Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Writing Effective Dreams

by Robert A. Sloan
© 2002, Robert A. Sloan


Genre fiction or mainstream, any story or novel may require dream sequences. Dreams can show character traits vividly, foreshadow events in the story, and add color within the narrative. Within any story with psychic or supernatural content, dreams may even be shared. Lucid dreaming may allow a character to make fantastic discoveries. Yet powerfully written dream sequences are rare, and many otherwise brilliant writers slip into clichés and stylized, unmemorable or implausible passages.

What makes dream states so difficult to depict?

Surrealist painter Salvador Dali frequently explained that his bizarre juxtapositions and distorted, yet realistic, imagery was drawn from dreams. Melted clocks, twisted leafless trees on barren landscapes, and half-formed nebulous figures are prominent in some of his paintings. In many ways his artwork comes closer to my experience of real dreams than most of the dream sequences used in films and books, even though modern special effects would make common dream transformations realistic on the screen.

Perhaps one of the worst example of stylized dream sequences is found in films that  show the flashback scene in black and white to contrast with the colored images of the character's waking sense, and present the dream coherently in chronological order. Many people do report that their dreams are in black and white. However, real dreams have many elements not often explored in literature and film. Their purpose in novels and stories is heightened when they're depicted accurately.

Dreams often contain archetypal symbols. Many books and websites are devoted to cataloguing dream symbolism and assigning meanings to particular events and images. A house may mean the self. Water may represent sexual desire or emotion. Sigmund Freud often found penis symbols in trains, cigars and other long rigid objects. His books on dream analysis are still sometimes used to help compile lists of dream symbolism because they are exhaustive and his symbolism is common.

Dream symbolism lists can be very useful to writers, because those symbols are widespread, and often believed to be accurate. Beyond a language of well-known symbols though, another level of dream interpretation rests on personal symbolism. I maintain a dream journal to chronicle the images that relate to significant life events or have meaning in relation to their context.

Common phrases like "the eyes are the mirror of the soul" may appear in dreams as a mirror-eyed person. Puns, jokes and metaphors may become literal, as in cartoons. In one nightmare that ended in humor, I looked through a glass door and saw a group of lawyers in suits with briefcases attacking each other like sharks in a feeding frenzy. The common saying that lawyers are sharks came up literally. I might as easily have dreamed of sharks carrying briefcases.

Dreams combine elements that don't belong with each other in real life, yet seem plausible during the dream. A swimming pool might be inside a closet. A mall may have a Devonian swamp within it. Dream people may be the remembered dead or entirely fictitious characters, and someone who is an old friend from high school may turn out not to exist when I wake up.

Repetitive dreams have an important message from the self to the self. While working long hours at a boring, exhausting job, I once had a repetitive dream: I woke up, showered, dressed, got on the bus and went to work only to wake up, shower, dress and go to work. That dull dream sometimes repeated seven or eight times a night before I actually got up, dressed and went to work. I complained that it was the most boring nightmare I'd ever had, and someone said, "Sounds like you're really bored with your job."

Once I understood, I stopped having that dream. The message got through. Dream messages are distorted by a master animator in the subconscious who's trying to compress a wealth of meaning into striking images. The connection between dreamers and imaginative people may come from the natural, evocative beauty of dreams that bring recognition of meaning.

In writing dreams, think of how your character views life and what the symbolism of your character's culture is. Freud's cigars (expensive, and socially reserved for wealthy powerful men) were probably more important in Freud's time than they are today. The idea remains in the custom of the father giving cigars at a baby's birth. Someone giving the dreamer a cigar might reflect subliminal awareness that the person is a father--or the father of an idea, an army, a nation, or whatever fatherhood stands for in that dream.

In many cultures, animal symbolism is important in religion. Animals in the dream would then reflect the dreamer's traditions rather than the symbolism in a general list. A raven might mean different things to a Scandinavian, an Irish person and a Native American. Yet a raven is likely to be a powerful symbol in anyone's dream--and all of those mythological meanings are open to a character whose education or background is multicultural.

Work out in the outline what your dream sequence represents in the novel. It will likely draw attention to something the character could perceive, or a conclusion the character could draw, from information they have. Characters solve problems in dreams. The inventor of the sewing machine dreamed of being chased by cannibals carrying spears with a hole or eye at the tip. On waking, he recognized that putting the eye of the needle near the tip instead of the base was the key to making his machine work!

Following that example, a dream in your story or novel will have one very important thing to tell your character, something your character may not understand until it has been put into words or interpreted by someone else. Bury that important idea in something tangibly symbolic. Then repeat it in different metaphors throughout the dream, and allow the dream's images to remain loosely associated more by idea and metaphor than waking causality.

One way to create dream images and metaphors could be to make a list of things your character would associate with the idea in the dream. Afterwards, play with a scene that uses as many of the different items on that list as possible. Look at your character's culture for traditional metaphors and descriptions. Make sure those wind up on the list too.  Let scenes shift by the character's mood. If your character is paralyzed by indecision, he might face the traditional nightmare of being unable to run when confronted with something scary.

In fantasy, SF and paranormal fiction, where telepathy and magic may operate, the presence of another conscious person manipulating the dream can be shown by the effects of the invader's symbolism appearing in the dream environment. Vikings may climb in the windows of the house to show the dreamer that a Scandinavian, or someone the original dreamer associates with Vikings, is entering the dreamer's mind. The invader's subconscious fondness for dogs may result in dogs running through the dream. Set up and show all those associations somewhere else in the book, and your dream sequence will hand plenty of clues to the reader that the dreamer isn't alone!

Lucid dreaming is the ability to remain dreaming while consciously becoming aware of the dream state, and even guide the course of events. A lucid dreamer might stop a nightmare in progress and ask the monster "Why are you chasing me?" It might answer, too.

When I started having dreams that I was a cop, a ghost, or something equally exciting, sometimes I realized part of the way through that this was a story idea. I could usually manage to make the dream continue until I had enough material to wake up and start writing! Raven Dance began as a series of repetitive dreams that were scenes from different characters' points of view. I wrote all of them down and a friend remarked, "It sounds as if you're dreaming a novel in chapters."

I started to write the book, and the dreams stopped. Dream material is often a great source of starting points. Waking observation will bring up unique associations from the subconscious wellspring of creativity. The habit of keeping a dream journal will also show, in depth and detail, just what elements are commonly present. Recalling your own dreams will make the sequences vivid.

Sleep on it and give it a try. You never know what you'll dream up next!