep. How else explain a mother letting her child play the radio all night long? Raising the possibly pertinent question: What happened to this kid?

But if the dream is just this author’s carnival barker way of luring us into her fictional world, I don’t know about you, but I’ll want my emotional deposit back.

Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)

Posted in First Page Critiques.

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2008). He has published a novel, Life Goes To the Movies (Dzanc, 2009), three books on the craft of fiction writing (Writer's Digest, Serving House Books, Broadview Press), and a children’s picture book, S.S. Gigantic Across the Atlantic (Simon & Schuster). His first essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man (University of Iowa, 2012), was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. A novel-in-manuscript, “The Water Master,” won the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for Best Novel. His memoir, The Inventors (Hawthorne Books), which won the Housatonic Book Award, was among Library Journal’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2016. He is Associate Professor of English at Georgia College & State University. Find out more at his website.

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Chris O'NeillMichael SmithPamela HarjuJody Hadlock Recent comment authors

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Jody Hadlock

As always, you’re first page critiques are spot on. The language in this opening is beautiful, but some sentences were unnecessary, like this one: “At least that’s what it sounded like to me.” I read the opening a few times and each time I picked up on something I’d missed from the previous read. If the author uses this dream opening, I would tighten it (a lot).

Pamela Harju

Nothing about that start caught my interest. That doesn’t work for me as a reader.

Michael Smith

Are fictional stories not dreams of themselves?


[…] Peter Selgin: Why It’s Hard to Successfully Start a Story With a Dream […]

Chris O'Neill
Chris O'Neill

“But if the dream is just this author’s carnival barker way of luring us into her fictional world, I don’t know about you, but I’ll want my emotional deposit back.” I agree—dreams inserted into fiction can feel two steps removed from lived experience. Perhaps that’s because of how our society, our literary tradition, relates to dreaming. I think that is a relevant third point to add to your opinion. Your Point #1: You make the case that dreams in fiction ask the reader to invest emotionally in an experience that turns out to be only a dream, thus not “real.”… Read more »

WHo aM I YoULL NevER KnOw wiLL yA?
WHo aM I YoULL NevER KnOw wiLL yA?

I attempted a dream beginning.
Guess what.

I failed.

Then I read this article. A bit late though, after a week of frustration and erasing everything I wrote.