Using Your Own Dreams in Fiction

by James Scott Bell

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend.

– Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Are you a dreamer?

By that I don’t mean someone who has a vision of how they’d like life to be, or of a goal they’d like to achieve. Those are good dreams to have. They keep us motivated.

I’m talking about when-you’re-asleep dreams.

I don’t dream a lot. But when I do, it’s choice.

And I have a distinct dream pattern.

Once a year or so I have a recurring nightmare. I’m on a cruise ship at night in the middle of the Pacific. Or maybe it’s the Atlantic. All I know is it’s the middle, and there’s no land or other ships in sight.

And I fall off the stern. (How is a mystery. Is it murder?)

Anyway, I splash into water, then pop my head up and see, leaving me at 30 knots, the lights of the cruise ship. I yell, but no one hears me.

As I tread water the ship gets further and further away, until it is only a dim light in the impossible distance.

That’s when I wake up.

What is this dream telling me? It’s not something mundane like fear of death, since I don’t fear it. But what else could it be saying?

Does it even have to say something?

Freud, of course, thought dreams were crucial windows into the psyche, revealing repressed impulses from childhood. He made a lot of cigar money that way.

On the other hand, Harvard psychiatrists J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley have proposed the Activation-Synthesis Model of Dreaming. This theory holds that the brain, when you’re asleep, tries to bring order to a chaos of neural activity we are completely unaware of. As Hobson puts it, “The brain is so inexorably bent upon the quest for meaning that it attributes and even creates meaning when there is little or none in the data it is asked to process.”

Who knows? I just know I don’t like my recurring nightmare and I’ll be happy if I never have it again.

There’s another pattern to my dreams. I like to get up early…I mean, really early, while it is still dark, the house is quiet, the coffee maker has my joe ready. In this tranquil time I’ll often write a little or read a little. I wait for my lovely wife to join me, and we usually have a little devotion together, or just talk.

Sometimes, depending on the amount of sleep I’ve had, I’ll head back to the sack for another hour or so of Zs.

This is when I often dream, and these dreams are vivid. According to Hobson, dreams tend to have five characteristics: illogical content, intense emotions, acceptance of the bizarre, strange sensory experiences, and difficulty remembering dream content upon waking.

But I usually remember these early morning dreams. The emotions are indeed intense, the narrative strange, and in my dreamscape I believe everything is absolutely real and happening.

Let me tell you about the most recent example.

My wife and I are in New York, staying at a hotel. We have a date to go golfing with Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld drives his car up and Cindy gets in. I tell them I’ve forgotten something and I’ll meet them at the golf course.

The dream cuts to me in a sleazy office in Midtown, renting a car. I get the car, which is in an alley, and drive to the end of it.  I take out my phone to get GPS directions to the golf course. I’m having trouble with the connection, so I get out of the car and go to a newsstand which is right there to ask the guy for directions.

When I turn back the car is gone! Stolen! In five seconds flat!

I run down the street trying to spot it.


I’m saying, “Oh man oh man oh man!”

I run back to the car rental place, but it’s not there. I’ve apparently taken a wrong turn. I keep looking around in the building, but just run into closed doors, empty hallways, and finally the end of the corridor with a locked door.

And for some reason I have no shirt on.

Desperation choking me, I run out to the street, thinking I’ve got to call Cindy, now!

And I discover the shorts I was wearing for golf are gone. I’m now in a pair of new blue jeans.

With nothing in the pockets!

My phone is gone, my wallet is gone.

I run back into the building asking people if they’ve seen a pair of shorts anywhere.

Blank stares.

Now here’s the most intense part. In the dream I’m saying to myself, “Please let this a dream.” But I don’t wake up.

Oh no! This is real!

I run back to the street, losing breath, patting the jeans all over in a vain attempt to find my phone and wallet.

“Please, God,” I say, “let this be a dream!”

But no, I’m still there. It isn’t a dream at all. It’s happening!

And then I wake up.

For long moment I just lay there, catching my breath. Then realized it was a dream. Flooded with relief, I said out loud, “Thank you, God!”

I jumped out of bed and threw on my robe and looked for Cindy. She was at her computer, sipping her coffee. She was not golfing with Jerry Seinfeld.

Again, I have no idea what this dream signifies.

Do I want to meet Seinfeld?

Or was this just a bunch of neural activity with no meaning at all?

Perhaps we’ll never know for sure. But we don’t have to solve the mystery in order to use our dreams in our fiction. What I have done is the following:

  • I’ve transferred intense emotions over to an emotional point in a scene.
  • I’ve used one of my dream images as a metaphor in a scene.
  • I will sometimes create a crazy dream for a character to have, but also observe my own rule: unless dreams are an intrinsic part of the plot, I use only one per book. I do so to expand reader identification with the emotions of the character. More than that is overdoing it.

