Capturing the Sensation of a Dream

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We all dream. Even if you don’t remember when you wake up, your brain goes to some very strange places while you rest. This shared element of humanity makes great content in fiction. Dreams can motivate, discourage, or complicate a hero’s journey. The subconscious mind suggests character development without lengthy conversation and lays the groundwork for drama. Dream scenes that don’t feel like dreams often fall flat, though, and feel forced. So, what elements give a scene the sensation of a dream?

Visuals

Drafting bizarre, confusing, or deeply disturbing imagery is the best part of writing dreams. Everything is possible. Everything is acceptable. Nothing is truly off limits. The trick is to escape the expected. How many heroines dream of meeting their crush in some romantic setting and kissing them? Even if there is a kiss, if you’ve ever dreamed of kissing someone, then you know there’s a lot more going on. For some reason your cousin is there, and all the chairs go upside when you try to sit down. Maybe you recognize someone who doesn’t look at all the way they do in real life.

Remember, dreams don’t have to make sense. Nor does every scrap of imagery need to particularly meaningful. Dreams bring together parts of your life that don’t belong together in the waking world in addition to blurring reality with fantasy. Take advantage of that as you craft your sweet dreams and nightmares.

Understanding

You don’t need to explain a dream while you’re in one. That’s a waking concern. Still, everything that seems strange, confusing, or riddle-like when you’re awake typically makes sense in a dream (unless the dream involves getting frustrated over a riddle, of course). You accept that your church’s sanctuary connects to your grandma’s kitchen. If you run just the right way, or pull yourself along the banister fast enough, you can fly.

Even lucid dreaming features a degree of intrinsic dream knowledge. When I would realize the t-rex hunting me in my dream as a kid was – well – part of my dream, I’d turn around and lecture it. I didn’t logic may way into dreaming up a canon to blast it with, and it didn’t disappear just because I knew I was sleeping. Just because you know you’re asleep doesn’t mean you can’t eat snickerdoodles on Mars in your best friend’s backyard. In writing, dream sequences often lose their mystique (or the sensation of a dream at all) when the character questions things or tries to apply rational thought processes to the kaleidoscope of their subconscious.

Flow of Thought

You’ve probably heard about writing flow of thought exercises. They’re uniquely difficult because by adulthood – and as writers – we’ve learned to edit and reorganize the thoughts we share. Dreams are uninhibited flow of thought, and to write them, you have to unlearn a lot. At the very least, you’ll probably encounter some run-on sentences.

Overcoming your filter requires practice and honesty. Before you attempt to write from a character’s perspective, it’s a good idea to write from your own. You won’t like all the thoughts that come out. Some will be weird. Some may be dark. Others just don’t make sense on paper. Remember that you don’t have to keep anything you write for practice. It’s a skill you’re developing rather than a project to save. While dream sequences need to be edited enough for readers to understand, the float-y feeling and cohesiveness of a dream depend on that uninterrupted clarity. Without it, the best visuals in the world can feel contrived.

Have you ever written a dream sequence before? Do you dream often yourself? Share your own tips and tricks for writing somnolescent adventures with other writers below!

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