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Thread: dream sequence and italics

  1. #1
    Benefactor Member Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    dream sequence and italics

    I've noticed that when there's a dream sequence in novels, many writers use italics to cue the reader in. I've never thought anything of it and with dreams, flashbacks, visions etc, I appreciate the hint that what I'm reading is happening inside a character's head and not in "real time." But there's a novel I'm critiquing where the opening scene in one of the chapters is a dream, and it's not italicized.

    When I suggested italics, the writer says other reviewers jumped all over her for having 2 page long italicized passage (evidently, some people have trouble reading italics and use of italics for things like this is falling out of favor). Problem is, I can't give any other advice on how to make it clear. The dream sequence is pretty important and really can't be cut or summarized as "telling." The novel's in a deeper third pov (and the protag doesn't know she's dreaming), so an omniscient style "narrative outtake" really would be cumbersome here.

    I've also considering a dream scene in a story I'm writing, so my curiosity is piqued, so to speak. How is this issue usually handled.
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    Scribbler SuperModerator dpaterso's Avatar
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    Author's choice. Or maybe publisher's choice. Write it the way you want to see it.

    If it's a short scene, so there's a contrast between regular non-italic text and italic text on the same page, I go with italics. If it's a longer scene, I presume the reader's eyes are gonna get bored, and use normal text.

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    The Crazy Man in the Sun. Feel me. WillSauger's Avatar
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    Italics, to me are areas I skip over. That's me.

    The problem I see, for this, is that you Roxxsmom want to know that the scene is in fact a dream sequence. Then, in someway, allow the idea that its all a dream to come up without resorting to intrusive means like italics or blatantly telling the reader its a dream.

    Some alternatives: Show the character falling asleep. Or give hints within the character's mind as they know its all a dream. Maybe the character knows its a dream (SFF please, because when we know they are dreams we wake up), and can't stop watching it. Or maybe some unreal elements come out that make the reader believes its a dream.

    But, like dpaterso said, its all his choice. Hell, he could just leave the scene with standard formatting, it's short enough, so I wouldn't mind.
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    Philalexandros J. Marks's Avatar
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    I've also seen this in books, and thought it worked well, signifying that something other than the usually narrative was taking place. I don't understand this falling out of favor business. Who dictates this? I have italized dream sequences in my MS, and there is no other way of making it clear that this isn't occuring in real time.

    An author has to do what they feel is right for them. In my case, a publisher would have to insist that this is unacceptible in order for me to change it. I'm also curious as to how others handle the 'dream' problem.

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    Benefactor Member Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    It's hard to explain, but the chapter opens with the dream and the character wakes after it (and it's morning). The previous chapter is a different character's pov. I think it's confusing without italics, but aside from doing something gimmicky, like writing it in present tense or something, not sure how to tell her to fix it.

    I assumed italics were just "how it's usually done," but Googling the issue on the web seems to produce a variety of opinions. Like everything else pertaining to writing.

    May be an academic issue, as editors and publishers probably have their own in-house styles and rules for this sort of thing. Hopefully, whether or not a dream scene is italicized in a MS wouldn't be a deal breaker.
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    you didn't come and help me kuwisdelu's Avatar
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    There's no good excuse for having long passages in italics. It's utterly unnecessary and also annoying to read.

    Quote Originally Posted by Roxxsmom View Post
    I think it's confusing without italics, but aside from doing something gimmicky, like writing it in present tense or something, not sure how to tell her to fix it.
    Using italics is more gimmicky than writing in present tense. There's nothing gimmicky about writing in present tense.

    Personally, I don't treat dream sequences any differently than other scenes.

    I write "In her dream, she..." the same way you might write "The next day, she..."

    Frankly, there's really nothing wrong with just telling the reader it's a dream. It's no different than telling the reader so many days have passed since the last scene. You don't need to beat around the bush.

    ETA: It doesn't really matter whether the protagonist knows she's dreaming or not. I do the same thing in first person, too. It's a very small weight for suspension of disbelief to carry, and being up-front about it being a dream ensures you don't end up relying on false tension for the scene to work.
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    Benefactor Member Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kuwisdelu View Post

    Using italics is more gimmicky than writing in present tense. There's nothing gimmicky about writing in present tense.
    I wasn't picking on present tense in general--more just commenting that it might jump out a bit too much if the rest of the book was written in past. Good thoughts, though
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    I generally just append dream- to lots of words.

