It BETTER not all be a dream

Recently I was watching a movie — name redacted to protect the guilty — that, near the end, revealed that its entire second half had been the hallucination of the main character after he suffered massive head trauma.

Before the reveal, I was enjoying a cheesy action flick. After the reveal, I was pissed off and ready to throw the DVD across the room.

The one thing I can say for it is, it got me reflecting on why the “it was all a dream/hallucination/VR simulation” trick makes me feel so betrayed and angry. My immediate thought, of course, was that the trick makes the story not real — but hang on a sec, this is fiction we’re talking about. None of it is real. This isn’t comparable to reading one of the recent “memoirs” and then discovering the author made it all up; I know, going into the story, that it’s make-believe from one end to the other. On the basis of simple reality, it shouldn’t matter that part or all of it was make-believe-make-believe, fiction stacked two layers deep.

But it does matter, because I’m hardly the only person who hates this cliche. (In fact, I’ve never met anybody who likes it — though if you are one, speak up in comments, because I’d like to pick your brain.) Part of it, I think, is that it’s a betrayal of the implicit contract between the storyteller and audience: they promise one thing and deliver another. But twists of other kinds do the same thing, and some of those can be awesome. What’s the difference?

In ranting to a friend, I finally hit on my answer, which takes the shape of a metaphor. I told her that my enjoyment of a story almost always depends heavily on my emotional investment with the characters: feeling joy when they are happy, fear when they are afraid, and so on. If I form that mental bond with a character, and then you tell me the subsequent experiences aren’t real even for that character, then I feel cheated of my investment. You have, in essence, sold me a narrative junk bond.

That’s the best explanation I can find for it, at least to describe my own personal sense of violation when a story turns out to be doubly false. You, the storyteller, cheapened my investment; you took my money (my time and energy) and gave me a tranche of sub-prime mortgages in return, then cackled and skipped off to Tahiti to live on your ill-gotten gains. Because these annoying twists always happen at the end, of course: if they happen sooner (e.g. The Matrix), then the story as a whole is about exploring that layer of falseness and its relationship to the character’s reality. Dropping the “it was all a dream!” bomb at the end ducks your responsibility for considering its consequences in a meaningful fashion. And that’s why twists of other kinds don’t bother me; they don’t erase what went before, just rearrange it, in ways that (if you did your structural job right) make everything suddenly fall into a new and fascinating pattern.

I’ll go ahead and declare the comment thread a danger zone for spoilers; it’s hard to rant about these kinds of things without giving away the secrets of particular plots. Share egregious examples of “none of it was real!,” talk about why they annoy you, let me know if for some reason they don’t.

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  1. 1. Steve Buchheit

    I guess the only “it was all a dream” variant that worked well was “Lathe of Heaven”. Most of them are, as you say, a betrayal. It’s the writer jumping from behind the bush shouting, “Psych, gotcha!”

    I forget who said that when you give the reader a whole bunch of details, you’re asking them to haul all of that up the mountain, like carrying a volkswagon with them. If the reader is going to do that, you better make sure it’s worth their energy and time. The reaction, my guess is, a response to having carried that volkswagon all the way up the mountain only to find out it wasn’t worth the trip.

  2. 2. Katterley

    I know you’re talking books, but the ultimate betrayal for me was the Wizard of Oz movie making Oz a head injury manifestation. Oz not real? How cruel.

  3. 3. Alma Alexander

    Oz. Yes. THAT. A wonderful NEW fairy tale – revealed to be a fever dream. GOD, I felt cheated out of that one. All of that drama, all of that humour, all of that magic… and it’s all just been… for what?

    Not genre, but one of the most egregious instances of “and then I woke up” in modern times was the entire season of “Dallas” where Bobby Ewing was supposed to be dead… and then he turns up in Ep 1 of the following season, stepping out of the shower, large as life, and the ENTIRE last season was… a dream. The roar of outraged fans was LOUD. They had in effect been cheated out of a year of their lives, following a storyline in a soapie whcih they were all heavily emotionally invested in (you do remember the whole “who shot JR” thing? Don’t you?) and then having that emotional investment voided by the vagaries of the studio bosses and actor politics and writerly cop-outs. Yes, as Marie puts it, junk bonds.

