How to Write Dreams and Flashbacks in Your Novel

I have always used dreams and flashbacks in my novels. Dreams are more like things your character sees when sleeping and can be confusing/bizarre. On the other hand, flashbacks are visions from the past that your character experiences upon seeing a traumatic person/location/object. Something I struggle with is the use of these two similar things. Flashbacks tend to be easier to handle (for me), versus dreams. In my novel Reformation, I use both. While editing it, I had to cut out some of a dream that my protagonist, Anastasia Knight, has. The reason for this was that it did not progress the story line, I never revisited that subject, and it made absolutely no sense in the grand scheme of the plot. I also use multiple flashbacks, particularly with a character named Joseph Shukhov. I want to first focus on dreams and give a few pointers. I’ve read character dreams in so many books, and certain authors correctly utilize them. There’s some requirements:

  1. Dreams must enhance the story line in some way. They must give an insight of some character, give a character a certain idea/suggestion, or must help the plot move forward. Otherwise, it’s useless.
  2. Characters should not have dreams every night. What I mean by this is that you do not need to include every dream that your character experiences in the story. Your book, under almost every circumstance, should never be filled with constant dream paragraphs. Unless your book completely centers around it for a certain purpose, you should include a maximum of 2-6 dreams, depending on the length of your book.
  3. Keep an air of mystery. Don’t reveal everything in black and white. Dreams are strange and sometimes hard to interpret until readers read further into the story. If you have multiple dreams, make sure they’re connected and keep your reader interested. An air of mystery is what makes a dream a dream. Most of the time, it doesn’t fully make sense, but it has to be understandable to a degree.

Now for flashbacks:

  1. Just like for dreams, flashbacks must progress the plot. A meaningless flashback should be cut out. Flashbacks are meant to preview a part of a character’s past, and they should give a deeper insight to the reader of that particular character.
  2. Flashbacks are often activated by something such as a location or person. Include that landmark in the flashback in some remote way. Make sure the reader takes notice of it.
  3. Show how this past event affected your character. Perhaps, it is a death of the loved one. On the other hand, it could be something else entirely. Portray to your readers that your character was mad, sad, confused, etc. in that situation by showing (not telling) their emotions. Flashbacks should be a fond memory or a terrible nightmare. You might write about something less dramatic, such as a lunch with a long time friend, but make sure you show the impact it had on your character.

Here’s a flashback I am using in Reformation. I’ll write a few things after it to point out some of the points I just talked about:

Joseph was standing in a lobby. He was sitting in a cold hospital chair, and a woman was beside him. Glancing to his right, he realized that it was Selena Gorev.

  “You don’t have to do this,” she said.

  Involuntarily he responded, “But I do. The fate of Misha could depend on me exposing those rebel scum.”

“I love you, Joseph. I just don’t want anything to happen to you…” she trailed off and bit her lip.

Someone then entered the room. To his surprise, it was Drew Lukhov. He wore a brown suit and his eyes shined with innovation, which sent a shiver down Joseph’s spine. The man approached Joseph, who then rose and shook the President’s hand.

  “I do hope that you are ready for your operation?” he asked.

  “Yes sir. I want to do anything I can to help the government.”

“What a saint!” he grinned at Selena, who had not risen to shake the man’s hand. The woman merely nodded, clearly displeased with the situation. Her golden curls flowed around her angled face, and her emerald eyes seemed passionate with annoyance. “Come now,” he patted Joseph on the back. “It’s time.”

Joseph took another look at Selena, who then stood and hugged him fiercely. She kissed him squarely on the lips and whispered in his ear, “Watch your back.”

He nodded and followed Drew out of the room.

This flashback gives an insight into Joseph Shukhov’s earlier life. You learn several things from this scene. For one, you get to see Selena and Joseph interact and learn of their chemistry. Secondly, you see the chemistry between Selena and Drew, which is full of disdain. Finally, you see the commitment Joseph has to the government and doing what he believes will help the world. This flashback was triggered when Joseph enters a city where many events had occurred years before that had changed his life.

I hope this post helped you to understand how to use flashbacks and dreams in your works. While you write, maybe you can find something that will assist us on our quest–the Quest for Publishment, that is.

Until next time,

S.G.B.

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2 thoughts on “How to Write Dreams and Flashbacks in Your Novel

  1. This is perfectly true! Most of my nanowrimo novel has flashbacks that give background and explanation for the way my main girl acts. I have to make sure that the flashbacks are actually vital into the story, otherwise they are pointless fluff meant to make the book longer. Your reader will soon lose interest if there are filler words in your novel.

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