I know we have a nightmares tag, but there’s not much in it yet.
Dreams in fiction tend to be cut unless they have something to do with the plot. Hence, nightmare sequences that are left in the story frequently serve some sort of purpose. Nightmares themselves are not inherently cliched, but what can make them cliched is how they are used. Because stories more often than not gloss over unimportant dreams, the ones that are left can start to look familiar. Readers can usually tell that if a dream sequence of any kind is included, it’s bound to be important somehow. Dreams cannot be faked (in most universes, anyway), so dreams and nightmares are an easy way to show development, trauma, or humanity in characters.
Here are some dream and nightmare cliches and tropes:
- Talking or even shouting in one’s sleep. This is usually used to clue other characters in to the fact that this character isn’t sleeping well or is hiding some kind of trauma or emotional turbulence. Other times, the sleeping character gives away information this way—to friends or foes.
- Waking up by catapulting into a sitting position with eyes wide open while sweating and/or panting. More a visual cliche than a written one, but a very common visual shorthand way to say “this character just had a bad dream.” Of all the things on this list, this may be the only one to outright avoid: I am fairly confident that no one has ever woken up from a nightmare like this, and this cliche is getting pretty tired.
- The flashback nightmare. Dreaming of the past is an easy way to sneak in exposition without having to figure out how to fit it into the story. It might be the character remembering a dark and troubled past, or a way of showing that they are still obsessing over a past failure.
- The flashforward nightmare. Dreaming of things that have not happened yet, but that can or will. Sometimes, these dreams are subverted in that we expect them to come true, but turn out only to be an anxiety dream. Other times, characters have prophetic visions of the future that they proceed to either ignore as “just a dream,” or forget as soon as they wake up.
- Dream spying. Dreaming about something that is happening now. This is more common in less realistic settings (magical/supernatural/scifi/etc.), especially if the character can recognize the dream as a current event. Sometimes, this kind of dream is a two-way street that is caused or shared by another party.
- The anxiety nightmare. Perhaps most recognizable as the “forgot to wear clothes for my oral report” nightmare. This is a dream about something the character is afraid of, usually about a fear coming true/to life/finally happening and the character having to face it. These dreams/nightmares are usually fixed or stopped by the character facing their fears or dealing with the problem.
- The recurring dream. A dream or nightmare that just keeps popping up. Maybe it means something: a lot of recurring dreams utilize symbolism to relate to the current events of the story, show the character’s state of mind, or reveal bits about the character’s past/personality/thoughts/etc.
- The epiphany dream. A dream or nightmare that somehow helps the character come to a conclusion or solve a problem. These come in a lot of shapes and flavors, but the outcome is usually the same: the character wakes up with some sort of “Eureka!” exclamation and gathers the rest of the team to share what they have figured out.
There may not be a clear-cut way to do dreams and nightmares correctly, because dreams are such an impossibly nebulous concept to the extent that entire stories are written solely about dreams and the many worlds they open up to us. There are, however, plenty of ways to do them well.
My general advice for all dreams and nightmares is that if you are going to include them, make them count and make them pull their weight in the story. As before, unimportant dreams tend to end up on the cutting room floor, so any that you include ought to have something important to say. Use the “dreamspace” to say things you cannot say another way: dreams break the laws of reality by being a sort of un-reality. Take advantage of this! Whether this means symbolism, exposition, some sort of mind-linking, or something else entirely, make your story’s dreams do things that your story cannot do any other way.