We’ve all heard the ending cliché ‘and it was all a dream’ so I should probably start by saying that even though it’s a cliché it’s not always an ineffective ending. The problem is that its bad reputation arose from writers using it to avoid resolution. The ultimate downfall of the ‘it was all a dream ending’ has been when writers have got towards the end of a story and instead of resolving the plots and subplots they ‘wake the character up’ and the story ends abruptly. Part of the reason this seems so unsatisfying is because at this point the reader has followed the character/characters on a journey, firstly to discover that it had no point because the fictional world didn’t exist within the fictional world and secondly because it often nullifies all the character evolution. By which I mean the character may have gone on an adventure in the dream and grown as a person but when they wake up this no longer carries forward, either they are back where they started or an evolution seems false because the world wasn’t real for them.
This isn’t to say that as an ending it can’t be effective, usually where it works is where it is established at the beginning that the character is asleep, such as Company of Wolves, or where the character appears to ‘wake up’ but may not have been dreaming after all, creating an ambiguous ending to a story. This is a technique more often used in film because of the ease of visual cues, the camera appearing to go through a mirror or into someone’s mind, and perhaps also because of their brevity. It is easier to remember that you’re in a dream world if the cue was two hours earlier not three hundred pages.
The obvious examples of when it may have been a dream but we’re not entirely sure are Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz. Both heroines appear to wake up but we have clues that suggest they may not have been dreaming at all, the waking up is simply part of them being transported back to their ‘everyday’ world. This ambiguity saves the ‘it was all a dream’ because the adventure we’ve been invested in could easily have happened, the heroines certainly seem to believe it has.
Similarly we can argue that in Company of Wolves directed by Neil Jordan and adapted from Angela Carter’s short stories the ‘it was all a dream’ ending is effective because we anticipate it. At the beginning of the film it is made clear that we are entering the young girl’s dream and if we set aside the metaphors for the moment what the story is largely about is the young girl being told stories by her grandmother about werewolves. It is a story within a story, technically known as meta-fiction, as the audience knows that it is a dream it’s easier to follow this story without being disappointed when the dream ends because this is inherently part of the story. As we know we’re in a dream, we know it must eventually end and its ending is the ending of the story. Were the audience unaware that this strange fantastical world was a dream and then the young girl woke up it would no doubt be less effective as an ending because we were invested in that world that has no tangible connection to the character’s everyday world.
These complexities make ‘it was all a dream’ endings difficult to pull off effectively without disappointing a reader. This doesn’t mean it can’t be done, simply that when attempting we have to be aware of potential pitfalls so we can try our best to avoid them. As such this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be attempted, they just need wariness.