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?