    I dream-opened my eyes and dream-walked into the kitchen, where I dream-ate a PB&J sammich, staring into the dreamy eyes of my dream-dream girl dream-sitting across the table from dream-me.

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    Ustom Ser Itle Dgullen's Avatar
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    Using italics is drawing attention to the text, to say this important, or different, and you should pay particular attention to it. Two pages of italics is a bit of a pain to read for me, smaller sections less so. I think there are better, more subtle ways of drawing attention to things, such as through style and placement and description. That is, through your writing.

    It's a style choice, as others have said. Some people like to use italics for unspoken thoughts, internal monologue. Whatever yoiu do, be consistent and I'd suggest be sparing in its use, but not so sparing you only do it once.

  10. #10
    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    The use or non-use of italics is not the issue and it isn't an academic one either.

    If you're critting, the issues are of clarity and flow. Some questions to ask yourself could include-

    Did you think you were still in the same POV as the previous chapter?

    Was it jarring to realise you had just read a dream and the POV had shifted?

    Was it necessary at all to have a dream sequence?

    Did it really contribute to the unfolding story or is there a better way to cover whatever the dream sequence was supposed to cover?

    And so on.

    If the dream is necessary, it seems to me it should at least be clear to the reader from the start that it's a changed character's POV from the previous chapter.

    =Roxxsmom;7827449]It's hard to explain, but the chapter opens with the dream and the character wakes after it (and it's morning). The previous chapter is a different character's pov. I think it's confusing without italics, but aside from doing something gimmicky, like writing it in present tense or something, not sure how to tell her to fix it.

    I assumed italics were just "how it's usually done," but Googling the issue on the web seems to produce a variety of opinions. Like everything else pertaining to writing.

    May be an academic issue, as editors and publishers probably have their own in-house styles and rules for this sort of thing. Hopefully, whether or not a dream scene is italicized in a MS wouldn't be a deal breaker.
    Last edited by Bufty; 12-22-2012 at 04:04 PM.
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  11. #11
    The colors! THE COLORS! leahzero's Avatar
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    Well, no, the use of italics is the issue, because it answers those questions.

    I'm in agreement with the posters upthread who say don't use italics. It's irritating to read it for longer than a paragraph or two. Even in short passages I dislike italicized blocks of text, because they feel like the author being heavy-handed and saying this part is special.

    They can usually be avoided by simply telling the reader it's a dream or other special form of narration. If the reader isn't meant to immediately know it's a dream, italics are going to be a dead giveaway.

    I think the simplest and most elegant solution is just to tell the reader whose POV it is, and that it's a dream, at the start. "Karen was dreaming. Blah blah blah."
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    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    Not sure I follow that.

    The original text that was being critiqued and therefore subjected to the questions - was not italicised.

    I agree with the rest of your post.

    Quote Originally Posted by leahzero View Post
    Well, no, the use of italics is the issue, because it answers those questions.

    ...
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  13. #13
    practical experience, FTW LJD's Avatar
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    Ignoring my massive hate for dream sequences, I'd make it's clear it's a dream at the beginning of the sequence (is it really important that the character doesn't know she's dreaming?) or show her falling asleep to cue the reader, and perhaps keep it in its own scene.

    I don't like big blocks of italics, and actually, I rarely see more than a page of italics in the books I read. Last year I read a book in which flashbacks were done that way, and it was not something I was used to seeing--which is why I still remember it.

  14. #14
    can totally spell Brobdinrgnagrian buzhidao's Avatar
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    I do see italics a lot for dreams, but I don't like reading large chunks of italicized text. Just irritates my eyes a little. I wouldn't say it's wrong, given that I've seen it in so many books, but I don't like it.

    If it were me, I wouldn't launch into the dream cold--I'd start it with a little opener that made it clear the character's asleep/dreaming.

  15. #15
    practical experience, FTW flapperphilosopher's Avatar
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    I'm another one who hates italics. If I see more than a sentence or two I skip it, no matter the context. I think it is relevant to know there's people who do that, people who are going to skip the section and miss something. If it's okay to miss, why is it there? And if it's not, it's important to make sure it will be read.

