Caution: Due to subject matter, spoilers abound. If you don’t want to learn shocking surprises like Soylent Green is made of people, do not read the following.
I’ve been cheated by my favorite television program. Tuesday night I knew going in that Dr. Gregory House was going to be shot by a former patient, and figured that it was the typical end-of-season ratings hogging stunt that most networks expect of (or extract from) their products. Still, House thrives on risky material, so I sat down with my wife and daughter to watch the season closer, an episode prophetically titled No Reason.
I started wondering early on that something was amiss. The characters were off. After House was shot, his Baker Street Irregulars kept coming to him to confer on another case, but it didn’t seem right. At first I thought the writing was off, and then about fifteen minutes in, the thought flashed through my head: I’ll bet this entire episode is going to be a near-death induced dream. My rational side said, no, David Shore is a sharp guy and knows enough not to pull something like that.
Finally, at the point at which House ate a chili dog with his assailant, I said it out loud. “This whole thing is going to be a hallucination.” Actually, what I said was, “This is going to be An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” But more on that later.
My wife and daughter looked at me. I don’t think they wanted it to be that way, either, but on the other hand they know my writer’s instinct. A couple of months ago, my son was over for a visit and we were all watching an episode of Law and Order that opened with a cop lighting a bunch of candles in front of the locker of a fallen comrade. I told my son, “Watch – the last thing in this episode is going to be them blowing the candles out.” That’s what happened, and my son was alarmed: “Dad, stop! How did you do that?” He still talks about it.
(It’s a talent – I was once on a date where I was dragged to the Chevy Chase film Foul Play. My girlfriend had seen it, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see her watching me to see what my reaction to certain events would be.* I knew she was eyeballing me during an early scene where Goldie Hawn was threatened by a snake she hadn’t yet seen, so I leaned over to her and whispered, “The snake is a pet.” She got so mad she slapped me. No, that wasn’t the one I married.)
So the episode plays out with increasingly bizarre hallucinations on House’s part until – guess what? It turns out that the whole episode was just a hallucination that took place between him being shot and the time they started to wheel him into the operating room.
I think this was a really, really bad idea.
See, there are several problems with using the “hallucination” or “it was all a dream” device in fiction – three that I can think of off the top of my head. These are:
1) It’s a cheat.
It’s a cheap trick used to tell a story that maybe you don’t want in your continuity, but think would be neat to tell (if you’re writing a series of some kind). An old college buddy just sent me this link to a site that collects and mocks comic book covers (with special emphasis on DC titles). One mystifying thing I see a lot in these galleries are covers like this, where we’re told that the tale beneath the covers is “imaginary” – that is, not a part of the comic’s continuity. After all, Lois Lane wouldn’t really marry Lex Luthor in real life, would she?
Excuse me… but even if this particular story (and there are many other “imaginary” stories documented on this site’s pages) wasn’t imaginary… it’s still imaginary because it’s a piece of fiction.
There’s an emotional investment a person makes when suspending their disbelief to read your work. And when you pull this ending out of someone else’s bag of literary tricks, you’re abusing that investment by ignoring their ability to suspend to begin with. Thus, using the “’twas only a dream” gambit is a cheat because you don’t trust people’s suspension of disbelief to kick in and carry them through the story, so you remind them that everything is a made up fiction with a “surprise revelation” at the end.
That’s it. Treat your readers like they’re stupid.
2) It negates the dramatic effect of the story.
Even Freud said, “sometimes a dream is just a dream.” If Shore wanted House to do some navel-gazing, he could have done it in the recovery room – even with the device of having his assailant in the same room with him (unlikely as that would actually be).
Yeah, I know there was some soul-searching on the good doctor’s part during the hallucination, but… really… couldn’t they have found another vehicle for it? I mean, I’ve had some really interesting revelations when I was sick as a dog and my mental competency needle had dropped well into the red. Next time you see me in person, ask me about one memorable epiphany: Hmmm… makes it’s own gravy! But only if you really want to know.
