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?

Garlic Breath, or What Not to Do on Your Opening Page

“If you cannot write a compelling opening scene, from the opening sentence, I’m not going to finish your proposal.”
– Agent, speaking at a recent writers conference

The opening page of your novel is your big introduction. It’s what an agent will read with most interest, to see if you can write (which is why page 1 is often the first thing read in your proposal. You may have spent 100 hours on a killer synopsis, 50 on an irresistible query, but if the writing itself is not up to snuff, the busy agent can save time by tossing the whole thing aside without reading the rest of the proposal).
Think of it this way. You are at a party and the man or woman of your dreams is across the room. The host offers to introduce you. You walk over. There is great anticipation, even from Dreamboat, who is there to meet people, too. So Dreamboat extends a hand, you take it, and say, “Nice to meet you.”
Only you have a horrendous case of garlic breath. Dreamboat winces, whips out a phone and walks quickly away, muttering, “I have to take this.”
Well, that’s what it’s like for an agent reading your first page. He or she wants to like you, but if you’ve got garlic breath, it’s all over. Bad first impression. See you later.
I taught at a writers conference recently, where attendees were invited to submit the opening page of their manuscripts – anonymously. We then put these on two transparencies. The first one as is, the second I had marked up as a tough editor might.
It was quite educational. I got 12 first pages in all, and none were ready for prime time. There were several items that should be avoided at all costs on the first page. Here they are, in no particular order:
Characters Alone, Thinking
This was in the majority of the first pages I reviewed. We did not get a scene, which is a character in conflict with others in order to advance an agenda. We got, instead, the ruminations of the character as he/she reflects on something that just happened, or the state of his/her life at the moment, or some strong emotion. The author, in a mistaken attempt to establish reader sympathy with the character, gave us static information.
Such a page is DOA, even if the character is “doing” something innocuous, like preparing breakfast:
Marge Inersha tried to mix the pancake batter, but thoughts of Carl kept swirling in her head, taking her mind off breakfast and back to Tuesday, horrible Tuesday when the sheriff had served her with the divorce papers. Tears fell into the batter, but Marge was powerless to stop them. She put the mixing bowl on the counter and wiped her eyes. How much more could she take? With two kids sleeping upstairs?
Marge is certainly hurting, but you know what? I don’t care. I hate to be piggy about this, but I really don’t care that Marge is crying into her pancake batter. The mistake writers make is in thinking that readers will have immediate sympathy for a person who is upset.
They won’t. It’s like sitting at a bar and guy next to you grabs your sleeve and immediately starts pouring out his troubles to you.
Sorry, buddy, I don’t care. We all got troubles. What else is new?
Don’t give us a character like that on page 1.
Agents and editors hate it when you open with a dream. And so do most readers. Because if they get invested in a cool opening, and then discover it’s all been a dream, they feel cheated. So you may have a gripping first page, but you’ll ruin the effect when the character awakens.
Yes, I know some bestselling authors have done this. When you start selling a gazillion copies, you can do it, too. Until then, you can’t.
Exposition Dump
In most of the first pages I reviewed there was entirely too much exposition. The author thinks that this is information the reader has to know in order to understand the character and the scene.
In truth, readers need to know very little to get into the story. They will wait a long time for explanations and backstory if the action is gripping, essential, tense or disturbing. My rule, ever since I began writing and teaching, is act first, explain later.
This rule will serve you amazingly well your entire writing career.
Weather Without Character
Another complaint you’ll hear from editors and agents is about “weather openings.” This is a catch all phrase for generic description. Chip MacGregor, agent, described his opening pet peeve this way: “The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
If you’re gong to describe weather on the opening page, make sure you’ve established a character on whom the weather is acting. And make sure that character is not alone, thinking.
Point of View Confusion
Another big error was a confusion about Point of View. This comes in several guises.
1. We don’t have a strong POV character. Who does this scene belong to?
2. We “head hop” between different characters on the same page, losing focus.
3. We have the terrible sin of “collective POV.” That is, we get a description of two or more characters who think or perceive the same thing at the same time.
John and Mary ran from the gang, wondering where they were going to go next.
The 300 Spartans turned and saw the Persians approaching.
4. We have First Person narration without a compelling voice. First Person needs attitude.
5. We don’t have a POV at all until the second or third paragraph. We have description, but no idea who is perceiving it. We need that information right away.
So these are some very big don’t’ on your first page. Care to add more to the list?
And next week, I’ll tell you how to write an opening page that works . . .every time . . .in any genre . . .

The stuff dreams are made of

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’m typing this as I watch the Oscars (one of my guilty pleasures) and, as always, I spend most of my time as a sofa-fashionista criticizing the gowns without much thought for the movies. Of course with twin 4 year olds I haven’t seen any of the movies anyway – except for Wall-E (multiple times)…More importantly though, I love how the Oscars always make me believe, at least for one night, that dreams are possible…so I dedicate this blog post to those absolutely ridiculous unattainable dreams that keep us all going. In the spirit of the Oscars I have created my own mock awards and I hope you will make me feel less of a loser and add your own nominations and your own crazy dreams.

Best actor in a dream: My husband still wonders where the hell the fictitious Lord Wrotham came from and I have to confess I do (pathetically) cast my own books as movies…so here’s to Jeremy Northam, Richard Armitage and Colin Firth – if you were all rolled into one and cast in my movie then two of my dreams would come true (to have my books on screen and to have the best, most repressed, hero ever)

Best supporting dream: To be on the cover of Vanity Fair – Hell to be on any page of Vanity Fair…

Best original dreamplay: Act 1: Scene 1: Author opens the Sunday edition of the New York Times and pulls out the book review to the bestseller list. Camera pans to mass pandemonium in the streets.

Best animated dream: To see the Earth from space. This is the reason I push my boys to be obsessed with space travel – and why we have seen Wall-E hundreds of times…(Yay for that Oscar!)

So what are your most outlandish dreams? Go on dress them up in Armani or Valentino and share them with the blog world…or at least with me:)

Dreams and your writing

Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have come up with the plot for Dr. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde during a dream.

I may never hatch the Great American Novel in a dream, but I recently discovered the importance of dreaming to my creative process.

I’ve always been an on-the-nose dreamer. There are few hidden messages in my dreams. If, in my day job, I’m trying to solve a gnarly problem related to the worldwide web, I will dream of battling a giant spider web (get it?). If in real life I’m trying to stop eating sugar, I’ll dream about diving into a pint of Chunky Monkey. And so on.

My dreams, while challenging, invariably end on an upbeat note. I may spend the night outwitting shotgun-toting bad guys, but somehow, the dream always ends with my escape. I’m quite the REM-state John McClane, with the requisite nine lives.

But then came the day when I temporarily stopped dreaming, thanks to the Happy Blue Pills. And all of a sudden, it became much harder to get the creative juices flowing. The words came more slowly. I had no energy for writing.
At the time, I had no idea what was causing my writer’s block. I was getting plenty of sleep, right?

Then one night, I forgot to take the sleeping pill. That night, I dreamed for the first time in weeks. And for the first time in weeks, I woke up thinking about my story. And I began to write.

Phew! It seemed miraculous. That was the morning I poured all the little blue pills down the garbage disposal.

I did a little research, and found little hard data to back me up on this, but my theory now is that nocturnal dreaming is essential to the creative process.

So I’d like to know from other writers and creative types: do you dream at night? A lot? Do dreams help you solve story problems directly, ever? Do you dream in color (which used to be considered the hallmark of creative people)?