Hallucinations Considered Harmful

Close your text editor now. I’m about to explain a plot device that will violently repulse your audience. It will be difficult to rebuild their trust afterwards. I’m talking about the use of hallucinations to advance a story.

Hallucinations are like dreams. Yours are captivating when recounted in detail, but other peoples’ are interminable. The first rule of writing hallucinations is to keep them brief. They probably aren’t as interesting to your audience as they are to you.

Conversely you may be thinking of writing a vision full of bizarre, otherworldly imagery. That might be visually interesting, but still grating to the audience because they are often a lengthy aside from the meat of the story. These hallucinations are often so strange and unrelatable that they can alienate people from the character experiencing it. An insane character is seldom an appealing character.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I am not categorically opposed to using hallucinations in a story. A Beautiful Mind, Limitless, and Inception all contained such visions that were central to their stories. I have no problems with their use in those films. They were excellent plot elements. They didn’t seem long and boring because they were either very brief or better still the viewer didn’t know that they were hallucinations.

Before I provide a sampling of cringe-worthy examples, some spoiler alerts are needed. If you aren’t past Season 5 of The Walking Dead, Season 2 of Turn: Washington’s Spies, or Season 4 of Homeland you may want to stop now. Even so, I will try to avoid unnecessary detail to make my points. I quite enjoy all of those shows–yet they have each made egregious hallucinogenic plot errors. I have forgiven them, almost.

Here they are in order from moderately terrible to so abysmally self-enamored that they sell out the story.

  1. In The Walking Dead Season 3, Rick Grimes and his group have found refuge from the post-apocalyptic zombie hordes in a bleak, crumbling prison. There Rick has visions of his dead wife, Lori, wondering around the prison wearing a white dress. Erratic behavior and poor decisions are made by Rick as a result. Worse still this continues through several episodes. Why Rick’s feelings of guilt over her death couldn’t be shown to the viewer without insanity is beyond me.
    Its just so corny!
    It’s just so corny!
  2. In Turn Season 2 the Valley Forge episode has none other than General George Washington hallucinate that his teeth have fallen out. He then proceeds to have a lengthy back and forth with his dead brother while kneeling in the snowy forest. His brother’s mirage affirms Washington’s judgment and competence. Afterwards Washington rejoins reality fully self-validated as a result of his “conversation” with his brother. He is then able to make a choice over which he had been agonizing. There are many ways this could have been handled better, but even having it be a dream rather than a vision would have spared us all the ahistorical doubt over Washington’s sanity.
    Kneeling before his brother in the snowy forest of Valley Forge is not melodramatic at all
    Kneeling before his brother in the snowy forest of Valley Forge is not melodramatic at all
  3. In Homeland Season 4 in the Redux episode Carrie Matheson is drugged by a mole inside the US embassy in Pakistan. After some earlier unobjectionable hallucinations due to the drugs she is taken to the home of a Pakastani intelligence counterpart, Aasar Khan. There she sees visions of her dead on-again-off-again lover and on-again-off-again terrorist, Nicholas Brody. It dredged up a character and relationship that well overstayed their welcome in previous seasons. Further, it served no purpose other than getting her to curl up in the fetal position of “Brody’s” lap. “Brody” was of course shown to be the very handsome Khan in reality.
    Brody is very comforting to Carey and insufferable to the viewers
    Brody is very comforting to Carey and insufferable to the viewers
  4. Not to be outdone, in The Walking Dead, Season 5 in the What Happened and What’s Going On episode, they somewhat surprisingly kill off Tyreese, a quite compelling character. This is fine and is classic Walking Dead. But after getting bit by a walker Tyreese lies in a house hallucinating that he sees many other dead people talking to him. It’s a who’s who of Walking Dead has-beens, especially the unintentionally-over-dramatically-eye-patched Governor. This felt like the current cast members had schedule conflicts and they trotted out other actors who had less going on. They then showed us the inside of Tyreese’s head for what was the last few minutes of his life–although it could have been the last week of his life for as long as it took. It added nothing and could they could have given us some insight into Tyreese’s thoughts with a few simple last words. It tainted an otherwise strong episode.
    A roomful of hallucinated ex-characters
    A roomful of hallucinated ex-characters

Those are just the examples that come readily to mind. I’m sure there are far more egregious abuses of this plot device. If you can think of any, please add them in the comments.

If you’re a writer and you’re thinking of adding a hallucination element to your story, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Is this going to take longer than one minute for the audience to take in?
  2. Can what’s going on in a character’s head be explained via dialog with real people, monologues, or any other means?
  3. Would it be undesirable for the audience to identify less with this character?

If your answer to any question is “yes”, please reconsider describing the vision and simply show the behavior that resulted from the vision. Or write the hallucination out altogether. You will have my undead gratitude if you do.