    If you have no faith in your story… perhaps you should be writing a different story. If you do have faith in your story than stand by its reality, dammit. It deserves its creator’s absolute backing, and if it doesn’t have it why should the reader be expected to provide the support?

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    Yeah, I neglected to mention that this trick is used disproportionately often on fantasy stories — which has the added insult of telling me my beloved genre doesn’t matter, and my investment in it is worthless.

    Steve — I actually haven’t read that one, so I need to be told: what makes it work for you, where others don’t?

    Alma — I didn’t watch Dallas, but oh, that one is legendary.

  5. 5. green_knight

    For me, it’s the suspension of disbelief thing: I agree to pretend that the characters is ‘real’ and invest emotional energy in them. If the writer turns around and says ‘fooled you, how *stupid* you are for believing this’ I’ll take my ball and go home because the dynamic has shifted.

    I have similar issues with unreliable narrators: if I’m rooting for a protagonist to succeed and fever with them only to have them turn around and say ‘that’s not what happens and by the way I was never in danger’ the contract between writer and reader is broken. (If the author is upfront and it becomes a puzzle story – ‘how much of this is true’ then that’s another matter, but I’ll read those books with a different protocol.)

  6. 6. Andrea K Hosth

    “All a dream” is one of my most hated plot developments, standing equal with “and then they forgot everything which happened and went on to live ordinary lives never knowing what they had done and achieved”.

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    green_knight — you remind me of a movie that, near the end, had a heroic almost-sacrifice by one of the characters, which I really enjoyed . . . until it was revealed that the character was actually a villain, and deliberately staged that moment so as to get what he wanted. Since I adore the trope of self-sacrifice, undermining it in that cynical way really did not please me.

    Andrea — a good enough author could sell me on that latter one, by really playing up the tragedy of it; but most of them fail.

  8. 8. Adele

    If you are referring to the movie I think you are referring to, I was gutted, for exactly the same reason. What was a not great but thoroughly entertaining story was suddenly a huge cop out.

    I think in books there is room to use it in a more subtle way, the doubt over whether events were real or imagined, but done this clumsily in any media is a shooting offence, utterly destroying an otherwise enjoyable narrative.

  9. 9. DaleRobertWeese

    It’s a pissant way to write. a deus ex mechina ridden to irrelevance.

    I’ll grant a pass to Wizard of Oz, because it was spectacular in other ways and because the device wasn’t trite, yet. And major kudos to the final episode of Newhart for lampooning the whole notion.

  10. 10. Laura

    Okay, I am probably going to get tarred and feathered for this, but the twist of it was just a dream doesn’t betray me in this particular fashion.

    I get a great big “GOTCHA!” and try to go back through the movie to find the road sign – ‘dreamland’ and in the good movies they are always there.

    The best type of movies are the ones that leave you in doubt and you have to figure it out like ‘Inception’.

    While the movie the ‘Sixth Sense’ isn’t the dream version, I didn’t know he was dead until the end and in re-watching it couldn’t figure out what was the crucial clue. However a friend of mine, left the movie briefly, came back in and caught on he was dead and everyone said she was wrong.

    I guess I look at them a mini-mysteries, but still worth the ride.

  11. 11. Marie Brennan

    Adele — even the “real or not?” angle tends to annoy me, because I mostly see it used on fantastical stories, and I personally dislike fantasy being treated as Just A Metaphor or Protagonist Crazy or something else in that vein. I want my magic treated seriously, thankyouverymuch. But at least that one is less annoying.

    Dale — a friend last night mentioned the Newhart thing to me, saying it was hilarious; I hadn’t heard of that one before.

