What Dreams Teach Writers

What dreams teach writers, Pinterest, clouds in background

Dreams reveal our secrets, darkest fears, and what stresses us out. As a writer, dreams reveal the crucial elements of conflict and tension. If we pay attention, we can learn the craft of writing in vivid color!

“Sweet dreams,” our mothers said while tucking us into bed.

Pshh! When was the last time you had a sweet dream? Do your dreams come true in your dreams? Are you accepting a Hugo or Edgar award for exceptional writing? If you do, I would love to live in your subconscious.

My dreams are nothing like that.

I look forward to going to sleep. It can be such a relief after a hectic day, but my dreams seldom are a place where I rest. I never, ever get what I want.

DreamscapeDream #1.

I am lost and hungry as I thrash my way through the jungle at night. Dirt clings to my body, slick with sweat. I’m tired and want to sit down to rest, but am desperate to find civilization. A warm light flickers through the dense understory. It’s a campfire. Relieved, I run toward the clearing.

A haggard man turns a spit. Other dirty campers lift their gaze as I approach them.

“What kind of meat is that?” I ask.

He looks up at me and says, “Human.”

Dream #2.

Tuesday night, I dreamed of a lyrical stone village seen through a dark arched walkway. The contrast of cool and warm colors resembled a Maxfield Parrish painting. I pulled out my camera to capture this amazing sight. Then a huge sweaty man with camera bags dangling from his shoulders and a backpack full of supplies appeared. He stepped right in front of me. After he pulled out a tripod, he set up MY SHOT.

Dream #3.

I’m in a big city and am shopping in a boutique when I realize I’ve been separated from my family. We’re on vacation and have no way of communicating. I hear a bus roar from the curb and see them through the back window.

Wait. That actually happened to me in Ireland fifteen years ago.

Do you see a pattern?

I want something but can’t have it. BOOM! That’s conflict. It’s the basis for basic storytelling.

I’ve read so many books where terrible things ALMOST happen. WHY??? A fictional character is a figment of the writer’s imagination. She is NOT real. These terrible things are NOT happening in real life. They are NOT your younger siblings or your children.

If you let your subconscious take over, it will do a better job of creating conflict and writing a book.

I understand the need to keep the main character alive until the end, but let her make mistakes, get into trouble, get hurt, and humiliate herself. The idea is to think of the worst-case scenario. Too obvious? Then let your subconscious go wild. Consider all the directions and see where another path takes you. Is it uncomfortable? Good. You’re on the right track.

Nobody wants to read about a fun day at Disneyland. We have Facebook for that.

But imagine a babysitter is trying to reel in five kids at Disneyland. She’s not getting paid enough. The children have been fighting all morning. One gets sick on a ride, then another gets hurt on Space Mountain. A child-trafficker is on the loose and has been stalking them. While the kid is getting bandaged, the babysitter counts heads. One is missing.

Now you have a story.

Make your characters suffer. If you make their journey easy, it becomes a travelogue or yawnfest.

You say you aren’t built that way? Yes, you are. Your sub-conscious makes you suffer every night. Working out conflict in your dreams is your brain’s way of making sense of the world.

When reading, we slip into another world seen through the character’s eyes. Their world should change after overcoming conflict. In turn, the best books should also change our perspective of the world.

I woke up after the camper responded, “Human.” But, what if I hadn’t?

First thing to come to mind? “Pass the barbecue sauce.”

Blame it on my Wild sub-conscious.

Are your dreams full of conflict? Have you read a book that didn’t go far enough? Do you have your Hugo or Edgar Award acceptance speech prepared?

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60 thoughts on “What Dreams Teach Writers

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    1. Thanks, Miriam! Dreams can be so crazy!
      When I started writing and learned about conflict, it blew me away. One paid critique said I needed it in every scene. If I would have let my subconscious find conflict from the beginning and I didn’t protect my character, I would have eliminated so much work.


    1. Me either! Ha!
      That’s so great that your dreams inspire you. Your subconscious is right on! My dreams are so cinematic and strange. I’m not sure what they are trying to say. 🙂
      Have a great Wednesday, Linda!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Diana! I tweeted about that dream a few months ago. Yep. I had to wake up after that one. 🙂
      Mine are always full of conflict and if that’s what makes a good story, then we all have the ability. We just have to tap into it!
      Happy Hump Day!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Zach! You made my day.
      I remember when I first had my book professionally critiqued and the editor said I needed to add more conflict. Now that it has gone through a zillion rewrites, it is filled with conflict.
      After relating that dream about the cannibals to my husband, it occurred to me how natural our brains work to produce it. I just needed to loosen the reins!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I dream complicated, but mostly happy, things.
    I don’t know about books that don’t go far enough,b ut I have read too many books that go too far. Conflict is one thing, but realism is important too.


    1. I’m glad to hear your dreams are a great escape!
      I agree about realism and yet if I wrote about the real life coincidences that have happened to me in a fictional book, people would roll their eyes and say I went too far. Ha! I must have a sixth sense about things.
      I remember how I hated the ending of Kite Runner when the protagonist cut his lip and ended up looking like his adopted son. It was too ironic for me and it didn’t add anything to the story, in my opinion. Man, was I in the minority on that one!
      Thanks for stopping by, Jay!


  2. My last two are so loaded with conflict, I probably exhaust the few readers I have!

    At least I’m positive you wouldn’t end a trilogy with a trite denouement, as I discovered last night!


