Over the course of my academic career, I’ve taken quite a number of writing classes. In one of the most memorable, the instructor began the class by laying out a list of writing rules to follow. The instructor felt particularly adamant about rule number three: no “it was all just a dream” endings.
I’d wager that most people have experienced the frustration of reading or watching something that ended with the protagonist waking up in a sweaty frenzy, then looking around their room to see certain items mirroring other characters from the story. They’re a different person from when they went to sleep. Somehow, they learned a life-changing lesson in their dreams, and they’re going to change their outlook on life, effective immediately.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I read a story like that, I’m left unsatisfied. It’s a cop-out of an ending, like the author didn’t know how to wrap things up with a neat little bow so they decided to suddenly say “it was all imaginary”. Let’s unpack why this sort of ending doesn’t work.
First and foremost, it’s dishonest to your reader. Creating an entire world of characters only to pull the rug out from beneath the audience feels like saying “gotcha!” to the reader. Making the characters and events feel real in the world of your story only to backtrack changes the nature of the story entirely, and right at the end to boot. Your reader may feel cheated as a result.
What’s more, a dream ending can feel apologetic. At the end of the narrative, by revealing all the major events as merely a dream essentially undoes the previous conflict. It never existed in the world of your story, thus the events never truly transpired. While the dreamer might be changed and developed, their arc feels less fulfilling since they never actually struggled or were in any danger. It was all in their mind – the stakes were imaginary.
Which begs the question, what’s the point? Why should we get invested in these other characters if at the end, any development they had doesn’t matter? Throwing a dream twist at your reader might leave them pondering whether they wasted their time or not, and no author wants that.
Of course, no rule in writing is set in stone, and one can easily break the “no dream endings” rule. One could even make a dream ending good. So let’s brainstorm – how could one make an effective narrative that ends with a dream twist?
Arguably, one of the best examples of a dream ending that works is The Wizard of Oz. At the end, the ruby slippers transport Dorothy back to Kansas, where she wakes up surrounded by her loved ones and the farmhands. She remarks that they were present in the Land of Oz, and they give her the classic “what are you talking about” off-handed remarks.
Part of why this works more than other dream endings might be the nature of Dorothy’s reawakening. Once the story in Oz comes to a close, Glinda provides an explicit route of escape for Dorothy. The arc, finished in its entirety, sends Dorothy back to her own world, without completely discrediting the existence of Oz. It’s alluded to that she may have dreamt the entire experience, but it’s never completely disproven. Thus, if you keep that door open, a dream ending might be more effective.
Another way a dream ending might work is if the protagonist is aware the world is a dream, and the waking world will be directly impacted by their actions within said dream. This raises the stakes of the dream, and maintains their effect after the protagonist awakens. Finding ways to bypass the problem of impermanence of the dream story will make the ending more effective.
At the end of the day, dream endings tend to harm stories more than help them. They’re clichés that can be trained in and refined, but most often just leaves the audience with an unsatisfied reading experience. Consider adding the writing rule “no dream endings” to your personal rulebook, and push yourself to resolve things without falling back on this trope.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.
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