Dream worlds can be super-cool, super-scary, or just plain strange. They commonly pop up in sci-fi and fantasy stories as a plot device created for specific purposes that can only be met through that world.
To access the dream world, the main character (sometimes their whole team) enters an alternate reality that may or may not really exist, depending on the story.
Entry into the dream world is often through a sleep state or unconsciousness following a good bump to the head, but also can be through some type of fantastic portal, such as the mirror in Lewis Carroll’s Alice and the Looking Glass or the wardrobe in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books.
Qualities of Dream Worlds
Characters typically gain important knowledge while in the dream world. Sometimes the entire story plays out in this world, where the protagonist grapples with unpredictable circumstances and powerful (often peculiar) enemies, overcoming personal weaknesses in the process.
Time may not run the same way in dream worlds as the real world, allowing months to pass in the dream realm while only moments have passed in reality (or no time at all).
In some stories, characters move in and out of the dream world. In these, the storyline moves forward as they alternate between overcoming obstacles there and in real life. For example, in The Wheel of Time series, actions that occur in Tel’aran’rhiod sometimes have permanent consequences in reality as well.
Why do authors use dream worlds?
Dream worlds allow authors to exert intense pressure on their characters in ways they could not in the real world. Characters can face seemingly insurmountable situations that involve physical risks they would not take in real life. They interact with others who are inaccessible in reality due to any number of reasons—they are dead or do not exist, etc.
Characters in the dream world can be larger than life. They go places where they physically couldn’t in real life. The environment is more intense. Situations can be outlandish.
At the same time, the dream world may have grisly parallels in real life. It can be used to either amp up the horror factor (Nightmare on Elm Street) or tamp it down to something a child could handle (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz).
What I am trying to do with the dream world in my current WIP (work-in-progress).
Currently I am working on two pieces of fiction that have some sort of a dream world. In one, the main characters exist outside of reality in a world where they control the dreams each human has. But the only way they can interface with normal humans is through their dreams.
In the other, a girl enters a dream state that unexpectedly intersects with her brother’s coma. She can communicate with him and hopes to find ways to help him heal and ultimately wake. In the process, she must overcome her own obstacles and find healing herself.