It BETTER Not All Be a Dream

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


Recently I was watching a movie — name redacted to protect the guilty — that, near the end, revealed that its entire second half had been the hallucination of the main character after he suffered massive head trauma.

Before the reveal, I was enjoying a cheesy action flick. After the reveal, I was pissed off and ready to throw the DVD across the room.

The one thing I can say for it is, it got me reflecting on why the “it was all a dream/hallucination/VR simulation” trick makes me feel so betrayed and angry. My immediate thought, of course, was that the trick makes the story not real — but hang on a sec, this is fiction we’re talking about. None of it is real. This isn’t comparable to reading one of the recent “memoirs” and then discovering the author made it all up; I know, going into the story, that it’s make-believe from one end to the other. On the basis of simple reality, it shouldn’t matter that part or all of it was make-believe-make-believe, fiction stacked two layers deep.

But it does matter, because I’m hardly the only person who hates this cliche. (In fact, I’ve never met anybody who likes it — though if you are one, speak up in comments, because I’d like to pick your brain.) Part of it, I think, is that it’s a betrayal of the implicit contract between the storyteller and audience: they promise one thing and deliver another. But twists of other kinds do the same thing, and some of those can be awesome. What’s the difference?

In ranting to a friend, I finally hit on my answer, which takes the shape of a metaphor. I told her that my enjoyment of a story almost always depends heavily on my emotional investment with the characters: feeling joy when they are happy, fear when they are afraid, and so on. If I form that mental bond with a character, and then you tell me the subsequent experiences aren’t real even for that character, then I feel cheated of my investment. You have, in essence, sold me a narrative junk bond.

That’s the best explanation I can find for it, at least to describe my own personal sense of violation when a story turns out to be doubly false. You, the storyteller, cheapened my investment; you took my money (my time and energy) and gave me a tranche of sub-prime mortgages in return, then cackled and skipped off to Tahiti to live on your ill-gotten gains. Because these annoying twists always happen at the end, of course: if they happen sooner (e.g. The Matrix), then the story as a whole is about exploring that layer of falseness and its relationship to the character’s reality. Dropping the “it was all a dream!” bomb at the end ducks your responsibility for considering its consequences in a meaningful fashion. And that’s why twists of other kinds don’t bother me; they don’t erase what went before, just rearrange it, in ways that (if you did your structural job right) make everything suddenly fall into a new and fascinating pattern.