I used to write down my dreams that I could remember in the morning. I kept a dream journal next to my bed and write in it when I woke up, or come back to it later in the day. I kept these dream diaries for story ideas and I frequently tried to turn these dreams into plots for novels.
I thought that stories based on dreams would be good for two reasons. First, I had heard that it’s best to write stories based on your own experiences, and I thought that my own experiences were either too mundane to write about or too uncomfortable for me to repeat. Dreams, on the other hand, often feel very vivid while I’m in them, so I thought that I could count them as real experiences. Second, I thought that my dreams, coming from my subconscious mind, would have the most creative material, particularly for fantasy stories which rely on a sense of the unreal.
I struggled with these dream stories for years with varying degrees of success. Most never got beyond the planning stages or a few pages written down in a notebook and forgotten. One dream did lead me to write an entire first draft of a novel and most of a second novel, but that’s also been put away and I was never fully satisfied with it.
Through all these attempts, I eventually came to realize: turning a dream into an actual story doesn’t really work well. Why? For starters, a dream doesn’t have to make sense. Often in a dream, I get a piece of the middle: there is no beginning context to tell me how I got there, and I wake up before I get to the ending. Events in a dream can jump around from one thing to another with no real link between them, and things happen in dreams that I couldn’t possibly explain. When I wake up, I can try to piece it together and fill in the blanks with other ideas to make it into a more traditional story arc, but often this kind of tinkering can alter the overall strange feeling of the dream, and sometimes there’s nothing I can do to reconcile the details.
Another thing about dreams: they aren’t necessarily original. Often my dreams are just a jumble of things that are already in my head because I saw them on television, they happened to me, or things that I was worried about. A lot of my dreams follow particular patterns: I have anxiety dreams about things going wrong before a final test in school or before surgery, I have recurring nightmares about past trauma, and I have wish fulfillment dreams about things like finding my favorite cat that I lost over a decade ago. If I have zombie dreams, it doesn’t mean that I have a great idea for a new zombie story–it’s probably my brain recycling episodes of Walking Dead.
The times that I have gotten a more detailed plot of my dreams that I attempted to turn into a story, the dream ends up becoming one small scene at best, so it’s about building up an entire story as an excuse to have one little scene (which often ends up not being that important in the overall plot, because as I noted before, my dreams often don’t make sense). That’s not really a helpful shortcut: I can build up a story around almost anything by now. What makes the dream ideas so special? They’re often more work that starting from scratch when I’m awake. And lately, I have begun to realize that my dream ideas are rather cheesy. A princess develops a psychic link to a unicorn. A fairy godmother ends up running a halfway home for fairy tale characters who couldn’t get their happily ever afters to work out. A woman falls for a dream lover and starts to spend all of her time asleep because her dream life is better than her waking life. They’re exciting when I’m asleep, but when I’m awake they fail to hold my interest. To put the work into finishing a story, it has to be able to hold my interest through multiple drafts.
Don’t get me wrong: there are some times when I have fallen asleep thinking about a problem in a story that I’m working on, and the answer has come to me while I’m asleep because my brain kept working on the problem. I used to write ideas down in a notebook next to my bed so I didn’t have to get up in the middle of the night; now I leave notes for myself on my phone so I don’t forget them.
Maybe, someday, one of my dreams will make its way into a story, or at least a scene, that I am happy with. It probably won’t resemble the original dream by the time I’m finished with it. But I have a lot of other sources for my story ideas as well, and these give me just as much to work with. Translating my dreams is often just a headache.
Have you ever had a dream that you thought would make a good story? Have you ever tried to write a story based on any of your dreams? Do you just keep a dream journal and analyze your dreams for personal meaning? Tell me about your experiences!