How Dreams Can Improve Your Writing
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
We all dream, whether we realize it or not. Some of us have vivid, majestic dreams filled with glimmering unicorns and skippy leprechauns; others have anxiety-filled nightmares of fruitlessly searching the supermarket for the last bucket of ice-cream—but where? Where?!
But what do dreams have to do with writing?
So, so much. In today’s post, I shall explain the wonderful creative cocktail that is dreams and how we can harness them for the power of evil . . . I mean writing.
1) You must learn to use the Force, Luke.
Before I go into the nitty-gritties of dream-inspired writing, it’s necessary to address one caveat: some people, no matter how hard they try, can’t dream.
While that’s not exactly true (it's scientifically proven everyone dreams), it is true that many people cannot remember their dreams. Nights pass in a seemingly dreamless blur, while others yield tiny snippets—like puzzle pieces to a long-lost artifact—and if you could just crack the code . . .
You can. It may take time and practice, but anyone can enhance their dream recall. The best method I have found, by far, is a dream journal.
What is a dream journal, you ask? Why, just what it sounds like, Watson—a journal of your dreams.
For those of you who maintain a regular journal, the practice will come fairly easily, but even those who don't can pick up the habit. The key is to start small, especially if you're not prone to in-depth dreams. Write any flicker you remember, even if it’s only an image of a forlorn taco sitting in a corner. No matter how bizarre or boring the tidbits, write them down.
If you cannot for the life of you conjure a single image, don’t despair—that’s where practice comes in. Write whatever residue feelings you have upon waking (besides the need to pee). Over time, the mere habit of probing your memory each morning will prime your brain to pay more attention, to hold on to more information. “Man, you must really want the junk mail I so kindly unclutter each night; perhaps I should let you sort through it.”
Once your brain starts giving you access to its junkyard of weirdness, that’s when the fun begins.
2) Embrace the insanity.
As creatives, we should be adept at picking out good ideas when they present themselves. An inspiring movie, an interesting personal experience—you name it. But sometimes we need a boost. And sometimes we have to go beyond our usual sources because our work needs some spice—some new ingredient we don’t have stocked in our idea cabinet.
What better place to find such nonsense than dreams?
“But mine are so weird,” you protest. “A cat in a flying saucer kidnapped my grandma—I can’t make anything from that!”
Humorists would disagree, but not the point. When I suggest using dreams as inspiration, I do not mean it presents a complete start-to-finish plot: “There’s your blueprint, Timmy!”
No. You’re a writer; you know better. Inspiration is go-go juice, not a full-fledged novel in the palm of your hand. Also, disregarding an idea simply because it doesn't follow logic is insanity. Last I checked, we don’t live in a world full of dwarves and cryptic wizards—yet we have books like Lord of the Rings.
Embrace the weirdness, my friend.
3) Connect the dots.
Here's another practice that should be familiar to writers: connecting the dots. It’s a fundamental aspect of the craft; we move a plot from point A to point B by weaving a trail of clues and connections. We know more than all our characters combined, because they are only parts of the story while we embody the whole.
That role is reversed when you’re dreaming. Now you’re not in control; some omnipresent author may know the course of things, but you do not. You’re a character trapped in your own mind’s plot (some freaky inception shit, I know).
When you wake up, however . . . you’re back in author mode. You still don't know what the hell just happened, but that’s why you’re going to connect the dots to figure it out. Authors are detectives by nature—consider your dreams another case. Reflect on the clues your brain has given you. What could it all be leading up to? Test multiple possibilities until one clicks.
4) Shake things up.
Whilst analyzing your dreams and drawing conclusions from what you’ve seen, try to fill in any blanks with things you haven’t seen. Your dream, while a great starting point, is not concrete. It’s a mound of putty capable of being shaped into something glorious. Don’t be afraid to twist the material into something a little (or a lot) different from what you saw.
Example: My dreams are notorious for dropping me (or characters—sometimes I’m not qualified to be my own main character) into fascinating settings and situations, many of which have found their way into my writing. But my / the character's logic is really flipping stupid.
“I'm a pirate now. They let me be captain. Do I know how to sail this? Pfft, no. But I asked them nicely."
You get the idea. Great material to work with, but it’s going to need extra umph to make sense in a story. So you add backstory, figure out motivations, map the circumstances that led to your dream sequence, and go from there.
5) Mix ‘n’ Match.
It’s your brain; you can do what you want with the weirdness it chucks up. This process is made especially easy if you’ve been following my advice from numero uno. Dream diaries give you a written record of ideas you can freely pull from.
Welp, my well of wisdom has run dry for the day. I suppose this is where I see what’s on Netflix and numb my brain until some out-of-the-blue thought buzzes into my head to prod the squishy thing (ew).
Has a dream ever inspired any of your writing? Let us know in the comments; I'm curious to see how this works for others!