Now over to you. Do you dream? Do you ever use your dreams, or parts of them, in your stories?

47 thoughts on “Using Your Own Dreams in Fiction

  1. Hmm, your annual nightmare about treading water in the middle of the ocean sounds to me like it’s linked to the concept of tackling the “mirror middle” of a novel.

    For years, I’ve had recurring dreams similar to your Seinfeld dream. I’m trying to get somewhere, but physical obstacles keep preventing me: the turnstyle doesn’t work in the subway; a road ends up being a dead-end; crowds of people block my path; or I choose the wrong direction, which happens frequently in real life due to my terrible sense of direction. I’ve never thought about using this dilemma in a novel–that’s a good idea.

  2. Yes, I remember dreams, and I’ve written stories from the dreams. I have a story out in a slush pile right now about an evil witch that took over my mother. Fun stuff, in a scary sort of way!

  3. Good morning, Jim. Somehow I bet you get a lot of free psychoanalysis this morning, so have a seat on the couch and make yourself comfortable. Lie down, if you wish.

    Hmm, naked and lost in the city, and begging God for the dream to be over. What a great way for God to get our attention and remind us that we need Him.

    My recurring dream places me back in college. It always occurs when I’m trying to do too much, my plate is too full, and it’s usually because of my manic tendencies – I blame that on my ancestors. In the dream, I’ve forgotten an assignment, or can’t find my way to class. I stumble from one catastrophe to another that get me farther and farther behind. I’ve never been insightful enough to pray for the dream to end. I’ll see if I can insert that into the next one.

    I’ve never used my dreams in my writing, but as I typed the above paragraph, I realized the part about things getting worse and worse is how we should plot the middle of our stories.

    Thanks for a great post. And I hope you achieve healing self-discovery with all the psychoanalysis (? pseudo analysis ?) you receive this morning. I can’t wait to read Mike Romeo’s next dream, loaded with frantic terror and philosophy.

    • Steve, I’ve had those college dreams, too. Usually I find myself in front of the class, in my underwear. If I recall, that was also a motif in a dream sequence in the movie Risky Business. I wonder what these common tropes mean in dream theory, since they are shared.

      Also, what influence do the boys in the basement have?

      Interesting stuff!

  4. I rarely remember my dreams…only the ones that wake me up because someone is trying to kill me. Had that one at least 3 times. Comes in handy when my heroine is fighting off the villain. 🙂

    • I’ve always awakened the moment before death…isn’t there some theory on that, too?

      One of the best Twilight Zones ever is “Perchance to Dream” about a man who desperately tries to stay awake, convinced that if he sleeps he’ll die in his dream, and thus in real life, too.

  5. My most fun dream started out with me in a penthouse. I noticed a helicopter hovering outside the window and when I took a closer look it shot at me.

    I ran downstairs and literally into a platoon coming up.

    “Mom? What are you doing here?” It was my son (the Marine’s) platoon.

    We.kicked major butt and had a great time.

  6. Not sure if you realize this, but both dreams revolve around being stranded. I bet if you plotted a novel around that theme you might change the narrative of your dreams. Just a thought. I’ve done the same, and it works. 🙂

    Wishing you and the Mrs. B a fab Sunday, Jim!

    • Interesting thought, Sue, that what we write can change our dreamscape. I don’t see why that can’t be so.

      And now that you mention it, my series hero, Mike Romeo, IS largely abandoned in the world (his backstory explains it). Maybe I chose that backstory unconsciously based on my recurring dream. Hmmm…..

  7. My recurring dreams revolve around being “lost”–can’t find my hotel room for the conference, don’t have my luggage, late for the plane. Or, a more common one, there’s a long line at the bathroom, or it’s out of order, or totally crazy (kiddie potties), which is usually ended when I get up to pee.

    • My weird dream. On a long road trip home, I pull into a restroom facility but find the place closed. Control functions begin to relax as one approaches such a facility and this is a one way street. Desperate I spot a bank of rather large A/C units and take a knee to pee between them.

      Next ten clown cars pull up and unload their stream of innumerable occupants all needing the facilities. A lady calls out, “Hey air conditioning man do you have the keys to the restrooms?” And this starts a series of conversations between self and the new arrivals with me obscured from view by the large A/C unit I have my elbows on. All the while taking care of business.

      Oh, wait a minute. This wasn’t a dream. It was real life.

    • Right there with you, Terry! If I have to go to bathroom while sleeping, my imagination comes up with the most illogical, ridiculous bathroom scenarios! A warehouse of stalls, yet all filthy, broken, or locked. Or bizarrely open access (think a Roman bathouse scenario) with unrecognizable fixtures…the weirdness just gets weirder until I finally wake up to say, “Enough already!”

