Have you ever been with a friend who is telling you about a dream? On and on it goes, one weird scene after another, incredibly meaningful to the dreamer but hard to make sense of if you weren't there.
That's why they're not used a lot in published writing. They are part of the backstory of a character's life, but a wobbly, illogical part of that backstory, which readers rarely can make sense of.
Dreams ARE good to work with in early drafts. If you ask a character about her dreams, you can get some cool images about her inner life. I often plug them in as placeholders, markers for me to remember to bring in meaning just here. I try not to lean on them to reveal meaning in final drafts because they read like a shortcut. Like a device.
Devices are something a writer employs with certain purpose, to get a certain effect. Used skillfully, devices are amazing tools. But if the reader discerns the magician behind the magic of a device, it ceases to be magical and interesting.
If you love dreams (like I do) and want to use them in your fiction or memoir, here are some things to watch out for:
1. Since dreams read as shortcuts to meaning, they can feel to the reader as if the author is standing on the sidelines, telling us "This is what her angst is all about" or "Here's why he has to be a hero right now." Ask yourself, Why do I need this shortcut? Why not show the meaning through developed scene? Granted, more work involved, but the payoff in tension and reader engagement is worth it.
2. If you use dreams as placeholders, a kind of mental note that you intend to show meaning but can't think of how at the moment, be sure to add a clear note to your revision checklist to scan for all dreams. Most writers don't realize how often they use them! Plan to rework the majority into scene.
3. In some genres of fiction, and in some memoir, dreams can denote a bizarre parallel to reality--alternated states. Or prophetic dreams can be useful for foreshadowing. But again, watch out for overuse. These stand out, and too many make your reader stand back and disengage.
Your weekly writing exercise is to check out this great article about the top ten uses of dreams in literature. Note the kind of book cited. If yours is similar, and you're eager to use a dream here and there, study how the author did it. What transitions are used between the dream and the present-time story? How long is the dream excerpt?