Recently a member of my critique group (which I won’t name, because it’s an unwieldy size already), raised the topic of using dreams in writing. “I’ve heard a great deal about using dreams in your story,” she wrote to me, “all negative. I don’t get it. I like dreams, and my dreams are not dull. Do you know why that is, dreams not being a good choice?”
“I don’t know why the bad rap,” I replied. “Might be because some people try to stick too closely to their dream stories instead of using them as jumping-off points. Sticking exactly to a dream scenario would produce the same stilted hybrid you get when you use a real-life incident as the basis for a story and insist on clinging to the facts, grudgingly ‘fictionalizing’ a few token details, instead of envisioning the incident as happening to characters with lives and personalities of their own. Some writers just don’t get what true-to-life means; they get hung up on “well, that’s the way it really happened” instead of writing genuine fiction that embodies truths about real life.”
Next I invited the group to weigh in on this topic. “Some say using a dream as the basis for a piece of fiction is never a good idea. Why not?”
The responses made me realize there were two questions: using your own dreams as story fodder and writing your character’s dreams into a story. The group’s moderator replied first. “Using a dream as the basis for a story, or using elements of the dream in your story, is fine. As long as the story has all the elements a good story possesses, it is a good story, whatever the inspiration.” Fidelity to the details, he agreed, is a mistake. “It is a bad idea to try and put your dream down on paper as is, generally, for the same reasons that just because something really happened doesn’t automatically make it a good story. It’s the reason people’s eyes glaze over when you tell them your dream, or about this thing that happened to you while you were shopping and the lady said blah blah blah. Unless you establish a character we care about, and some tension, or take us on a journey that creates interest in the reader as to what is going to happen next, etc. it is not entertaining as fiction, no matter how interesting you found it when you dreamed it, or how accurate it is to something that really happened.”
Moving on to the subject of putting a character’s dreams in a story, he added, “It is also a bad idea to start a story or novel with a dream, because you haven’t yet established for the reader what reality is, so they do not know what parts of the dream are real or not, and further, the reader is wanting to get to know the character and the world, etc. and here you are starting with something that isn’t real, and then they’ll just have to start all over at square one trying to figure out who the character is and the world, etc.”
This is excellent advice, excellently explained. I’d seen writers make this mistake before, without understanding why it annoyed or confused me.
“If you write a good story,” he concluded, “it doesn’t matter what inspired it.” Other responses poured in. Here’s a sampling, edited for brevity:
“Ideas for stories can come from any venue. If the writing holds the reader captive, I don’t see how the idea source is a problem.”
“I find dreams useful when I already have the general plot for a story. Not every dream I have is useful to the story, but some provide the kernel of a thought about events [or] scenery… usually not about emotions, thoughts or dialogue.”
“In my experience it’s difficult to write from dreams because they are intensely personal and emotionally impactful. It takes great skill to convert that combination into a piece of writing … If you can put a three-dimensional character in a predicament like the dream with good stakes and relevant tension you’ll have a winning combination of unique and compelling.”
“I think the most useful thing you can take from a dream is its fanciful imagery or environment. Dreams are great for unbridled imagination. But be wary when you borrow from your own dreams, because dreams tend to attach [personal] emotional significance to scenes… While in your own mind that imagery may be loaded with emotion, it may be meaningless to the reader.”
After a lively wide-ranging discussion, the original instigator thanked us all. “I have been trying to sort this out because I often find inspiration from dreams. I never write a story based solely on a dream but have had characters that are already introduced having dreams that may or may not intersect with their reality. So it sounds like the opinion is that it’s the quality of the story, as always, that really determines. That makes sense. Sometimes as a new writer I become confused by “the rules”—which I have always had trouble with anyway.”
Her and me both! Guidelines for good writing I can live with. But … rules? The only rule I acknowledge is this: If it doesn’t work, either scrap it or revise the blinking $?@# out of it.