How Dreams Influence Writing

Dreams, what exactly are they and how do they relate to our writing?

Literal dreams are the visions, images, and stories you experience during slumber or sometimes in different states of consciousness. This does not pertain to ‘dreams‘ in the sense of goals or future aims.

The idea of studying dreams became popularized by Carl Jung and his efforts to identify what dreams were for, what role they played in our lives, and how they could be analyzed to help people in therapy and those with psychosis. It was a means to tap into and explore not only the subconscious, but also the unconscious mind.

Throughout history, artists and writers have experienced dreams in which their sensations inform the work they later produced. Much of art, especially surrealist and magic realism, draws from imagery that others (who are not the artist) don’t have the luxury of experiencing (those same inner visions). Through visual art and written word, an audience can empathize with these visions that the artist-creator provides, giving them a chance to delve into the mind-based experience.

Some authors have been so moved by their unconscious that they will claim to have had a dream originate their entire book or story. Others keep quiet about where they’ve drawn imagery from or take from direct influences in waking life, while others perhaps do not care to present dream imagery as from dreams, or truly have no conscious interaction with any dreams that might’ve played a role.

This isn’t to say that all writing and art comes from dreams, not at all. My own writing tends to avoid that which I directly dream about… but the very nature of the unconscious and the role of dreams is that when I’m unaware, my perspective is influenced regardless. No doubt this comes through in how I choose to form narrative prose and focus on different aspects of world and character, perhaps as much or more as language and culture might.

If a dream is the unconscious weaving hidden reality into a manner that our conscious mind can digest… then everything we think or choose is influenced by the dreams we have, whether we’re aware of it or not.

So, what is a writer to do with the dreams they have?

If a writer wishes to harness dreams to source imagery and narrative experiences to support their writing, then there are practices that can encourage and incite more frequent dreaming, more intense dreaming, lucid sensations of dreaming, and further specification of dreaming awareness.

These practices range from simply writing down your dreams when you wake to creating a scheduled ritual of waking up and then going back to sleep to more extreme and disciplined shamanistic and/or occult exercises.

Dreams are an incomparable experience of what it means to be a conscious human being and sleeping is the closest to death we commonly get while still being alive.

Perhaps all of this is why so many writers include dream sequences in books and adaptations?

Using a dream sequence in a story can be an attempt to illustrate a character’s unconscious for the reader to delve further into that character’s mind beyond a place where even the character is unable to be aware of.

Dreams can also be used as means of prophecy and foreshadowing for the story or plot.

Dream sequences that are written without an understanding about the roles of dreams tend to fall flat; scenes which are only dreams for the excuse of weirdness, randomness, alternate universe fan-service, or to trick a reader into thinking something is real when it is not, are weak versions of an opportunity that could’ve been honed into an extremely powerful moment.

Personally, I let my dreams inform the construction of imagery and sensation, but I do not draw from them for direct stories, plots, or characters. At least, for the majority of my writing that is. There are a few stories that do come from my unconscious or the dream realm, but when I edit – it is my conscious mind that molds the story into presentable form for readers to possibly understand.

Consider: Do you use dream sequences in your stories? Do they emulate the dreams you have? Do your stories or characters originate from your dreams? What experiences have you found in your dreams that you’ve never had in waking life? How does the common phrase ‘write what you know‘ change when dreams are applied to experiential knowledge?

Possible writing exercises: Write a narrative week’s worth of a character’s dreams to explore their internal self and to learn symbology that can be applied to how they view the world.

For novels – write the first dream a main character has at the start of the story, then write the last dream the main character has at the end of the story; compare and contrast the two to learn/share more about the journey that the character underwent during the story.

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art credit: Wojciech Siudmak (gallery)

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4 thoughts on “How Dreams Influence Writing

  1. I started my Tereskadian stories based on a dream I had a long time ago, a dream that seems to be recurring, although I would say not exactly the same dream each time. I mean, there are variations… I could write a lot more but I don’t want to clog up the comment box.

    • Writing out dreams, I believe, is a long-held human way to present and share them (and perhaps the ideas underlying in dreams) with other people. Maybe you could write a specific blog post about it and then, share the link to the post in the comments here!

  2. Dreams and I have always had this love hate relationship. When I am dreaming I feel everything and have no idea that it is a dream, and my dreams are generally pretty frightening. It has definitely affected my poetry if nothing else, but I also think it has helped me process the trauma I have experienced in my life in new and crazy ways that I am sure have snuck their way into my writing, even if by accident. But most of all, even if I don’t appreciate being chased and attacked by some guy with a mask on and thinking it’s real, I find it easier to imagine things and picture things than others. Great post.

    • Thank you for sharing, Iris. I’m sorry to hear you deal with frightening intensely-felt dreams, though fear and terror are as much a part of the human psyche as any other emotion. Channeling this into your poetry is a great effective way of further making sense of things and finding positive in the less pleasant aspects of our lives. Like you say, at the very least, it strengthens your visualization and imagination and you can view the role dreams have in your life with love as well as hate.

      As a writer, you’re not alone in dealing with nightmares either. Most notably, author H.P. Lovecraft dealt with such frightening dreams (and possibly sleep paralysis) that he believed himself to be assaulted by horrific “night gaunts”. For some readers, much of his later work is considered directly inspired by these experiences.

      Dreams can be very powerful when felt so strongly and a great influence on writing or other forms of art. For me, lucid dreams are especially remarkable because they will feel exceptionally real, yet at the same time, I will know I am dreaming. Again, thanks for sharing!

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