Writing in the Dream Zone


I have a good friend who dreamed the entire plot of her first novel, which became the debut installment in an enormously successful thriller series. Why can’t I have dreams like that?

My dreams alternate between blanket-clutching, dry-mouth terror and the most deadly-dull, anxiety-ridden school scenes, in which I’m either trying to remember the locker combination I had in 1974, or attempting to teach Algebra to a room full of kids who suspect I don’t know what the heck I’m doing (and they would be right).

There are so many theories on what dreams are. Just a few:

Subconscious problem solving.


Random neuron firing

Emotional cleanup using dream symbols

Messages from the future or past

I don’t know about you, but my dreams tend to be a mix of the above, with the exception of messages from the future or past. As an adult, I’ve had some very comforting dreams about my grandparents, but I put those in the emotional cleanup category.

Dreams are as entertaining to me as a good book, and sometimes even more so because I’m participating. I go to sleep hoping the dreams are good. The only time I fear them is when I’m home alone overnight and have paralyzing night terrors about strangers in my bedroom. But most of my dreams contain vibrant colors, vivid situations and storylines, and people I don’t often see. I couldn’t enjoy them more if I made them up myself. Which, in a way, I suppose I do. It’s my subconscious at work—that part of the brain from which I suspect my best writing material comes.

But how to access that material in the waking world? As writers, we are essentially creating dreams for our readers. Stories that are like reality, but just that much better. Just that much less predictable, like any good dream.

Some ways to access the dreaming part of your brain:

Lucid dreaming: Lucid dreaming is dreaming when you know you’re dreaming. You won’t necessarily control your dreams, but you’re likely to remember them. Here’s a comprehensive list of ways to make it happen.

Dream journals: This is one of my favorites. As soon as I wake, I jot down the details of all the dreams I can remember. The exercise of writing it out makes me feel like I have a jump on my creative day.

Music: Do you listen to music as you write? It can quickly put you in the writing zone, but music with lyrics can be distracting. When I wrote Charlotte’s Story, I had this adagio on a loop for weeks. Repeated music is a great self-hypnosis tool.

Rituals: Same Bat Place. Same Bat Time. If you’re in the habit of doing deep work in the same place every time, your brain will begin to relax once it’s in sight.

Silence: I used to brag a lot about how I could write just as easily in a noisy cafe as I could in a silent room. While it’s still true, silence settles me much more quickly. You can almost hear the doors in my head opening.

Do you have trouble recalling your dreams? It’s common.The reason it’s sometimes difficult is because the brain may shut down its memory-recording functions while we’re in REM sleep.

Here’s what I find so fascinating about recalling dreams—or even having them. What if they really are simply random discharges of neurons firing up images in our brains while we sleep? That doesn’t make them any less interesting or less vital. It’s what we do with the connections between those images that makes a dream a dream. Even while we are sleeping, we are constructing narratives. How cool is that? Storytelling is so elemental to our being that we may be compelled to do it unintentionally, while we’re asleep.

That means that we are all storytellers. But to be writers, we have to externalize those narratives.

I love to wake up and share my dreams. If a dream is particularly vivid, I’ll definitely record it in my journal. It surprises me how long the narratives are. Recently I’ve tried to make sure I’m recording only what I remember about the dream. Of course, my inclination is to embellish it, to make it more of a story. Did I tell you about the one where I was babysitting a little white dog, and it ran out of the plush apartment where it lived? I searched all around the courtyard, but found it chained underwater in a big white swimming pool, paddling its heart out to keep its head above water. I felt like such a hero rescuing it. Somehow, though, I don’t think the tale would make compelling fiction.

Maybe next dream.

If you write consistently, you know exactly how it feels to slip into The Dream Zone. What helps you get there?

Have you ever dreamed an entire story or novel, and then written it?




This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , , by Laura Benedict. Bookmark the permalink.

About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

19 thoughts on “Writing in the Dream Zone

  1. Laura, this post is so perfect. Yeah, I have sketches in my dreams that often turn into stories. Dreaming of images with strange actions will haunts me for days until I start writing about it. I once dreamed of being trapped behind a high rock wall at a beach with the waves crashing beyond but out of sight. I had a deep desire to get to the ocean. But the only way to touch the water was to turn on a faucet coming out of the rock wall. When I turned it on, only sand poured out. This strange dream stayed with me for days and finally worked itself into a novel where an artist living on an island is trapped inside her own dreams of being captured inside the sea. The novel won an Eric Hoffer Award. I often wonder if I hadn’t had that specific dream if I would have found the story at all. I do believe dreams can be a jump-start for fiction.

