I am the first person to admit that I overuse dreams in my novels. I don’t know why – I suppose I think in terms of a story, they make more sense than random bits of exposition or overly obvious and dramatic symbolism. I’m of the school of thought which is it’s only symbolic to your character if, y’know, it means something to them, and if something means something to you, you’ll think about it a lot, right?
Anyway. The point to this is that exposition, and meaningful symbolism, can be super tricky, and it sometimes feels easy to throw in a flashback or just have a character explain something. The problem here is that often, these parts of your story feel bolted on. They aren’t streamlined or decorative – they’re scaffolding with green netting on. And your reader can see it really clearly. It’s the same rule as ‘your characters shouldn’t look in a mirror and describe what they see’ (although I am guilty of this, and I’m trying to argue it out in a particular series as a thread through the books? Ugh, it doesn’t even sound convincing to myself). In fact, every author has done this at some point. You’ll have something really crucial* to say, and no way to say it except for info dump.
*Note I say, really crucial. It’s important for you to be able to determine what is interesting and what is necessary. If you’ve done your worldbuilding and characterisation right, sometimes you’ll know something awesome that you think everyone must know, when in reality, it’s just pretty filler.
I like to utilise dreams and flashback for this. It’s one of the benefits, I’m finding, of first person. It’s far more natural for someone talking in first person to go off on a tangent and explain something than it is for a third person omniscient narrator to just start describing how the sewage system works in the depths of Mars. You can, of course, use dreams and flashback in third person, but it always seems clunky and awkward. Remember, your reader is way more intelligent than you give them credit for, and they can see through badly crafted plot devices. Your exposition needs to feel natural and fluid, in the same way that an action scene does, and it needs all of your skill to work. Don’t assume that just because it’s a flashback or a dream, it doesn’t need nice description. In the same vein, don’t just simile all over it like vomit. It has to sound like part of your story.
I’m currently working with a character who has severe mental health issues, probably something like PTSD. He has voices and flashbacks often of awful things that have happened to him. In terms of his character, it makes sense that he sometimes dreams of terrible memories, or thinks fondly on those that have meaning for him. It’s really nice, weaving these together in tangent with his story and building an atmosphere with these. If you’re playing with flashbacks and dreams, it’s really important that they aren’t sledgehammer/nut and that they help to add something to the plot. Garrick’s memories often jump in when he’s stressed, or anxious. His voices give a terrible insight into how messed up he is. His dreams focus on things he loves, like autumn, and foxes. It helps to give that wistful, nostalgic, fragmented feeling that I feel when I think of Garrick, and which has built him from boy to man.
I find flashback works best if a character has spoken about it to another, or right at the start of a chapter, otherwise, it feels too… bleh. Dreams need to have some sort of thread, rather than being a step-by-step ‘now, reader, this is SIGNIFICANT’, like real dreams are.
But remember, if you stray too long from the main plot, your reader gets lost. Use these things sparingly.