Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Webshow - "Dream Sequences suck!"

There are few things that script readers hate to read more than dream sequences. In this week's segment, I point out the ways that hacks abuse this element. Most of the time, a dream scene isn't essential to the story in a good script.

The video segments might be taking a little break.  I'm working on a new screenplay this month, so that's where my priorities are at the moment.  Fear not! You'll see more of the puppet before you know it!


  1. Awesome as always. I never watch the end of Jacob's Ladder because of this exact issue. Such a great film otherwise…

    What are your thoughts on the use of drug induced dream sequences? Like in The Big Lebowski, Easy Rider, The Hunger Games or even the whole movie Enter The Void.

    Some of these seems completely unnecessary but I can't imagine the movie without them. Others are more important to the plot but could have been done differently with the same effect.

    Thanks as always for the insight and good luck with the screenplay.


  2. I agree completely with the body of the video; my objection comes in response to the title. The "it was all a dream" cop-out is not at all the same as a "dream sequence" in a film. I was expecting you to tell us why you objected to dream sequences, and now I have to wonder how you feel about them. Are there specific examples of dream sequences that you love/hate?

  3. What, in your opinion, would be a legitimate use of a dream sequence? Let's say "a friend of mine" has a short, traumatic dream/memory sequence in his script which not only fills in some back-story but gives us a key insight into who our protagonist is, and what he must become in order to survive... IF it deepens character, and by extension the story, and we aren't pulling the wool over anyone's eyes with regards to what's real and what isn't, wouldn't that be okay?

  4. Agreed, I'd also like to hear your thoughts on dream sequences (that don't pertain to horror and are more for the sake of examining the mind of the character). How do you feel about hallucinations or night terrors?

    1. It's something I might recommend ONLY when it's absolutely vital. I've read a lot of scripts where the writer has tried to use a nightmare to fill in backstory and it's a device that often feels like a bit of a cheat. (In fairness, the scripts that do this wrong fall flat because we get the "recurring nightmare" device. Don't give us too much of a good thing.)

      Hallucinations and night terrors - okay, obviously if you can do that thing well, sure, it's good. But it has to have a reason for being there and that reason should not be "it makes it easier for me to fill in backstory/motivation." Like, if the whole point of the story is that the main character is losing their mind, you're probably going to be relying on hallucinations to sell that.

      But if you're making a Sandra Bullock romantic comedy and you want to have her suffer a nightmare just to set up how her husband left her... maybe find another way to set that up.

  5. Completely agree - I even have limited patience these days for those dream moment things that Six Feet Under used so brilliantly, but lately Dexter and Damages ruined for me. It feels like a way to get a cheap "they went there!!" moment, only to chicken out of following through with the consequences of "there".

  6. I go to great pains to avoid using dream sequences and narration in scripts, but when used sparingly, and only when nothing else will get the job done, the former device works well (never used the latter). What annoys me though, is just how many mainstream blockbusters break these rules as if the rules don't apply to them. Literally every day I see these two apparent movie-killer devices deployed across the board of new film releases. It bugs the hell of out me, to be honest. We aspirers are working to ridiculously high expectations (well, we should be!) that are apparently not applied to the pros working on major releases -- you know, the films that actually make HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS. They can't even seem to produce Superhero movies of any kind without relying on both these hacky devices. Why is that? How hard is it to write a Spidey film without a dream sequence, or a dodgy voice over narration? Why doesn't Hollywood practice what it preaches? Why do almost all major box office successes seem to prominently feature both these apparently hacky devices? Ohhh! The Madness!

  7. I understand your frustration with hack writers. In the example you cite the writer wasted your time by handing in the same nonsense script and thought they were clever by adding pages that justified his weak story as being a dream. Lazy, lazy writing.

    This doesn't mean all dream sequences suck. In fact the ending of The Wizard of Oz just doesn't come out of the blue. It was carefully set up in the Tornado sequence with all the fantastic images Dorthy and Toto see passing by her window. This happens after Dorthy is hit in the head by the window and is knocked out. It's already set up that she is in another state of consciousness. So the ending doesn't come as a surprise. The audience gets it. It was all a dream brought on by head trauma! (Not to worry Dorthy didn't have a subarchnoid hemorrhage. In fact it was a miracle she wasn't ripped to shreds in the vortex of the tornado!)

    The movie Gladiator becomes stronger because of Maximus's dreams and daydreams of home. It's all set up in the opening of the film. A tribute to Cincinnatus I suppose. So Maximus dreaming is part of the style and substance that is in service to the structure.

    I think that dream sequences, Narration, Flashbacks and Flash forwards are part of the style and substance of story telling and screen writing. They are meant to serve structure, but are not meant to serve as a quick escape for poor story telling or weak structure. It takes a lot of experience to master these elements and it would serve any aspiring writer to study the Masters before attempting to use any of these styles. After all it took Fellini 8 1/2 films to master the journey through dreams, day dreams, and the subconsciousness. But again his style and substance it right there in the first frames of the film. Guido Anselmi is caught in a fantastic traffic jam then suddenly he's floating high above a beach until he reaches down and unties the rope, and then he's falling . . .plunging to his death, just about to die, and then instantly a hand reaches out in desperation. Clawing it's way out of a nightmare. Anselmi was dreaming!

    I think the take away lesson should really be that you should only attempt to use dream sequences once you've passed through the first 35 Chambers of Story Structure. Then in the 36th Chamber you may become a worthy Master capable of understanding style and substance.