    I think either you can make it clear it's a dream, by having the character fall asleep or even stating that it is, or you can spend a while playing with the ambiguity. If you don't mind me quoting a TV show, one of my favourite scenes in Mad Men this year was this kind of thing--we thought it was happening, then it started to be strange, then completely out of character so anyone who knew the character would be going, "what?? no way they'd do that. This can't actually be happening"... but it was presented totally straight. At the end of it the character fell asleep, and when he woke up there was no evidence of what had happened. Clearly it hadn't. It was a dream. But a disconcerting one for him, and us. It was a very interesting approach and pulled off perfectly, revealing a lot that wasn't otherwise said-- the best thing a dream sequence can do, in my opinion.
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    Tell it like it Is Susan Littlefield's Avatar
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    Using italics to signify dream sequence, thought sequence, or something special, if you will, drives me nuts. If the story is well written, I already know when the dream starts and ends, so why do I need more clarification?
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    By any other name... RedRose's Avatar
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    I don't hate italics when the narrative is short, but when it's long, I skip it.

    I have a dream sequence and it starts at a new chapter. The scene immediately reads as if from a different reality. I even use the word, 'dream' in there, not because I want the reader to know per se, but because this is what the character experiences first hand. She remembers something that happened to her a long time ago.

    Edited to add: I read a book on dreaming, but I can't remember the name of it. It was about a guy who travelled to Mexico to undergo training through his dreams. There was heaps of info about how dreams felt real, how dreams moved, how one became aware that they were in a dream. It was a pretty far-out book, dealing with spirits etc, but it had lots of dream sequences that were fascinating to read.
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    Quote Originally Posted by kuwisdelu View Post



    Using italics is more gimmicky than writing in present tense. There's nothing gimmicky about writing in present tense.

    .
    Depends on what you like, I guess. I think italics are both standard and useful for such things, and I find present tense so gimmicky, and unbelievable, that I usually can't even read it.

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    Benefactor Member Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bufty View Post
    The use or non-use of italics is not the issue and it isn't an academic one either.

    If you're critting, the issues are of clarity and flow. Some questions to ask yourself could include-

    Did you think you were still in the same POV as the previous chapter?

    No, because the previous chapter was a different character's pov. But I did assume the new chapter was happening in the here and now--at least I did until it became clear that it was something that couldn't be happening as it unfolded.


    Was it jarring to realise you had just read a dream and the POV had shifted?

    No, because the dream was at the beginning of a new chapter, so I expected that a new pov was possible, and it was firmly anchored to the dreamer's pov from the beginning. But again, my default assumption is that something is happening in the real, here and now waking world unless cued otherwise somehow.


    Was it necessary at all to have a dream sequence?

    Did it really contribute to the unfolding story or is there a better way to cover whatever the dream sequence was supposed to cover?

    Yes. Dreams and flashbacks are pretty central to the plot of the story. I suppose she could have the character wake up and "remember" what she dreamed as a summary, but that would lose the emotional impact of what was actually a pretty powerfully written and emotional scene. Overall, I think they're handled well in this novel. It's just that this scene was probably the longest one in the story, and so there was more of a concern about its being italicized than with other, shorter, scenes, perhaps.

    And so on.

    If the dream is necessary, it seems to me it should at least be clear to the reader from the start that it's a changed character's POV from the previous chapter.

    It's quite clear that it's a changed character pov. The pov character is named immediately and the scene is well anchored in her pov. It's just not clear it's a dream for the first paragraph or so. There was that sort of "Why is this other character alive when I thought he died back in chapter 2?" type thing going on. I actually picked it up faster than I might have because there had been a couple of shorter "flashback" events earlier in the story. But the lack of italics for this one threw me, as it was the pattern I had expected (the shorter flashback sequences were presented as italicized interludes).

    On a different note, I recently read a published novel that had no italics at all in the entire thing. Not for the flashbacks and dreams (and there were flashbacks and dreams, and they worked as part of the story, though the lack of formatting did throw me with a couple of them). They didn't even use them for untagged, unfiltered internal dialog. It was sort of handled like this:

    Bob stopped and scratched his head. Where did I leave my keys? There they were--on top of the cabinet. He shoved them in his pocket.

    I found this approach a bit confusing, because the shift into first person didn't jump out as an internal thought without italics or a tag of some kind. But maybe that's how I've been "trained," since most of the authors I've read in recent years use italics for untagged " direct" internal dialog.

    It is interesting seeing the differences in opinion about these things.
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 12-23-2012 at 02:47 AM.
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    practical experience, FTW rwm4768's Avatar
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    I used to do it with italics, but then people told me it was annoying to read. Then I also realized that dream sequences and flashbacks are rarely done well.

    Personally, I would just write it like it's normal. That way, the reader doesn't know if it's a dream, which is more interesting. When I know something is a dream, I tend to not read it with as much excitement as everything else.