Think about it – how seriously do we take dreams in real life? And never mind our own – have you ever had to sit through someone else telling you about a dream they had? …and so we were at my house, only it wasn’t really our house, if you know what I mean, and Herb came in, only he was six-foot four and had blond hair, and he had this thing in his hand…
So now you’re writing something that you want someone to take seriously, yet when it comes down to the wire, you’re willing to dismiss it all?
That’s it. Treat your story like it doesn’t matter.
I suppose this is a handy thing to do if you want to keep the story out of your main continuity (if you have one), but why assign such value to a story line and then pull the plug on its “reality?” Stephen King has, I dare say, made a tidy living putting nightmares to paper, and not once that I know of has he said, “And then the little girl woke up, and all of the vampires turned out to be just dust bunnies under the bed.”
If it’s only a dream, what’s the point of telling it? Everyone dreams.**
3) It’s been done before. Unto death.
And its also been done better. See Ambrose Bierce’s classic short fiction An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Go ahead. Click over and read it right now, if you haven’t already. I’ll be waiting when you get back.
Bierce’s story was the first manifestation of this plot line that I know of, and in this case the first is the best. But it certainly wasn’t the last. Here are just a few examples of how this has been used and abused since Bierce first put stylus to paper:
- Dallas – the writers of this TV series wrote off an entire misguided season of their show by revealing that Bobby Ewing’s sudden reappearance in the shower was merely the indication that his wife had just wakened from a dream. Even Paul Harvey was indignant about this.
- Jacob’s Ladder – Tim Robbins survives Vietnam and comes home to debilitating and increasingly worse nightmares, followed by the revelation that his survival and the years that followed was a drug-induced hallucination which took place in his dying moments back in ‘Nam. If you read the Bierce story like I asked you, you’d see this was a direct lift. Except for the drugs.
- Robot Monster – That cheesy sci-fi movie with the monster that’s a guy in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet and TV antennas on his head, while a Lawrence Welk machine blows bubbles and scary Theremin music plays in the background. Turns out to be a dream of a little kid who read too much about atomic bombs, or watched too much TV, or ate too many chili dogs. I don’t care.
- Carnival of Souls – A creepy little movie that’s another direct lift from Bierce, right down to the river. But this one is great, as only a low-budget production can be. Less really is more.
- Newhart – Not to be outdone by Dallas, the writers of Bob Newhart’s Vermont-based sitcom wrote off the entire series in the final episode by having Newhart wake up to reveal it was all a dream had by – Dr. Robert Hartley, his character from The Bob Newhart Show. I didn’t care that much for Newhart, but this was brilliant.
So unless you can pay faithful homage to Bierce’s story, or put a radical new spin on it (whether seriously or in comic fashion, as Newhart did), it’s best just to step away from the idea and leave it to lay on the ground. Besides, you’re a writer, right? That means you have lots of other worthy ideas. Except for that one about the two people who crash their spaceship on a jungle planet, and the pilot’s name is Adam and the copilot’s name is Eve… lose that one, too.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I am considering writing a thriller about the difference between dreaming and waking – and even writing the novel “live” online – but I promise it won’t have this kind of ending. Many other twists, I hope, yes. But this novel isn’t about the dream. It’s about waking up.)
In the meantime, I’m interested to see what David Shore does to pull off the remainder of the House-gets-shot story line at the beginning of next season. From past experience I know that House can do things that should indicate shark-jumping, but manages to actually get away with them. I want the show to succeed as do millions of other loyal viewers… but were I David Shore, I wouldn’t push my luck.
I been bad – it don’t feel good
But I’m so good at it that it hurts
I get you worried that there are no rules
And you start clinging to a magic word
* My wife does the same thing if she’s seen something and I haven’t – but she doesn’t know that I know she does it . Someone tell me, is it a girl thing or what?
** If you say you don’t dream, what you mean is that you don’t remember your dreams.