Dream logic

I’m currently scrambling to get a draft finished so I can send it to my writers’ group and not have them point and laugh at me in the street, so I haven’t really had the brainspace to come up with a good post for this week.  I’d been thinking of posting from a reader’s perspective rather than a writer’s, maybe asking about romance subplots, what makes some fulfilling while others seem tacked-on.

And then last night my subconscious took over and presented me with one of those creepy as hell dreams that make complete sense even as they’re giving me the cold shivers (seriously, a raft of severed heads floating down a river?  What the hell, subconscious?), and I woke up thinking about dreams and stories just so I wouldn’t have to follow that particular dream image.  Romance will have to wait.

As I’ve mentioned before, I get zombie nightmares (not to be confused with Zombie Nightmare), and a lot of my dreams have some basic story structure to them.   I suspect that a lot of this is because my brain confabulates details in that semiconscious stage just before waking, patching in cause and effect and rationalizations to explain just why I and the cast of Firefly are on a mission to replace the Pope with a robot double.

But dreams don’t make good stories, no matter how detailed and clear (and, in some cases, incredibly fucking creepy) they are.  I’ve had only one story that came directly out of a dream, and even then it changed so much from first draft on that only two paragraphs remain from that original tangled outline. Dream-logic isn’t the same as plot-logic, and trying to make one fit the other usually results in plots that need so much external scaffolding to stand that they might as well not be there.  I can think of a few writers who handle dream-logic much better, particularly in works that refuse to explain their logic to the reader and thus force them to accept it.  But it’s not something I do well.

What I do get from the double handful of muck dredged up from my subconscious is images.  One or two potent images that may, in time, accrete a plot around them.  A group of refugees in the snow.  A woman on a tower speaking to a cloud.  A smiling man whose skin doesn’t quite fit.  (It’s probably no surprise that many of these images are closer to horror than fantasy, given that nightmares linger more than dreams.)

I’m curious as to whether this is something other writers do, or just how my own process works.  Do you find that dream-images make it into your writing?  Or if you’re reading something and dream of it, does that affect how you read it from then on?

11 Responses to “Dream logic”

  1. October 14, 2009 at 9:40 am

    That’s interesting to hear. A *lot* of my stories come straight out of dreams, though not all of them get their plots there. The settings, as often as not, are a good chunk of it, or the plot setup.

    This has actually been known to cause me some problems because I can feel really stuck for story ideas when I’m not having vivid dreams. I keep a dream journal so I don’t run dry, but even then, some days it just doesn’t click.

    And on days when I’m really, really lucky, the story comes straight out of the dream, plot and all, and it just hangs together. I think I’ve had *two* of those total.

  2. 2 Terri-Lynne
    October 14, 2009 at 9:49 am

    A lot of dream imagery gets worked into my stories whether or not I mean for them to; but you’re right. Dream logic doesn’t mesh with plot logic. The images can worm their way in, but that’s where it ends.

    I do, however, often dream of stories I’m reading, probably because I usually read before going to sleep. I haven’t really thought about it, but I imagine it MUST change the way you read it afterwards.

  3. 3 rachel aaron
    October 14, 2009 at 10:04 am

    The best things I pull out of dreams are feelings, getting a feel of a place, like a dark city covered in ash, or a green field. Lots of times dreams will give me landscapes with deep feeling that I couldn’t make up in waking life. Then the trouble is finding a home for them and describing them once they’re homed.

    I never get plots from dreams, though. My subconscious is amazingly stupid when it comes to things happening for a reason.

  4. 4 mlronald
    October 15, 2009 at 3:23 am

    Juniper, I do like having those vivid dreams, so long as they’re not the horrifying ones, but for some reason elements from the dream journal don’t often make it into stories for me. Maybe your subconscious has a better grasp of plot than mine.

    Terri-Lynne, often it’s visuals from TV or film that make it into my subconscious and, if they’re there, plot elements lifted from books. (For a while I had very vivid dreams that were trailers for real upcoming movies…that had absolutely nothing to do with those movies.)

    Rachel, for me it’s often people or very brief scenes — often disconnected from the rest of the dream — that stick with me, rather than landscapes. (I suspect the plot only comes along once I’m half-awake and trying to remember the dream.)

  5. October 15, 2009 at 9:05 am

    The worst thing that happens to me is that while I’m dreaming, I think to myself WOW this is the most awesome plot ever it’d make an awesome short story! But when I wake up, I’ve forgotten most of it, aside from a few of the more endearing images and feelings. I keep a little dream journal beside my bed so I can scribble them down when they’re fresh in my head.

    I’ve had a few doozies that have made it into stories, but generally I find I have to sit back and try to make sense of it all by adding plotline details that may have not been as clear in the dream itself. Dreams are excellent fodder, however, particularly, as you said, when I’m attempting to write horror. It’s interesting to think our dreams have more in common with horror than fantasy. What does it say about our enjoyment of such things that make us afraid?

  6. 6 Kirsten
    October 15, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    You know, Stephenie Meyer has said that the genesis of the idea for Twilight was from a dream she had – basically, a core scene from the first book. She woke up, wrote it down, figured out the details and context, and kept writing. I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing….. but it tells me a lot about *her* subconscious.

  7. 7 mlronald
    October 16, 2009 at 6:43 am

    Angela, I think it might be that it’s easier to verbalize what’s scary in a dream than what’s awe-inspiring or beautiful. When I emerge from a dream with a sense of peace or wonder, I either jealously guard the dream for myself, believe that using it for fiction would be tarnishing it somehow, or find myself completely unable to explain why something was so wonderful. Grotesqueries are easier, in that sense at least.

    Kirsten, that’s kind of what I’m afraid of. What am I letting on about my own subconscious when I use some of this imagery? (Other than “severed heads are creepy”, of course.)

  8. October 19, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    I don’t know whether my subconscious has a better grasp of plot, or whether it’s that I just take the censor off the internal editor while I’m dreaming, so I end up with more *creative* ideas from the dreams. I do sometimes go back and reread the original dreams that I scribbled down, and as often as not, they bear very little resemblance to what the finalized story looks like. And yet, I know they’re there.

    (And then there’s the 5000+ words of story I wrote one morning after waking up. I had to be left alone for over an hour for that one.)

    Have you ever read the story in the Arabian Nights about the sage who was wrongfully beheaded? His severed head gets its own back at the end of it…

  9. February 3, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    I agree with you in that, my dreams have been a catalyst for my stories (or is it the other way round?)… like ppl in the comments were counting – apart from the abstract and scenes i had been inspired by my dreams i have one complete story from my dream too 🙂 the story is title “B&W” .. but i have written better things after tht 🙂

  10. February 7, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    You’re not alone! I’ve had the same vivid images, (well, not the same the same), beg to make it on the page somehow. The tough part is making them relevant. A photographic memory would be nice–any image you needed, you could just nab from your memory and especially that dream silo.

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