    • Paula, that’s an amazing story–such powerful imagery. It sounds like that image was a kind of gift. It will forever be a mystery as to whether the story would have emerged eventually. It was certainly there in your subconscious ready to be written. So cool.

  2. I love this post. My book Please Release Me came from a single image that I remembered from a dream – two women, one a bride, sitting on a bench, facing away from each other but definitely connected to each other. I wrote the story around it. That scene never made it into the book, but it captured the relationship between the two women perfectly.
    I prefer to write in silence. Weirdly, my dreams often have complex soundtracks to them. I can never remember the tune afterwards, only that there was music.

    • I love that the image acted as a kind of a lodestar for everywhere you went in the novel, Rhoda. The way you describe it, it sounds so vivid that it could have been a painting as well.

      I’m so jealous of the music in your dreams. I wonder if the great composers dreamed music.

  3. My dreams are vivid, full-color and long. I’ve had dreams of epic battles, endless journeys, and tasks never completed. Some of those dreams have continued from the point where I wake each morning, without a gap, for days at a time. Some of those dreams return year after year. I’ve jotted notes for stories many mornings. But even more of my immensely detailed dreams slip away before I can find my pen. Where would we be without our dreams? I wonder how many books would never exist had a writer never dreamed?

    • What a treasure trove, Suzanne. Your dreams are like the Tolkein of the dream world. Don’t you wish you had a device you could attach to your head to record everything? I gather there are experiments in those areas where they can put a person’s thoughts onscreen. Looks like the Japanese have been researching this for years. I found a video–strong language, and the actual dream video is about 2 minutes in. Not exactly cinematic, though. 😊

      • Thanks for the funny link, Laura! The poor guy dreaming in that video must have been having a nightmare. Looked like it was about someone taking a test in high school. We all know what horrors that kind of dream reveals. 😉 But it’s too bad our brains aren’t equipped with a Replay button so we can capture anything we’d like to mold into a new story.

  4. In psychoanalysis, we learn that dreaming is like watching a movie, only it’s more than that. It’s a movie where you are the script writer, the producer, the actors, the scene and even the props.

    Over the years, I have recognized the benefit of jotting down my dreams and how it affects my ability to write. From time to time, I take snippets of dreams and incorporate them into what I write. Sometimes they might be suppressed memories, while other times it’s my brain hashing out something that didn’t quite make sense in an earlier waking moment. I like to think of dreaming as a safe place for me, as some of the dreams I have are the recall of horrific things. Though I sometimes wake feeling some anxiety, I am able to self-soothe knowing that I am in a much safer environment. I used to fear my dreams. Not so much now; I use them as a tool to better myself and my writing.

    It certainly gives new meaning to the words, “I’ll sleep on it,” when I’m blocking.

    • That really does give meaning to the words, “I’ll sleep on it,” E. It’s great how you are so in touch with your inner life. I tend to work out a lot of anxiety in dreams, but I’ll have to remember to remind myself that dreams are a safe place to be when I’m experiencing it.

  5. My main character came to me in a dream. She told me her name and that I needed to tell her story because it was important. I intended to use her as background because I was going to tell a contemporary story with her as a character from the 1800s. At the time I didn’t consider her as the main character. I didn’t set out to write a historical mystery, but she insisted that her story must be told in real time and she was not a secondary character. I dreamed about her every night, then it was during the day too. I’ve been thinking and working on this for a long time. She doesn’t leave me alone, though. She is quite the nag, actually! 🙂

  6. Since my college years, I have experienced a persistent dream image–I’ll walk into a room, only to discover a litter of half-starved, emaciated kittens. In the beginning in those dreams, I was the one who’d forgotten the kittens and left them behind to starve. As the years went by, the kittens evolved. Sometimes they were well fed but running loose, and I’d have to try to catch them (shades of the “Herding Cats” Super Bowl commercial). Sometimes they grew larger and became almost threatening. In the similar dream I had just a few days ago, the “kittens” had become jungle-sized predators, and I spent the dream-time dealing with the realization that my pets had become very dangerous, indeed. I have no idea what this lifelong dream image means, but I hope I don’t get eaten in the next one! 🦁

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