We all have dreams. Some leave us breathless with panic and others just puzzle the daylights out of our waking minds. Whether you believe they are a product of your subconscious brain or some kind of divination, no one can argue that they’re real enough while we’re in them. And so it should be for our characters are well. We want to write real people, so in addition to those personality quarks you’re working so hard on instilling, consider what’s happening in the background of each character’s life. I tend to use dreams as a foreshadowing tool, and there are times when they can play a larger role, such as in the hands of a shaman trained to dissect such things as signs from the gods.
- Be subtle
Don’t go dream happy unless it’s part of the plot that your character’s dreams play some role. Also don’t start the story off with a dream. That dramatic running-while-being-chased and then bolting upright in bed bit is overworked, and there are better ways to begin with suspense and a sense of panic.
- Use the appropriate symbolism
Find a dream dictionary. There’s a link to one in Gizmos and Gadgets section to the right. Don’t write a dream where your character is stumbling naked through the town square with the intent of implying that he’s going to be poisoned.
- Be vague
Don’t match up upcoming events directly with dream symbolisms, at least not in a way that takes readers straight from the dream into the reality the dream predicted. You don’t even really need an obvious take away from the dream either. Sometimes just the confusion and sensory details are enough to set the state
- Use overt threats carefully
Things like death are extreme to put into dreams because they’re hard to handle. It’s better to flirt with the idea, to build suspension and leave a little wiggle room for other possibilities. After all, they say if you die in your dreams you die in real life, and where’s the fun in being dead? Unless you’re writing a zombie story, but we’re not gonna go there.
- Utilize childhood places
These can be a goldmine because they will have a stronger mental association for characters. For example, the only time I’ve ever dreamed about bears is when I’m at home. When I went back a few weeks ago, I dreamed about being attacked by bears, and having to protect my siblings and my animals from them, every night. And this last trip wasn’t the only time this has happened. The fact that this is the only place that I have these dreams has significance; it means there’s something in that place for me.
- Repetitive vs. single dreams
Most of us have experienced a dream that wouldn’t leave us alone, or a common theme among many dreams. I often dream inside a maze-like mansion with tiny, hard to reach bedrooms, floors like a hotel and a deep underground basement that is sometimes just dusty and other times charred from a recent fire. Repetitive dreams can be used to string along readers, whereas a single, perhaps more detailed dream, can be used to deliver an emotional or plot-point punch.
The bottom line for writing dreams is simple though. Keep it short, don’t use them more than once or twice and don’t let them make sense. Take the strong emotions—from the dream and the waking immediately after—that you experience and apply them to the character. You can also move dream-like qualities into other situations. Wandering around in a foggy, unfamiliar place can be quiet similar to that “Where am I?” feeling you get when you come out of a really intense dream. Characters who are drugged are going to have the same woozy understanding, or lack thereof, as a dreamer as well.
Also consider how valuable a tool your dreams are. You’re a writer, remember, and your sources of inspiration come from all over the place. My two latest short story series are direct results of dreams. I’ve talked in the past about keeping a dream journal, which is a viable option if you feel like your dreams have something to offer. You know your mind better than anyone else though, so you have to tap into the resources that you have and make the most of them.