While this is a semi-common question in any writers’ group, I have seen it or a variation of it pop up three of four times in the last two weeks in one specific group.
What if my main character wakes up at the end of the story and it was all just a dream?
New writers seem particularly interested in this and ask if it’s doable, if readers will be okay with it, or how to do it well.
In general, my answer is NO. Don’t do this. Let’s look at the reasons why the answer is no, and then look at ways you could still explore this trope without upsetting the reader.
So, why is my answer a fairly hard no? First of all, it’s lazy writing. A lot of writers fall back on this when they have pushed their main character too far, stuck them in an inescapable corner, taken something critical from them, or done something unforgivable to them. But it’s okay! It was just a dream! See, the character is fine. No. Just no. If you’re going to be mean to a character, commit to it, don’t flinch away from it, and don’t cross boundaries you or your reader aren’t comfortable with in the first place. As for inescapable corners – go back, redo your outline, fix the plot holes, put some work into your writing and fix it so the hero can fight or think their way out.
Second, it’s not as neat, cool, unpredictable, or surprising of a twist as you think it is. Alice in Wonderland is perhaps the most famous of these stories where Alice is written into an inescapable situation (at least in the movie version, I’m rustier on the written version, apologies) and wakes up. There’s supposed to be a lingering question as to whether it was a dream or not, but considering that her body never moved from her sister’s side? The Wizard of Oz is another, this time the adventure being the dream/hallucination of the main character while she’s knocked out. Again, there is some question as to whether it was fully a dream or not, and in the books at least, she does go back, and in Oz, they know she was really there. The relationship between Oz and our reality is blurry, and the question of Dorothy’s body during all of this is, as far as I know, unanswered.
Third, you’re cheating the reader. Every hobby has a cost. The cost of supplies, the cost of time, the cost of effort. Reading comes at the price of the book (or a trip to the library), the cost of the time it takes to read that book, and an investment of interest, emotion, and attention. That’s why you write engaging characters in the first place, isn’t it? You want the reader to care what happens. You want them to be scared for your character, to cheer for them, to flip another page to see what happens next, to find out how the character escapes or succeeds. As a reader, when I have invested several hours of my time, as well as emotional energy into a character and a story, I want a satisfying ending. “And then he woke up” is not satisfying. But why? Simple. Because none of the trials, stresses, or dangers that I was invested in, none of the risk I was worried about and none of the rewards I was cheering for, matter. They were never real. So, why did I bother reading this book if none of it mattered? And why would I bother picking up anything else by that author?
But, sometimes dreams can be useful, as short term or long term plot devices. How do you use them properly? (And by properly, I mean, in ways that won’t upset your reader).
- Short dreams – dreams that are used to show the character is haunted by or scared of something, dreams that reveal snippets of memories, dreams that reveal prophesies or warnings – these are good, useful plot devices. They can deliver manageable chunks of backstory, they can provide foreshadowing, they can develop a character. I tend to make sure my reader knows it’s a dream – either by adding obviously surreal elements or by saying straight out “she knew it was a dream …” or “that dream always haunted her” or “the memory of the dream stayed with her when she woke” at the start of the dream sequence. This isn’t necessary if the dream is short enough.
- Dream entering as a superpower or ability – When a character can mentally enter the dreams of another through psychic abilities or magic. Again, this can be useful for sharing memories or backstory, both with the reader and between characters. It can be used to show how a character could tamper with someone’s dreams and the effects of that. Or, the dream world could be a physical realm with its own rules of engagement and physical risks (like dying here means you die out there sort of thing). This makes it less of a cop-out and more of a portal fantasy. Again, make sure the reader knows when they are in a dream and when they are in the real world.
- Replace the dream with a book, a magic realm, or a computer simulation – like The Matrix or The Neverending Story. In Altered Carbon, they had digital spaces too. Again, make sure the reader is aware of the setting, and changes in the setting. One of the reasons that The Matrix worked was because what Neo thought was reality was the simulation and he was woken up early in the movie as part of the plot of the movie – not as an escape from the plot of the movie. You also have characters moving willingly between reality and simulation.
The biggest thing to remember is that readers want REAL STAKES. If you cheat them out of the ending, then the stakes, the risks, the dangers, the growth of the characters, it all means nothing. If you are going to use a dream world, or some variation of it, the stakes have to remain real, the risks have to be real. Don’t cheat your story by weakening the impact of your climactic scene.
Other points to remember: own your story and your writing choices, don’t flinch away from difficult situations or choices; clarity is key, make sure the reader knows at plot appropriate times when characters are dreaming and when they aren’t; waking up isn’t a fix for plot holes or bad writing, do the work, fix your story, find a way to get the characters out.