    Laura — I think I would like it if I had that moment you describe: “I get a great big “GOTCHA!” and try to go back through the movie to find the road sign.” But I don’t. The Sixth Sense did that to me, beautifully well; some of the things I’d seen meant what I thought, and some meant something entirely different, and reconfiguring them was a delight. But the dream twist erases it all. My sign that The Wizard of Oz film was mostly a dream? It was fantasy. The only reconfiguring was me thinking, “okay, yeah, Dorothy got conked on the head; I guess that was important” Ditto the more recent film I watched, where (aside from the head injury) my only clue was that in the second half of the film, in addition to all the horrible things that happened, the protagonist managed to achieve something meaningful and good. Apparently that was a fantasy, too. It just feels so cynical, telling me the things I love aren’t real, haha, silly you for believing it.

    I much prefer, say, Black Swan (to pick a recent example), where reality and unreality are intermixed, and the pleasure lies in a) figuring out where the border lies and b) understanding what that means for the protagonist.

  12. 12. Mary

    It worked in Alice because it made all the weird events make sense. Wonderland ran more on dream-logic than fantasy-logic.

  13. 13. Marie Brennan

    Mary — maybe . . . but I still find myself with the problem of wondering, why should I care? If it was all a fancy in her head, and the story isn’t going to go on and show me what effect that fancy had on her, what’s the point of me reading the story?

  14. 14. Alma Alexander

    Re. “Sixth Sense” – I KNEW. I knew in the first five minutes of the movie, and then I kept on knowing throughout the film. If you watch the interactions (or lack of same) between the protag and ANY other character except the boy, you’ll know too.

    I never did like that movie, in the end. Far too much hype. And frankly the Shyamalan patented “twists” I can always see coming from the next COUNTY and the movies which contain them become patently nothing to write home about after you pass that point.

  15. 15. Adrew A.

    I know this is the basic questions that Marie Brennan is asking but I’m interested in specific –When does Dream-fantasy work?

    As a Psychic tool in a fantasyl? flashback? As a hint of a true illness/injury ie fever dream? Is there an example of a Dream-fantasy was ruined because it actually was happening?

    Alice in Wonderland is a great example of a novel of Dream fanatsies but I’m thinking more of a device.

    Why does Pynchon and Joyce come to mine? Hahaha….

  16. 16. Erin

    Marie – To go back to Alice, it never bothered me that Wonderland turns out to be a dream. I agree with Mary that the book runs more on dream logic than fantasy logic. I think it works because Wonderland isn’t a world in its own right; it’s a bizarro version of Alice’s reality–as dreams usually are. The book can be interpreted as a satire of Victorian society, and a commentary on how a child sees the adult world: too many rules and everything sounds like nonsense. In Alice’s dream, reality gets turned up to eleven and Wonderland is the result. Alice is the rare story that only works as a dream (in my opinion). In his movie version, Tim Burton tried to make it a real place (essentially doing the opposite of The Wizard of Oz movie) and it didn’t work. But then a lot about that movie didn’t work.

    You questioned the dream’s lingering effect on Alice…well, what I find really intriguing about the first Alice book is that it doesn’t end with Alice. It ends with her older sister listening to the dream and remembering her own childhood with nostalgia. Ironic since it seemed like such an unpleasant experience for Alice, but apparently she made it sound like fun. Maybe dreams, even the bad ones, always sound good to people who can’t dream anymore.

    I see what you mean about the ‘It was all a dream!’ ending being a cheat, but I don’t really mind it. I like when the sense of betrayal you refer to is actually worked into the story and the character also feels cheated as a result (the movie version of The Little Prince comes to mind). I think this can be very poignant–when done correctly.

    What bothers me a lot more than the “It was all a dream” ending is the “maybe she’s just hallucinating” angle in which fantasy situations are explained away with mental illness/drugs (Alice being yet again an example). I like it when reality and unreality intermingle (like in Black Swan, as you said) and you’re not sure which is which, but mental illness being wholly responsible for a story’s fantasy elements makes me angry. It’s as if fantasy can’t be taken seriously except as a manifestation of the hero’s insanity.

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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