Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for May: (5/4) Linda Norlander, (5/11) Connie Berry, (5/18) Mary Keliikoa, (5/22) Annette Dashofy, and (5/25) Rosalie Spielman.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Can Dreams Help You Write Your Novel? by Connie Berry

Years ago the Everly Brothers told us to dream, dream, dream. Some of us dream more than others. Some people remember their dreams; others don't. My dreams are usually vivid, often bizarre, and frequently funny. Some I'll never forget. Others dissolve with the morning light, leaving only a visceral feeling of delight or fear or adventure or stress. 

One dream many of us share is the "unpreparedness dream." That dream can take many forms but often harkens back to our schooldays. Facing a final exam and realizing you've forgotten to study. Forgetting your locker combination when all your books are inside. Searching fruitlessly for the location of a classroom. For twenty-five years I lectured on theology, and every August I'd have my annual nightmare—failing to prepare for the first lecture; realizing the class location had changed and no one told me; losing my place in my notes and never finding it again. When I'm feeling stressed, I often dream I'm trying to steer a speeding car—from the backseat. 

Dreams are stories we tell ourselves. Experts say dreams proceed from our emotions, especially those we refuse to acknowledge and process on a conscious level. Everyone who dreams is a storyteller. I know writers who keep a pad of paper and a pen on their bedside table in case a wonderful plot unfolds in the night or the solution to a story problem presents itself. That's never happened to me. But can we learn anything from the tales we weave in the night? I think so. Here are five ways our dreams can point the way to a successful novel. 

1. Central Conflict

Dreams revolve around a central conflict. Will we keep the speeding car on the road? Escape from the alien invaders? Find our lost classroom? Conceal the fact that we're wearing no clothes? Rescue someone from doom and disaster? Conflict is not only the centerpiece of our dreams; it is the generator of them. The same is true of our works in progress. No conflict, no story. To paraphrase Donald Maass, The cat sat on the mat is a statement; The cat sat on the dog's mat is a story. Conflict is the central principle of any novel. Conflict is what captures readers and keeps them turning pages. What do your characters want, and what is preventing them from getting it? How can you add conflict to every scene, every page?

2. Character Count

Pick a dream you remember. How many characters were pivotal to the action? Besides yourself, probably one or two. We may dream about crowds, but the cast of characters (those whose actions determine the story) are limited. In my dreams, the main characters often play dual roles—morphing from one thing to another—but they are always directly involved in the central conflict. The same is true in a novel. Readers have a hard time keeping a huge cast of characters straight. Do you really need them all? Which can be eliminated without changing the outcome? Can some characters do dual duty?

3. Core Concept

Dreams can be divided into broad categories: unpreparedness dreams, flying dreams, dreams of death, romantic dreams, chase dreams, dreams of frustration (trying over and over again to dial a phone and failing, for example), dreams of paralysis (like trying to run through thick molasses). Each type of dream delivers a clear and vivid emotional impact. In your work-in-progress, can you identify the core concept or impact you're trying to create? If not, that impact will be diffused.

4. Creative Circumstances
In dreams, anything can happen, right? And there's often a plot twist. Once I dreamed I was spraying flowers with insecticide—until the insects developed sweet human faces and asked me why I was trying to kill them. Dreams regularly take surprising and game-changing turns. A person who has died returns—but is it really him? The car you're riding in rounds a curve and skids off the road into space. Yikes. The person you're chasing suddenly becomes your pursuer. Is the story you're writing too predictable? What unexpected circumstances will keep your readers engaged? If you're never surprised at what your characters say and do, neither will your readers be. 

5. Critical Connections

Dreams, like novels, deal with the important stuff of life. They are invariably timely, addressing the underlying issues impacting our lives right now. Dreams connect with our lives—and our writing—because they address universal themes like survival; loss; living up to expectations; fidelity in romance; death; fears; insecurities; hidden secrets and embarrassing truths (dreams of nakedness, for example). Agents and editors frequently ask writers to identify the underlying theme or themes in their work. Can you? "If you want your novel to touch readers, long after they’ve turned the final page, it needs a deeper layer of meaning that only theme can provide." (Harry Chapman, "What Is Theme and Why Does It Matter?" Novel Writing Help, August 16, 2018). 

BOTTOM LINE: we're all natural storytellers. Every night (whether we remember them or not) we create tales filled with conflict, populated by characters who matter, dealing with core concepts, energized by unexpected circumstances, and facing the critical themes of life. Should the stories we write do less?

What's the scariest or craziest dream you've ever had? Has a dream ever helped you with a plot line?


Annette said...

I don't remember specific dreams, although there have definitely been some crazy ones. I have had a recurring one, dealing with fire. The meaning of it is pretty clear to me. The dreams (nightmares) began after our barn burned down when I was a kid. Even now, if I watch a movie or TV show with a particularly devastating fire, it'll trigger that nightmare.

Interesting post, Connie!

Susan said...

I often find dreams help me solve plot problems. Annette, your fire dream was the central idea and beginning of my first mystery, Three May Keep a Secret. Grace Kimball, my main character, is haunted by a fire from her past and dreams about it when she is feeling anxious or uncertain.
Great post, Connie.

KM Rockwood said...

I used to have an out-of-control driving dream until once, in the dream, I looked down and realized that I was driving a standard shift car, and as soon as I used the clutch, the car was back under my control.

I have never had that dream since. I can only figure that some dilemma in my life was resolved, but I have no idea what it was.

Kait said...

What a great analogy. I often remember bits of my dreams, but not as much as I would like to remember. My scariest, being attached by a giant ant. I've had the dream as long as I can remember and it is only recently that I made the connection to the SciFi movie THEM from the 1950s. I must have seen it as a child and it haunted me ever since.

Like Susan, my dreams often help me solve plot problems.

Shari Randall said...

Connie, I'm so relieved that I'm not the only one with the out-of-control driving dream. I've had it where I'm driving the car backwards, I'm driving the car with all the windows obscured by snow, and one particularly horrifying dream where the car was driven by a person who had died years before. Clearly I need some time with a therapist to talk about control.... I hope someday I'll have your driving dream, KM.
Very cool post, Connie.

Warren Bull said...

While on a new cancer medication I had a horrendous nightmare and woke up in a cold sweat. I was able to add some of that emotion to a short story that came out very well.

Kaye George said...

I don't seem to dream like I once did. I remember vivid dreams from years and years ago, but recently, if I have a bad dream, I'll wake up with a feeling of unease, but no specifics. I just know something bad happened to me while I was asleep. I used to ALWAYS dream of flying--a beautiful, euphoric feeling, BUT, I got higher and higher and couldn't stop going higher. So eventually, I started plunging. That part terrified me and I woke up. Everything is material, right?

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Dreams: the lost dream (final exams), the locked room dream (high school locker), the children in peril dream (thankfully, not as often now that they're young adults), the empathy for victims dream (sexual assault, missing children). Fewer dreams, more in color than the usual black-and-white. Great source of emotion traits!

Kait, do you remember the Triffids movie about plant aliens stalking humans? Every time I ate broccoli I dreamed about Triffids.

Marilyn Levinson said...

The opening scene of the first novel I ever wrote came to me in a very vivid dream.

Ramona said...

Ah, the unprepared dream. Mine was always the same: I'm at school in a long shirt but I forgot to wear pants.

I have had several dreams that were full stories but I never wrote them. This is a great breakdown, Connie. Maybe I'll use my next dramatic dream for a story.