How to Write About Dreams

How to Write About Dreams by Susan Z. Ritz
originally posted on She Writes Press, see it here:

We all like to talk about our dreams, but few people want to hear about them. Our own dreams are revelatory, scary, confusing, funny, and weird; other people’s dreams are just plain boring. That’s why so many writing teachers and editors warn us not to throw dreams into our stories if we want to keep our readers turning pages.

When I sat down to write my mystery, A Dream to Die For, I knew I was going to have to come up with ways to write about dreams that made people want to read about them. I didn’t want to rely on dream sequences—you know, those italicized paragraphs we all tend to skim? They can be hokey or gimmicky and usually interrupt the action just as things are getting good. There had to be a way to put dreams into a book about the murder of a dream therapist and leader of a cult of Dreamers. I just needed to figure out how to write them to enhance rather than detract from the plot. 

First, I asked myself what I wanted the dreams to do. Like every scene in a well-written book, they had to serve the story. In my case, I wanted dreams to do two things—drive the plot forward and reveal something about a character’s inner life that I couldn’t show any other way. 

Next, I considered the nature of dreams. Dreams themselves rarely make sense. They don’t come to us as fully fleshed out stories with a clear narrative arc. They arrive fractured, fragmented, and filled with puzzling symbols. They are ephemeral, and we often find ourselves chasing after images before they disappear, trying to remember exactly what it was that frightened us, delighted us, or surprised us. I wanted the dreams in my book to reflect the fleeting, often bewildering quality of the dreams I experience when I’m asleep.

My book begins with my protagonist, Celeste, trying to remember last night’s dream and only recalling three short images. A woman at a window. Bushes blowing in a soft breeze. A shadow coming at her from behind. My own dream journals are filled with snippets like these, so I decided to use fragments as the recurring dream that appears throughout the book. Each time the dream shows up, it gives the reader a little more information. Short, dramatic, and essential to the plot, these tiny sequences mimic the ephemeral nature of dreams and also serve as important clues, building tension and suspense. 

I realized that I had to do something very different to show the characters’ inner conflicts and fears. Dreams on their own don’t tell us much. They are illogical, often preposterous, and only gain coherence when we wake and try to figure them out. I didn’t need to make up some hokey dream sequences to get at my characters’ anxieties. The contents of the dreams themselves didn’t matter. Instead, I needed to show how they interpreted their dreams. Because many of the characters in my book are in a dream cult, I had plenty of opportunity to create scenes that better divulged their inner lives. They write them down in dream journals; they discuss them with other Dreamers; or they ruminate over them as they go about their daily routines. I embedded the dreams into scenes with action, dialogue, and a natural place in the narrative. Instead of interrupting the flow of the plot, they propelled it in new directions. I unearthed subconscious emotions and thoughts without dragging my readers through long italicized dream sequences that took away from the action. 

But if your story is not as plot driven as mine, you might want to use dreams to add a lyrical touch. If so, pay attention to your own dreams. Write them down for a few weeks. You’ll notice how images flow into each other, how scenes change without any meaningful transition. You’re sitting on a beach. You raise your hand and you’re standing in a cornfield. If you echo the flow of the images you’ve recorded, you are sure to create prose poems, which are the best way I know to mimic the actual rhythm of dreams. 

The most important thing to remember is that dreams, like any other part of your book, need a purpose. If you know why you need a dream in your story, you can figure out the best way to write it.