  8. I have a few physical problems, here and there. One time I was at my doctor’s and the topic of dreams came up, and I told him I dream every night, and the dreams weren’t much fun to be around. He said dreams rarely are, and wanted to know what mine were like. I told him I felt like I was trapped in a Picasso painting, with lots of frustration no matter where I turned or what I did. Recently the dreams have been more realistic, but just as frustrating and busy-busy. I would never inflict them on my characters or on the reading public — it’s bad enough that I have to endure them, every flippin’ night. (And no, I’m not on any type of medication. My brain is a pill-free zone. I hate to think what would come out of it if it weren’t.)

    • Ack, sorry, Laurie, to hear that those frustrating dreams happen every night. Your description of being trapped in a Picasso painting is, however, quite vivid. I wonder about your hesitation. Isn’t “inflicting” what we do as writers? Make things as difficult as we can for our characters…and thus take readers on an emotional ride…

  9. My strangest dreams are often about work I need to do. I’ll dream that I have written reports or visited people people I needed to see. When I was younger I dreamt about stocking shelves at a pet store I worked at. Most of it is pretty bland stuff.

    The strange thing is that I often believed what I dreamt was real. That the task I dreamt doing were real. But after one of these dream, and as the day starts, I get pissed off that I actually have to complete all the things that I I thought were finished.

    It happened again a few weeks back were I thought I wrote an excellent chapter for a WIP. I wanted to revise a part of end scene and I spent about thirty minutes looking for the file that never existed. The sad thing was I couldn’t remember all the details about the chapter to recreate it either.

    • Now THAT is frustrating, Ben. Not only that you hadn’t written it, but couldn’t remember the deets. A true writer’s nightmare!

      In my 20s, when I was a waiter, I’d have work dreams, where I couldn’t fulfill an order, or get to a table, etc. Those dreams lasted years after I’d moved on, and was practicing law. Funny, but I can’t remember having any dreams related to law practice!

  10. Yikes. I have the same fall off the ship dream. It’s reoccurring with variations, sometimes in vast ocean, sometimes in a river. But it’s always a giant ship and it always begins to tip to one side (always port) and I side off, like the folks in “Titanic.”

    I’ve given up trying to figure it out. And for some reason, Jack Nicholson shows up alot.

  11. While working at the library I had the recurring dream of not being able to close the building because, for some inexplicable reason, the front doors weren’t locked and patrons kept entering the darkened building. As was the case with my zombie apocalypse nightmares, fellow staff and patrons ignored my instructions and advice and kept on using resources, computers, meeting room space etc.

    There would inevitably reach the point in the dream where it was an hour after closing, with people still coming and going, and I’d wake up.

    I’m going to have to use a version of this at some point in my library mystery series 🙂

    Have a great Sunday. Dare I say, “sweet dreams?” 🙂

  12. I dream quite a bit. When I was twenty, I would have action-packed, shoot out dreams almost every night, and it would make for very restless sleep. On another note, I do notice that my dreams are most vivid after I wake up to pray at dawn and get that last hour of sleep.

    For writing, it’s like my ideas can’t turn into concepts without going through my dreams. I can’t think of a single idea that wasn’t either born from a dream or got its legs after taking a walk in my sleep. How do you psychoanalyze that?

    • Fascinating. Now that I think about it, Balzac kept trying to induce a dream state through massive amounts of thick, black coffee. It certainly stimulated his imagination, though it eventually killed him.

      Your process therefore seems apt… and a lot healthier.

  13. I also find the morning dreams to be the most vivid and easiest to remember.

    I don’t remember a lot of dreams, but the ones related to anxiety seem to be pretty common. I’m back in college and on my way to take a final exam and I can’t find the classroom. Then I remember I haven’t been to class all semester. It’s like a good novel where every possible solution turns into another problem.

    My most useful dream ever came in grad school when I took a course in computer graphics that was intense. Our sadistic professor had us writing a complex program each week. I ran into a problem on one of the assignments and I couldn’t figure out why my program wasn’t working. (This was before the days of good debugging software.) I went to sleep and debugged the program in my dream. I woke up, made the change, and it worked.

  14. I have a single recurring nightmare. I have a test for some college topic and I can’t find the room where the test is being administered at 3pm. People keep giving me bad directions. My anxiety ratches up as the clock is running out. I always wake up before I find out what happens. I have 4 college degrees and never missed a single test. I also have a face that no matter where I am in the world or in what language, people will walk up to me and ask for directions. I always know exactly where I am (though I admit to getting lost inside a redwood forest once and a 10-mile hike turned into 20). So it’s odd that my nightmare is about something that has never happened to me.

