Do TV Dream Sequences Ever Work?

We all roll our eyes at the “it was just a dream” ending, but do some stories use dreams well?

The hero dies, his family dies, and there are usually a lot of flames or trippy backgrounds. And then, oue hero wakes up and realizes it was all just a dream. Cue audience groan.

The storytelling device of dreaming has been used for hundreds of years, so at this point in 2016 we’ve come to expect it, and we usually roll our eyes when it appears. Despite viewer dissatisfaction, the strategy still persists and it will continue to do so for as long as we have stories to tell. So writers and storytellers need to evolve and develop new and creative ways to show us the unconscious mind while also keeping in mind the appropriateness of such action, especially now that we’re expecting a jolting gasp and comforters when shit gets weird.

Why have them at all?

Stories with dreams in them aren’t all like Wizard of Oz or Super Mario Bros. 2, which make the viewer feel wronged. Everything you’ve just invested your time in was all a lie. Sure, there are plenty that attempt it, but many others use it as a tool to further their story in a constructive way.

Some of the first instances – and still popular ones, too – of using dreams to carry the reader through a story were Greek epic poems, most notably in the Iliad when Zeus plants a false dream into Agamemnon while he’s sleeping that convinces him to attack Troy. In this particular instance, the dreams are used to skip the plot along into one of the most well-known literary battles.

The end of 'Super Mario Bros. 2'

Another use dream sequence cause changes in the character. While this normally happens anyway if the plot nudges forward, causing manic determination in a character like in Terminator 2: Judgement Day when Sarah Connor experiences one of the most iconic dream sequences in film, there are still some that are more subtle. The 1880 Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov follows Mitya, who, due to his lethargy and nervousness over his dreams, unwittingly makes the situation much worse for himself by not paying attention to what he’s doing in the waking world.

The 1978 soap opera 'Dallas' angered fans by defining an entire season as a dream.

Poor Uses

We’ve seen plenty more bad uses than good ones, unfortunately, and that’s why many people have such a negative reaction to encountering dreams in their entertainment. There are many, many instances in which dreams are a lazy way to show character or attempt to shock us.

A lot of other storytellers use them to foreshadow coming events and that’s normally when they falter. The viewer already knows the second she’s watching a scene that’s a little too involved for the beginning that it’s going to be a dream. There’s not any point in trying to cover up what that flash forward is, but having the character make it five minutes in and fall, get hit by a bus, shot, etc. before waking up makes us feel like weve wasted our times, especially when the dream sequence is used to pull us in and doesn’t have further bearing on the story other than to shock us and plop us into the action.

Dream sequences should further the plot and/or develop the character in some way. We see too often dreams cropping up as merely shock-value or to show off the visuals. If we can take a bathroom break during the scene and not miss anything at all from the movie or TV show then it doesn’t need to be in there.

Apollo 13, for example, while gifting us with lovely and terrifying visuals for its dream sequence with Tom Hanks’ character before they take off, wastes minutes because there’s really no point to it. There’s no more of a better understanding of his character than if we just saw him checking parts of the rocket five different times, and being historical fiction, there’s not even a need to foreshadow. The audience knows just because it is Apollo 13 that it won’t be a pleasant trip, so having a scene to foreshadow something that we know for a fact is going to happen seems silly and pointless, especially when his nervousness due to the dream doesn’t play a part in the rest of the film.

This scene is to shock the audience by seeing Tom Hanks fall into space – and not even shock us that much because we’re trained from years of years of dream exposure in every medium to expect them. We see anything weird, anything go wrong and we automatically think dream.

In creating good entertainment that isn’t bogged down by its dreams, the audience and the storytellers form a trust that usually derives from disclaiming in some way that what we’re witnessing is a dream. The stories that try to play-off the scene as reality are always the ones to falter. These are closer to visions than they are to actual dreams, so unless it’s a fantasy-based narrative in which visions of the past and future are commonplace, they shouldn’t be in the story.

Dreams are chaotic and weird, either making no sense at all or jerking the viewer or reader from one place to the other. Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound has a scene designed by Salvador Dali (the artist behind the melting clocks in “The Persistence of Memory”) that truly encapsulates just how strange and wonky our dreams can be. And because the audience knows that it’s a dream, we can enjoy more thoroughly than us trying to guess whether or not the scene is a dream or bad trip.

Evolution of Dream Sequences

Now that developers and filmmakers and writers have access to more technology and are learning from lackluster reactions to other dream sequences, there’s an evolution of that form of storytelling – out of necessity.

When thinking of dreams in movies, there’s usually one particular film that comes to mind: Inception. Christopher Nolan took this film and confronted the audience with the idea that most of the movie is a dream, but that’s totally okay because we know that from the beginning and it’s the basis of the movie. He’s not tricking us into thinking that most of the movie is in reality, and because of that he has more freedom and opportunity to play around with the visuals within it.

By signing off and saying that what we’re watching is a dream, we can fully enjoy it and creators can fool around and has as much fun as they want. There are plenty of good examples of films and video games and novels, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that use dreams to their advantage.

Batman: Arkham Asylum uses Scarecrow’s fear gas to give us a fun and terrifying level that sees Batman jumping through floating, torn-down buildings with a 50-story high Scarecrow looming over the field.

And with the expansion of dreams within storytelling, we also have a less serious approach to the storytelling device. Comedies usually make for a successful execution of dreams because they aren’t illuminating to the depth of a character and they’re usually not very plot heavy, but the point of them is to make us laugh, which they do. In the case of Bob’s Burgers, Bob hallucinates from absinthe and the dream scene when he conks out in the kitchen even gives a nod to Hayao Miyazaki’s Totoro by playing out his hallucinogenic fantasies paralleled to the movie.

Because dream sequences do have their uses, well still continue to see them. We’ll also see the lazy attempts at character developments and hasty plot movers, but there will also be writers and directors and developers that can make them work and not make us wish that we were dreaming after watching it.

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