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X-RAY SPECS: Dream Within a Dream? Screenwriting Dream Scenes

Robert Piluso discusses the intricacies of writing dream scenes. Are they needed? Do they elevate a story or detract from it?

Robert Piluso is a film critic (The Essential Sopranos Reader), screenwriter (CS Expo 2011 Winner Best Comedy Script) and professor at Chaffey College. Follow him on Twitter @RobertPiluso.

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Okay, so, the problem with a dream scene within your script is that it is redundant.

I know, I know: it’s artistic. It is, dude. It probably is.

But the problem remains that the whole thing, your entire screenplay, is a complex narrative web of symbols, ideas, and emotions at purposeful interplay for a designed psychological and physiological cumulative effect on the reader/viewer. Right?

Ripley's nightmare in 'Aliens'

Ripley's nightmare in 'Aliens'

Of course, it is. And the same definition, above, goes for a dream.

Let me show you why and how.

By its very nature, a film is a shared dream – a public vision – and it draws its power through how public it is (as in, “how many tickets have been purchased,” prior to digital piracy, so, now, it’s more like, “how many views”)—how many people have seen it. Lucas, Spielberg, Cameron, Hitchcock: What makes a masterful storyteller in the classical Hollywood tradition is his or her ability to orchestrate uniform physiological responses from large, diverse audiences: get everyone in the audience, irrespective of his or her age, ethnicity, or cultural profile, to lean forward at the same time, to gasp at the same time, to jump at the same time. It’s fantastic, to be experiencing the vision of a classical master.

With such masterful storytellers as these, and through studying their respective blockbuster works, we experience first-hand, first-heart, first-brain as these masters of playing the human orchestra of emotions exercise their craft upon us. (Or rather, upon our senses and nervous systems.)

It’s important to keep in mind whether or not you are writing for everyone in the audience to experience the same feelings, ideas, and physical responses at your script’s specific story beats: if so, you are writing in the classical tradition and you want to smooth out those edges, rewrite those outlier moments that get lost on most of your readers, and overall punch up the designed responses: whether laughter, fear, joy, or tension.

On the other side of the street—the shadowy side, you could say—slough and slink around those sublime Weirdos. These avant-garde filmmakers and screenwriters are NOT into crafting a one-size-fits-all story experience for their audiences. Rather, these writers rely upon an esoteric vocabulary of collective unconscious symbols and anti-classical storytelling strategies to make their uniquely, intensely personal expressions. Through such unmistakable particularity, filmmaker-scribes such as Federico Fellini, Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch, and Charlie Kaufman dive right into the unrelatable, the unsympathetic, the fringes full of fools, and, somehow, make them…. understandable.

While dream scenes in films written by these avant-gardists are commonplace, these dream scenes work because the whole film's story experience behaves according to “dream logic.”

What does “dream logic” signify? Well, it can mean a lot of different things, to different writers. For our purposes, we’ll define “dream logic” by via negativa—from which classic maxims in screenwriting (i.e. which principles of logic) it deviates.

First, in dream logic, we could take away the screenwriting maxim of causality: a cause precedes a consequent effect, occurring linearly in time. There is a clear causal progression from first event to second event to third event, in a classically modeled, linear story. On the flip side, think of Pulp Fiction, Memento, or Mulholland Drive: each of these scripts exercises its own internally consistent dream logic, and it is no accident that they occur "out of order."

Second, in terms of dream logic, we could take away the screenwriting maxim of character consistency: in a dream scene, a character can suddenly behave in a wildly unexpected way. Think of a scene where the long-devoted lover, who, just moments before, had been canoodling the hero, opens her mouth and she’s suddenly an alien vampire beast, full of jagged teeth, hungry for hero! We can recognize these moments as major “twists” in a story, like Quaid’s Wife (Sharon Stone) in Total Recall. A side-effect of deviating from the screenwriting maxim of character consistency is that the character becomes one of the archetypes that Joseph Campbell called, “The Shapeshifter.

Third, we could take away the screenwriting maxim of relevance and essentiality: how essential is that dream scene, really, when every page and every scene you write is a theoretical matter of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars, for the production to mount? Therefore, everything has to matter. It really does. And except in rare instances, the content of the dream scene on a strictly plot basis just simply does not matter. There are “no stakes.”

There’s a caveat to this third principle, and it provides a compelling solution to the problem with dream scenes: as the writer, you don’t show the dream, but, in a real-time scene between your viewpoint/protagonist character and another character, you have the protagonist recount his or her dream (without having taken the viewer INTO it). At least this scenario occurs in real world story time, and the actor can play the emotion behind recounting the dream, and the character can dig for the secret meaning before the audience’s very eyes, in a way that could matter to the proper story. (However, there’s a danger with this solution, too: how enthralling is it when other people tell you their dreams?) A good example of this solution comes in the final scene to No Country for Old Men, with Tommy Lee Jones recounting his dream and demystifying the film's very title,or from any of the dozen scenes in The Sopranos where Tony Soprano regales Dr. Melfi with his latest stupid dream. (The audience's viewpoint character in those Sopranos therapy scenes, brilliantly, is Dr. Melfi. We don't feel disinclined to hear Tony's latest stupid dream because it's our job, as Dr. Melfi with whom we are designed to identify, to hear and interpret the dream for him. Genius, that David Chase is.)