  15. Congratulations, you may have been Hart Crane in your last life.

    Everything is right except for the ocean. He died in the Gulf of Mexico. He was a very damaged person, though, and you have it together. So, probably not.

    Annual dreams about an event that don’t really change from dream to dream are said to be reincarnation dreams. I had many when I was a kid that have since faded away. Most were death dreams. Being stabbed in the face by a Native American is not a fun way to die.

  16. I dream more when I’m awake than asleep, Jim. I rarely remember anything and don’t recall anything recurring. But I did have a middle of the night episode recently where I dreamed I was late for work and a panic set in. I know it was a dream because I have no outside job to get up for and I’ve been trained in a former life not to panic. My wife told me the next morning that I’d jolted up in bed, shook her hard, asked her what time it was and, when she rolled over to look at the clock to answer me that it was 2:00 am, I stole her pillow, turned away and went back to sleep. She was some pis*ed!

  17. Jim, like you, Kay, and AZAli, my most vivid dreams occur in that “stolen moment” of sleep. I, too, wake long before dawn (for work.) On days-off, or weekends, I still wake then, but return back to sleep. And that’s when I have the most amazing dreams!
    What irritates me though, is that they are never about my WIP! I find that highly unfair, especially considering the entire series started based off of a surreal dream of mine.
    I would love to dream about my characters! But if I do, they’re never the kind I can recall afterwards.

    Marilynn, that is fascinating about the recurring dreams! I’ve had some truly bizarre repeating nightmares! Hmmm…

  18. To keep the demons at bay and avoid reliving my near death experiences (lost count), I “set the table” with my problem statement and known resources before going to bed. I dream a constructive dream and when I awaken with an answer or possible solutions, I quickly grab my smart phone and dictate everything into a memo app before it leaves my mind like a puff of smoke in a fresh breeze. Some I work into my writing and delete from my phone. Currently I have 312 deposited there looking for a home.

    Last night’s problem was the wife’s meat slicer, a consumer version of the large type used behind the grocery store meat counter. Made by GE when they had a home appliance product line and my wife was a test product evaluator. Deceptive advertising, they said lifetime lubrication and it stopped working after only 49 years. In the dream I opened the case and found the motor bearings needed lubrication. Waking up, I went to the kitchen, opened the case and gave both bearings a few drops of turbine oil. Twisted the drive motor’s shaft with pliers to free the frozen bearings and voila, good as new.

    • Bradbury used to write furious notes upon first waking, not caring if they made sense or not. Just getting the visuals down. Only later would he look for a pattern.

      I like your metaphor of “setting the table.”

  19. Unfortunately, I rarely dream, and when I do, they’re usually short and stupid. The most recurring theme is a very brief, very vague dream of constantly trying to get somewhere but not getting there.

    I had an extremely brief and thankfully nice dream recently where I was celebrating because I got to go on the road with the wonderful Charley Pride. 😎 One of the very few memorable dreams I’ve ever had.

    I’m sure I have used a dream in a story at some point, but never based on the goofy junk I dream. 😎

  20. My dreams are very vivid, like watching a movie, with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. They vary from nightmares to problem solving – to premonitions. (Easy to tell the difference.)

    When I was in counseling to overcome the panic attacks and nightmares from seven years of abuse, and near murder, by my ex-husband, I had recurring dreams about bears. In each dream I fought the bear, eventually killing it, sometimes with my bare hands.

    I’m not violent and couldn’t figure out why I killed the animal instead of fleeing, as was my preferred method of dealing with danger. I wondered if the bear represented my ex-husband and it was my brain’s way of exacting revenge. But my counselor said, no. The bear was actually all the anger and fear I internalized in order to survive. He told me I had to face the bear – my emotions. He added, “Yes, you can manipulate your dreams.”

    That night I dreamed I was in a cabin in a beautiful spring meadow. Trees lined the perimeter and edged up a steep hill. A bear lumbered up from behind the hill and stopped. It’s golden hair shimmered in the sunlight. It huffed, pawed the ground, and shook its enormous head.

    I stood in the cabin’s doorway, a large sliding glass door. I locked eyes with the bear. It roared again and charged. I watched it run downhill, its coat flexing and moving over massive muscles. I knew it intended to kill me, but I remembered my counselor’s words, “Face the bear”, and I stood my ground. A a massive paw tipped with six inch claws swiped toward my face. My fear force be back. I slammed the door and woke up.

    Eventually, as I worked through my therapy, the anger dissipated and so did the dreams.

    The final step, a Christian counselor guided me toward forgiving my ex. How that actually occurred involved a shocking image that has remained with me. It changed my life. (Won’t get into that here.)

    I have used all of my experiences and my dreams in my novels. Never want to waste an idea, regardless of it’s source. 🙂

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with dreams, and to everyone commenting. I find the subject fascinating.

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