On Dreams

In the first of what may possibly be several such guest columns, I present John Brooks, writing about dream sequences in modern television.

It's been suggested that I should do something with all the dream fragments I've journalled over the years. If nothing else, they could be utilized for short stories or scenes in roleplaying games. If I ever make it to the big leagues, though, I'd gladly help write dream sequences for TV shows or movies. For some reason, the prevailing style of writing dream sequences is absolutely lame. Most often, the writer is concerned with hammering a point home but wants to be clever and use the character's subconscious to express it; however, in many cases the character's subconscious is scraping the bottom of the imaginative barrel. In Roswell, one of the characters can enter other people's dreams; on one of her voyeuristic journeys, she sees the guy whose dream she's invading dancing with a dream version of her- an expression of his affection for her.

The thing about dreams is that you can have a fairly coherent sequence of events, but not everything is going to make sense, and the emotional experience of things isn't always going to be normal, either. Unrequited, unrevealed feelings aren't likely to surface in a simple, sweet dance scene. They're often oblique- without context, the observer is unlikely to get it. Even if the feelings did surface in an obvious way, dreams are too rich in weird symbolism and deceptively important dialogue to be limited to that one image. This dream is symptomatic of the bad style employed by a lot of writers: blatant wish fulfillment with no subtext, no unexplained static.

Good dream sequences do exist, of course: the season closer to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season four is an excellent example of this. Rife with symbolism (occasionally insidiously Freudian), subtext and the occasional random piece of noise, the episode did an excellent job of poking around in the heads of the main characters. I'd advise you to see it some time.

Another television show that's done a good job with dreams is Lost: already steeped in weird symbols (some religious, some not), events that challenge the conventions of reality, and characters whose psychological conditions are at times questionable, dreams just seem like the next logical step. And the writers do, in fact, meet the challenge with Charlie's dream on the beach: high contrast shots, religious imagery, strange things going on in the background.

These are the sorts of things I'd expect to see in a dream sequence; it becomes a more subtle plot device while preserving the bizarre landscape the subconscious provides. And if we're not convinced that it's a subconscious landscape, then the whole scene becomes contrived and wooden- whatever fears, desires, or themes the writers were trying to convey just became cheesy in a matter of seconds. It can be avoided.

Anyway, my dreams aren't quite ready for prime time, but so far they've kept my friends entertained (or, alternatively, weirded out). But if you ever see a dream sequence by me on TV, it won't be a guy dancing with his crush. He'll be making out with her, she'll say something inexplicable and profoundly significant, and he'll be tossed into a situation with a shadow cabinet, gypsy royalty, and lesbian assassin twins.

And then things will get pretty weird.

Posted by Drew Shiel at June 16, 2006 8:55 PM

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