Again, the biggest problem for a dream scene within your screenplay is the “no-stakes” dilemma. By virtue of having no plot effects in the story proper (First Maxim of Causality), the reader may likely feel no “stakes”, and when a reader feels “no stakes”, the reader tunes right the heck out. No bueno. I mean, how many times have you been watching a TV show or movie, and get that feeling that what scene you’re watching is a “dream”? And then the character wakes up with a startled “Yrragh!” while you yourself are probably yawning, right about then. So what, right? You reset your brain and pretty much discount everything you just watched. This is because that dream scene represents a significant minority of the total story, the vast majority of which occurs in “real time.”

In counter-examples like Alice in Wonderland, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Inception, the majority of the total story experience takes place in the “dreamworld”. As with the case of Disney’s animated adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the storyteller has inverted the audience’s valuation and emotional investment, and the stuff you don’t care about so much is the real-life/real-time prologue and epilogue with Alice doffing off her studies by the riverbank. What matters, really, is Wonderland, of course.

And then there’s Nightmare on Elm Street, which is just so awesome for writer-director Wes Craven taking that Italian neorealism principle Fellini explored and suffusing the entire narrative with existential ambiguity and dread. Is this scene I am watching right now real-life, or dream-life? Ultimately, the distinction does not matter in this film’s story logic because the stakes are life-or-death, whether the character is sleeping or waking, because Freddy is Freddy, and there are real-life consequences to the dream-incidents. In designing the rules for his world-of-story, Craven brilliantly maintains the Third Maxim of Essentiality. (As well as the First and Second Maxims!)

Too many TV shows and film scripts try to have their cake and eat it, too. Few screenwriters can pull this off, but Christopher Nolan—right in the middle on the spectrum between classical and avant-garde storytellers—is one of the few, as is Charlie Kaufman. You can take a story from Nolan like Memento, Insomnia, Inception, or Interstellar, and see within the story rules how Nolan addresses the maxims—the dream content has real-life, unavoidable, essential ramifications on the characters and plot. The same applies for Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Nolan and Kaufman understand that the film story unto itself is a dream, already, and these tellers build into their story-worlds how to work around the audience identification challenges that result from deviating from the maxims of Causality, Consistency, and Essentiality.

All right, so you’ve heard my arguments as to why you should infuse whatever information or ideas you would be putting into that dream scene into a real-time scene, and yet you remain steadfast to your dream within a dream. Very well….

When writing a dream scene, as when writing any real-time scene, the emphasis falls on your cultivation of a defining emotion for the audience. In a dream scene, the viewpoint character (the character with whom you design for the audience/reader to most closely identify and sympathize) will most likely be the dreamer (who is, most often, also the protagonist of the film story). What does that character feel most predominantly in that dream?

No, not thoughts, not sentences, not articulations—what raw feeling. Placed in an evolutionary context, dreams are preverbal carry-over from back when we were hunter-gatherers, and, as we slept, we replayed our feelings and emotions from the day’s events—including, but not limited to, our evasion from predators or other dangers. This is why we have nightmares. It was a close call, but we made it, but our mind won’t let us forget the lesson for the next time that mountain lion is prowling around over by our cave.

They call it fight-or-flight, that physiological response that activates when you’re in danger or remembering danger or imagining that you are in danger (as in a dream). Physiologically, there is no difference to your brain whether danger is real or imagined or remembered. Heart-rate jacked. Sweat drips. Senses on overdrive. Adrenaline pumping.

Here are some examples of specific raw feeling that can galvanize and specify a dream scene’s emotional character:

Dread—not knowing what specific danger, but feeling incredible anxiety
(mystery/thriller: Hitchcock)

Terror—knowing, and running from, the specific danger
(action/adventure: Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron)

Panic/Searching—you can’t find the thing, but what is the thing?
(mystery/thriller: Lynch)

Amorousness—you’re very hungry, very hungry indeed: for LOVE!
(romantic comedy)

Empowered/Free—you’re flying, so high above it all, the whole world bows to you
(Spider-Man swinging, Superman flying, Batman brooding)

Curiosity—You want to know more, but you have to be cautious, you have to be sly
(Alice in Wonderland)

Peace—a happy memory, a time at safety and perfect rest from the cruel world, most usually tinged by nostalgia

Ultimately, as both the classic and avant-garde master storytellers know and put into spectacular practice, if you can work whatever content you want or need to have happen in the dream scene to happen in the real time of the screenplay’s world-of-story, that will most always be better for the audience’s emotional and physiological immersion into the world-of-story you are creating.

We’ll close with the ruminations of one Melancholy Dane:

“To die, to sleep—
To sleep—perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
for in that sleep of death what dreams may come
when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect”
(Hamlet, III.i.64-8).

Until next time, writers, keep your X-Ray Specs: on, polished, and looking sharp!

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