  3. Those lessons will remain etched hard on my grey blobs, thanks to the manner in which they were delivered. Your post also gave me a reason to analyse my own dreams and I am happy to report they’re all skewed and wicked and riddled with failures of every imaginable kind, which, of course, means I am doing OK!


  4. I rarely have “story” dreams but do a lot of rewriting and editing in my sleep (always better than what I saw the day before awake)
    When I do have dreams with people/places I recognize, I know something’s up and I’d better check on them. Pretty reliable source of info in that fashion – odd, yes?


    1. That is odd and yet it happens to me too. Two nights in a row, I dreamt about my old neighbor who moved to Sydney a few years ago. I do think something happened, but have no way of knowing. Yikes.
      When I get into rewriting mode, I get the most restless sleep! Once I’m awake, if something percolates it’s fine with me. That is so great that you can remember the next morning!
      Thanks, Phil!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I can see how dreams would be a great source of ideas for a novel, if I could only remember them. The only dreams I can remember are the ones where I’m terrified, whether it’s of bears or drowning or death and loss. Why can’t I dream of something romantic? Maybe because that’s one thing I’m not afraid of. But to write a good novel you need conflict so maybe I should pay more attention to my dreams. Plenty of conflict there. I think your dreams would make fantastic ideas for novels. I like the “babysitter of five kids” idea. What a horror show!


    1. I think our brains are wired for conflict if we let them. I seldom get an idea from a dream, but the more I pay attention, the easier it is to write conflicted scenes.
      Sometimes I remember thinking that would be a great novel and then can’t remember what it was. GAH! Hopefully our subconscious selves will contact us with concrete ideas!

      Thanks, Anneli!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You would not want to live in my mind right now – pretty much about politics, State Legislative Sessions, scheduling, scheduling and scheduling some more (no wonder we get nothing done – meeting upon meeting and meetings for meetings – ARGH), meet and greets, etc.! Keeps me up at nights. I need a break and plan to take a much deserved one come June. I am also in the process of moving and have plenty of dreams about wandering and being lost – geez! I wake up and keep on keeping on though – life would be BORING without some much needed ADVENTURE 🙂 Happy Day – Enjoy


    1. Wow, Renee! You do have a lot on your conscious mind! Plenty of fodder for your subconscious to play with at night.
      You are moving again? We go to the mountains a lot and so the packing thing slips into my dreams too. Keep focusing on June! It will be here before you know it!
      Happy Thursday!


  7. Wow – you go some crazy places in dreamland. I usually can’t remember my dreams, and I’m thinking that might be a good thing.

    I do have to learn to make my characters suffer more though. I want everyone to get along so it’s hard to create chaos. But, I’m getting there.

    Good stuff. Keep on dreaming the dream.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt


    1. Thanks, Patricia!
      I’ve read so many books where the protagonist ALMOST got lost or ALMOST got hurt or ALMOST made a huge blunder. I always think, this isn’t Leave it to Beaver. Even that show had conflict. The Beave got into to trouble every day!
      The experts say we should kill our darlings. I say we can keep them alive, but make them as uncomfortable as possible. Then when things work out, it’s a huge relief!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Nice one here.
    Opened my eyes to do much possibilities of sustaining a story plot. And to think the materials are within reach.
    In Africa we pray before bedtime against such dreams your presented up here, now I know that are a wealth of writing reasource.
    Thanks for sharing


    1. Hey, Charles! It is so good to “see” you!
      I’m all about finding resources and answers on the internet. There is a ton out there and it’s at our fingertips.

      Even if we never dream of a plot we can use in a novel, we can at least think about how hard it is to get what we want in our dreams. That’s exactly how a good book is written. If it’s too easy, it’s boring. Nightmares are the best fodder for writers!
      Sweet dreams Charles…


  9. My husband is the conflict dreamer. When we walk the dog in the morning he’ll tell me all about the craziness. I usually just listen and think “what the hell goes on in that head?” Maybe I should be writing them down …


    1. You should write them down. Think about what he wanted and what got in the way. The further he gets from the “prize” the more tension is built through frustration and anxiety. Just like a good book.
      Danny wonders what goes on inside my head. Ha!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I love the idea of mining our dreams for conflict. Thanks for the tip 🙂 I definitely have an active dream life and spent a lot of years capturing my dreams on paper. I’m inspired to go back and see what lurks there. Interestingly, I recently had a dream that I used almost completely as a short story–first time that’s ever happened. More interestingly, it was because the story title came to me IN THE DREAM and I said to myself, “I have to remember and write about this.” Weird!


  11. As a resident of New York City, Susie, where I can encounter conflict just about every passing second (e.g., in my office at The Grind, Godsend, my colleague, just announced, “We have a fly the size of a 747 in here!” Translation: Do something and make it go away! I opened the window), I welcome my essentially dreamless sleep. Over the weekend, The New Yorker published an interesting story about how Graham Greene kept a dream journal to help overcome writer’s block:



  12. I always say that my dreams would make great sci-fi/horror novels. I just don’t seem to be able to keep hold of the memories when I wake up! Though I’m not sure anyone would find them believable as a story’s plot for how outlandish they get.


      1. Haha thanks. Anxiety does no one favours when it comes to nightmares! The notepad idea is interesting, but maybe, and I’m thinking out loud here, I don’t want to relive those dreams so I’m looking for an excuse not to use them in stories.


  13. An excellent illustration of why a story is a story—even the ones that travel through our subconscious brain waves. Do we need the drama? I think we do. It teaches us in ways that watching someone knit for 12 hours never will.


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