A few months back, I posted an article about 12 Cliches storytellers should avoid. The post garnered quite a bit of positive feedback, as well as requests for in-depth discussion on “busting” each cliché in an actual story.
Each week, for the next twelve, I’ll address one cliché and give tips on how to build a better story without it.
Leading this series is the infamous newbie favorite, the Dream Gimmick. You know this one. It’s the story or script that ends abruptly with the hero waking up in her hammock, rubbing the sleep-knots from her eyes. “In the end,” the prose chirps, “It was all a dream!”
Admit it. Sleep-time romps rarely alter the course of our lives. Of all the crazy dreams you have, how many actually influence your waking behavior?
Audiences are a lot more story-savvy now. They’re inundated with narrative every day, which means we storytellers have to up our game.
That’s what this post is ultimately about: staying ahead of your audience.
Perhaps you’re still wondering: Why is it so undesirable to have your hero wake up in the hammock? For one thing, it’s a cop-out. By opting for a dream, you undercut all the stakes and dangers your hero faced on the journey. Likewise, you erase all basis for his/her behavior change. Worst of all, you (as the writer) also get “off the hook” from justifying the logic of what you create.
(Even if you’re writing literary nonsense, as Carroll was, you must still account for what happens in your story, within the logic of its own world “rules.”)
In most other instances, the Dream Gimmick is just a lazy writer’s pass to avoiding all accountability.
You’re a better storyteller than that! You can give us a journey that matters. You can make us fear your hero will actually fail. And above all, you can deliver real surprises that leave us charmed or shocked. Or both.
Gimmicks of any kind are an excuse for poor structure. If you’re not sure what “structure” is, or the mere mention makes you want to run, hold on.
Structure is not a detriment to your creativity; in fact, structure can unleash your greatest flights of fancy.
Structure is nothing more than the “skeleton” on which you hang your story. The milestones along your hero’s journey. The foundation on which you build your tale.
The best structure is invisible, inviting readers or audience to lose themselves in a meaningful progression of emotionally-charged events.
Three-act structure (for most stories) is your friend, not your enemy. It helps ensure your hero really earns his or her transformation. It drops believable characters into genuine chaos and forces them to struggle for a new kind of order. Used wisely, structure can even affect neurology, plunging audiences into depression and lifting them to ecstasy—over and over again.
Doesn’t that sound more powerful than a gimmick?
The urge to employ the Dream Gimmick is usually a symptom of another desire: surprising our audience. That’s a very noble desire.
So why are you hanging your biggest surprise outside your story, like a tacky lawn ornament beside an elegant, well-designed mansion?
There are several classic places to insert a surprise inside your tale. One is the Midpoint, the “pin” on which the whole story turns. A surprise here (often involving the villain’s true purpose or identity) can send your story flinging in a totally new direction.
The Act 2 Turning Point is another good place. Typically, it’s a false low in the story, but it can also be a false high. Either way, it’s a good place to kick your hero (and your audience!) while s/he’s down.
Finally, the middle of Act 3 (called the “High Tower Surprise” by Blake Snyder) offers another good opportunity. The hero’s last stand can (and should!) be interrupted by the worst “wrench” possible in his/her plan.
The trick is, the surprise has to be so great, the audience never saw it coming. Which means you have to take the time to see it first.
Dreams in and of themselves aren’t bad story elements. We all have dreams. Many societies throughout history have accorded them great significance.
If you want to use a dream, plant it inside your story, as just one point on a longer journey. Such a dream sequence (as we often call it) offers you a great opportunity to visualize what’s going on inside your hero.
The key is: think in terms of metaphor. What physical events could your hero face in the dream world, that symbolize his/her emotions toward and struggles with the real world?
Be careful though, because too many dream sequences (or their kissing cousin, the flashback) is also a sign of amateur writing.
Bottom line: Used sparingly, whatever happens in your dream sequence should be a visual metaphor of the hero’s turmoil.
Talk about powerful!
Surprises don’t have to be huge all the time. A script or novel full of little surprises (as well as a few big ones) is a delight to read.
The problem is, many storytellers interpret “surprise” to mean they have license to throw their audience under the bus.
The best surprises (big or small) are foreshadowed in the story. This means that a subtle suggestion of the surprise has already happened well in advance of the big reveal. As the old storyteller’s saying goes, “If there’s a gun on the wall, it had better go off.”
By all means, fire the gun at the moment everyone least expects.
But don’t forget to put the gun on the wall in the first place.
Not sure where to start? Here’s a tip: look early in your story, for a detail or incident that interests you. Ask yourself : What would be the most off-the-wall interpretation for this detail or incident? One nobody would think of, right away? And how could you encourage your audience to make the obvious assumption first, so you can smash that assumption later?
Now go make it happen, at the other end of your story!
Storytellers tend to be stubborn. Some of you may insist on the Dream Gimmick. More power to you, on the tough road ahead.
But for most of us, however, trading in the Dream Gimmick is a more viable approach. The extra effort will lead you to a more thoughtful, surprise-driven structure. Ultimately, that means better storytelling, greater audience satisfaction and writerly growth along the way.
The choice, and the challenge, is up to you!
Tell us about how you beat the Dream Gimmick out of your story, or how the Dream Gimmick affected your appreciation of someone else’s tale. Might there be published authors or produced screenwriters who do the Dream Gimmick well? If so, who are they, and why did you enjoy their work?