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    steaming up the e-readers TheaBlowsKisses's Avatar
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    I actually had this discussion/debate with my editor, as one of my books had a LOT of dreams. (It sort of bounced back and forth between a fantasy dream world and reality.) She initially wanted italics, but as some of the sequences were rather lengthy, I thought it would be distracting. We eventually compromised and put breaks (***) after the longer ones near the beginning to signify the change between a dream and reality. There were a few times later on in the book where it changed rapidly, but the whole bouncing back and forth thing had been established, so we didn't use the breaks.

    I once read a book that was maybe 70% from the POV of one character and 30% from the POV of another character. Italics were used for the second character. I guess it was helpful, but I really didn't like reading page after page of italics.

  22. #22
    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    Hi Roxxsmum.

    The questions posed were not ones to which I wanted answers, but now you've answered them it seems to me the main source of confusion may simply be your not seeing italics where you think perhaps you ought to see them.

    And I see nothing confusing about the sample you give below. The question re the keys can hardly be interpreted as anything other than a thought by Bob.

    We should be careful to avoid adopting too rigid an approach to things that are really flexible and open to choice.

    =Roxxsmom;7828529]On a different note, I recently read a published novel that had no italics at all in the entire thing. Not for the flashbacks and dreams (and there were flashbacks and dreams, and they worked as part of the story, though the lack of formatting did throw me with a couple of them). They didn't even use them for untagged, unfiltered internal dialog. It was sort of handled like this:

    Bob stopped and scratched his head. Where did I leave my keys? There they were--on top of the cabinet. He shoved them in his pocket.

    I found this approach a bit confusing, because the shift into first person didn't jump out as an internal thought without italics or a tag of some kind. But maybe that's how I've been "trained," since most of the authors I've read in recent years use italics for untagged " direct" internal dialog.

    It is interesting seeing the differences in opinion about these things.
    Last edited by Bufty; 12-23-2012 at 04:24 PM.
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  23. #23
    Freelance Writer Orianna2000's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by WillSauger View Post
    (SFF please, because when we know they are dreams we wake up)
    This isn't necessarily true for everyone.

    I used to have these nightmares about my teeth falling out and, like when you're a kid, a new tooth would start to grow in the gap. Since these dreams were fairly traumatic, I trained myself to check for the new tooth growing. If it was there, that meant I was dreaming. I would recognize that it was a dream and could relax, knowing I hadn't really just lost a tooth. I did not wake up after I realized I was dreaming, but the dream would often change at that point. (Eventually, my subconscious compensated by having me dream that I lost a tooth and didn't have a new one start growing, which meant I couldn't tell whether I was dreaming or not. I guess the idea was for me to panic, and my subconscious had to find a way to accomplish that.)

    Back on topic. . . . I'm going to agree with everyone who says that several pages of italics is going to be really annoying. But then again, several pages of a dream is going to be annoying, too. I would probably skim past it, if I was reading.

    I had a dream sequence in my first novel and it was emotional and compelling, but it wasn't necessary. After some debate, I ended up cutting it and just saying that she'd dreamed about something disturbing. After all, how many people actually remember in vivid detail what they've dreamed about? I do, on occasion--in fact, I've turned several of my dreams into novels or short stories. But from what I understand, that's pretty rare. I actually have a sleep disorder, which is why I tend to remember my dreams, but most people forget their dreams as soon as they're awake.

  24. #24
    Mentoring Myself and Others Debbie V's Avatar
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    Hi Roxxsmom,

    To me, this is the problem. The handling should be consistent throughout the book.

    But the lack of italics for this one threw me, as it was the pattern I had expected (the shorter flashback sequences were presented as italicized interludes).

  25. #25
    Red fish, blue fish... J.S.F.'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Debbie V View Post
    Hi Roxxsmom,

    To me, this is the problem. The handling should be consistent throughout the book.

    But the lack of italics for this one threw me, as it was the pattern I had expected (the shorter flashback sequences were presented as italicized interludes).
    --

    I would agree with the top statement, about consistency. In a novel I'm subbing, the MC is almost deaf while his girlfriend is totally deaf. By necessity, they communicate in sign language. Both can talk, of course, and lipread, but the girlfriend hates her voice and prefers sign language, so I italicized the dialogue between them. At first the whole thing confused me, especially when I had the MC's thoughts come through but by judiciously (or so I think) inserting the dialogue at key places and keeping the MC's thoughts in others, the situation resolved itself.

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