Today’s topic might be a little stretch, but it was inspired by the blurb for the ‘Plot Doctoring’ forum on the Script Frenzy message board, which reads…
Written your way into a corner? Dangerously close to making the whole story “just a dream”? Our script surgeons can help.
So I ended up starting a discussion thread in the forum to ask people what they thought about ‘Just a Dream’ endings:
Nymue: “There’s a reason people try to avoid that kind of ending. It’s usually trite and dissatisfying. It suggests there’s no internal order to adhere to, the story doesn’t have to mean anything and the events don’t matter… It’d take a lot of creative deconstruction to make this kind of plot worth the time of day. Myself, I’d rather work on things that (at least in the story) definitely happen.”
Quandtuniverse: “I’ve never done it myself, but I don’t mind “all just a dream” endings as long as there’s foreshadowing and a strong, creative reason for it (like, a subconscious character exploration or something). If it’s tacked on just to make up for things that don’t make sense, then it’s boring and annoying.”
JoshMcD: “I think the reason “Mirrormask” is able to get away with it — and for that matter, the reason “Wizard of Oz” gets away with it too — is because the dream does lead the character through a sort of coming-of-age, emotional journey. Instead of ending with an, “it was a dream, oh well, just forget about it,” the story contained within the dream actually helps the MC learn to deal with difficulties in her “real-life”. Also, the story-within-the-dream actually does come to a satisfying conclusion. These movies don’t use the “just a dream” as a cop-out, to escape an otherwise unsatisfying ending.”
I think I agree that it’s generally a bad and cheap technique, but can be used well if it’s done with purpose and care. I wrote a Buffy fanfic as part of a series once where nearly everything that happened in the story was a dream spell, and there were hints to that from the beginning. Partly, it was a fun way to kill off most of the main characters without having to deal with the consequences of them being permanently dead. It also foreshadowed some interesting things about the series’ Big Bad, who had cast the dream spell on Buffy just to watch and see how she reacted to a stressful situation.