by Doug Lewars
A member of a writers’ group to which I belong woke up one morning with a fully formed story in her head. She had to do a bit of background checking to make sure some elements of the setting were accurate but the basic plot was all there. I’ve never experienced that but I have had dreams that were useful in crafting a narrative.
Dreams, they tell us come from the subconscious. Some suggest they are representative of psychological conflicts working themselves out. Others say they’re just random brain functions sorting informational experiences from the day before. A few believe they are transmissions from the supernatural. I would like to believe the latter because it would be more fun but I have my doubts.
Babies, particularly newborns sleep a lot – some as much as 20 hours per day – some even preferring sleep over food. Do they dream? Probably. Dreams occur during rem sleep. Adults have about 20% rem sleep whereas with babies it’s more like 50%. So if a baby is sleeping 16 – 20 hours a day, that’s a lot of time during which they can dream. Therefore it might be hypothesized that dreams are a means by which the brain sort itself out – establishes neural networks and that sort of thing. Parents report that babies can be pretty active when they sleep. That suggests that while they may not dream quite like adults, their dream life is possibly as real, or more real to them than waking.
Certain psychological practices make use of dreams. In one, the patient selects any character from a dream, imagines the individual sitting across from him and starts a conversation. Then the patient physically moves to the other chair and responds from the dream character’s perspective. The dialog proceeds this way and is supposed to assist in working out underlying mental problems. I don’t know if it does the latter but it’s a pretty good strategy for getting into the head of a new character whether that character originated in a dream or not.
From a writer’s perspective, one of the more useful things about dreams is that they’re unstructured. In a dream, literally anything goes. You can meet and defeat monsters. You can sustain any amount of abuse without feeling any undue pain. You can meet people from your past who have died and you can die yourself without consequences. As a result, dream images can be highly surreal and that is useful for stretching the imagination. Last night for example I met my cousin’s great grandchild. I have no idea whether a great grandchild exists in real life and consider it somewhat unlikely; nevertheless, there she was and her name was Harmony. This is not a name I would normally come up with and I certainly don’t know anyone with such a name but it sounds like one that might fit into a story.
A dream is possibly the easiest thing in this world to forget. How often have you woken, thought, something was interesting – so interesting in fact that you’d never possibly forget it and could go back to sleep secure in the knowledge it would still be with you in the morning. Then sometime the next day, you remembered something important had come to you in your sleep but it was long forgotten. Keeping a dream journal is a good way of catching those things but it can be painful. In order to write enough to remember you’ll probably wake up and have difficulties returning to sleep afterwards. Some form of dictation devise works faster but the sound of your own voice will likely wake you. One compromise I use is to have a pen and paper handy but plan only to make use of it one day per week. If I can remember a dream long enough to record it that night then fine – if not, I’ll live without it.
By itself a dream is frequently not useful but taking some of the surreal images or the underlying feelings can enhance a story. It doesn’t have to be exact. After all, changing things around is one of the things we do as writers.
Consider an example. Let’s suppose you dream of being frustrated. I think that’s fairly common. Perhaps you’re trying to accomplish something and keep forgetting some of the steps. It might be time to step back and review your own life but of more importance to us, is the possibility of directing some of that frustration into your work. Why not have a character suddenly realize he or she forgot an important step in whatever undertaking you’ve planned for them? That’s a perfectly valid plot device. So the next time you remember a dream, pay attention to not only the images but to how you might map the general content onto a character or scene in your writing. It might provide you with a valuable tool in plot and character development.
Guest post contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published ten books on Smashwords.com.