Writing dreams


Many people would say that you shouldn’t, ever. That including dream sequences in a novel is mere inches away from the cardinal sin of closing a story with the immortal phrase ‘and then I woke up’. That it’s impossible to capture the ever-shifting intangibility of our dream worlds, and that in trying to do so we end up with writing that is at its best banal – as boring to the reader as when a friend tries to recount the reverie that had so entranced them in their sleep the night before.

If this is true then I have a problem. The entire plot of my novel revolves around the dreams of my protagonist. I didn’t even consider that this might be an issue before now: in the humdrum excitement of writing the first draft I just wanted to get it all down, to tell her story. But there’s no escaping that the middle of that draft lags, that something does not quite ring true, does not quite manage to keep the reader where I want them.

I’ve been able to push it to the back of my mind over the past week, but now my chapter a day has brought me to that crucial point where Grace has her first dream.

I had a bit of feedback to work with: the dreams were too long, too cheesy, too dialogue driven. Reading back over the chapter today I could see that was true. My style is usually quite sparse, but in my desire to thrust the reader deep inside Grace’s experience I had over-written it. I was making the same point twice, maybe three times. I was spelling out the steps of her journey in a way that was far removed from the abstract, impression-driven world that dreams more normally inhabit.

So there were some clear areas to cut. It was quite satisfying, actually – realising that I could convey what I needed to in drastically fewer words than I had previously thought. I did leave some of the detail, more than would normally remain when recalling a dream of one’s own in the cold light of day. Because this dream isn’t a memory – it’s happening to her in the present.

This might be part of the problem when it comes to writing about dreams. Very few of us, if any, will ever have the experience of being truly present in our dreams. I think I’ve come close a handful of times – that realisation that I’m dreaming, an awareness that imprints the experience more solidly in my conscious mind. But dreams more often come to us in fragments, bubbling up from the subconscious and slipping through our fingers before we’ve had the chance to really remember.

It was the desire to make this distinction, between a dream happening now and one remembered, that led to the other major change I made. Whilst most of my novel is written in the past tense, I transposed the dream to the present. It’s still in the third person, but I think it feels more immediate – whilst also managing to convey an otherworldliness and uncertainty that seems to fit.

I’m not 100% sure it works, but I’m going to go with it for now. I think it becomes more challenging to hold the reader’s attention with the dream sequences as the novel goes on, so this is very much only the beginning…

I’d love to hear your thoughts on writing dreams. Have you ever tried incorporating dreams into your fiction? How do you think the dream world can best be conjured up in words? AreΒ there any good examples of dreams in literature that you think I should read? It’s not that I’m afraid of breaking the rules – but if I do then it most definitely needs to be convincing.


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24 thoughts on “Writing dreams

  1. R. G. Tamaki

    Someone told me once that “censorship is evil but editing is divine,” so cutting away the inessential is always fun (and at times painful). As for writing dreams, I only have one rule: Cliche or not, I do what works.

  2. Mummy Tries

    Sounds really intriguing Sophie, a whole book revolving around dreams. I have trouble properly remembering my dreams, apart from the odd flash of vividness here and there, so I’d be useless at doing what you are!

    I think it was George Orwell who said don’t use ten words when you can use two. I’ve taken his advice seriously, and my own book is on the short side. I understand with fiction though that there are different expectations. So much to always think about!! xx

    1. sophieblovett Post author

      Brevity is certainly preferable in fiction too – most of the time anyway. The dreams thing is tricky because they’re not strictly ‘dreams’ in the usual sense. I think I’m just going to have to hope my writing’s strong enough to draw people in till it’s all explained! Definitely a lot to think about… xx

  3. redpeffer

    I’ve not tried writing dreams, but i like the idea. I’m all for things being done differently and challenging the ‘rules’ as it were. And I agree, less is more usually, even in fiction. I feel as if there are days when I’m constantly in a dream like state so I can see how it might work πŸ™‚

    1. sophieblovett Post author

      I found those dream like days very handy when I was writing the first draft! Though it’s definitely good to be going back in to hone things down with a (mostly) clear head… X

  4. Nicola Young

    It is hard to write dreams because they’re not always conveying a memory. The subject of a dream can be about something entirely unrelated to the persons life, but the underlying meaning of that dream could have significances to something they are going through or have experience. Does that make sense?

    1. sophieblovett Post author

      Absolutely! My problem, as I’m beginning to understand it, is that Grace’s dreams aren’t really straightforward dreams – they need to be convincing enough to the reader as such but actually there’s a whole lot else going on… Clear as mud I realise πŸ™‚

  5. maddy@writingbubble

    I like the idea of a book revolving around dreams – if you can REALLY capture that sense of what it is to be present in a dream then it could be amazing. I’ve had dreams vivid enough to change my feelings about things in the ‘real world’ and if you were able to convey that power and immediacy it would be great. But I can see why it’s a struggle because there’s something so intangible and ‘otherworldy’ about our dreams. I’ve got a couple of dream sequences in my book and they’re supposed to be pieces of the puzzle that the reader and my protagonist are trying to figure out. When I finish the draft and read back I’m certain they’re going to take substantial re-writing! This post has made me think! Thanks for linking to #WhatImWriting

  6. Emily Organ

    This is an interesting question, I’ve written down my own dreams for myself to read. But to write them for other readers is a challenge I think. It’s an age old bit of advice not to write dreams as you say (it stems from school I think when teachers got fed up with the ‘and then I woke up’ in creative writing!). My favourite dream sequence in a book is when Lockwood in Wuthering Heights has the dream about Cathy visiting, and although it starts very dreamlike (with him being bored in church) it ends very lifelike so you’re not sure at which point he’s woken up until he actually does. It’s a part of the book which really sticks with me. I’m going to think about other dreams in books now, if you’re feeling brave enough to share what you’ve written I’d love to read!

    1. sophieblovett Post author

      I keep meaning to reread that sequence in Wuthering Heights… In fact I will before I sleep tonight! I’m still working up the courage to share what I’ve written – I can’t quite separate the dreams from the rest of the novel yet πŸ™‚

  7. deskmonkeymummy

    Sounds intriguing. I want to know what she’s doing in her dreams to drive the story. If you want someone to cast an eye over it, I can. πŸ™‚
    I try not to include dreams as standard because of the “rule” above. I’m not sure that applies if the dreams control what happens in the novel though. There are always exceptions to the rules and it sounds like you’re successfully bending them, which is great.
    I did used to keep a dream diary, which is just odd, I’ll send you the link if you want (there’s about five recorded dreams on there, written in present tense as soon as I woke up.)
    Maybe teh answer will come if you begin editing the rest of the book? x

    1. sophieblovett Post author

      That dream diary sounds fascinating- I’d love to have a look! The key thing about the dreams in my novel is that it’s where my protagonist meets and gets to know a main character. As such they’re pretty unusual for dreams – but there is a reason for that! I’m definitely finding it’s all falling into place as I work through the manuscript. Still not quite ready to share yet though πŸ™‚ x

  8. Funky Wellies

    A very interesting post as I am about to incorporate some dreams in my book! I found it intriguing that the dreams in your novel were dialogue driven. Did you keep the dialogues? As for rules, I was not aware the dream debate was one, but I agree, it needs to be convincing. xx

    1. sophieblovett Post author

      I’ve kept some of the dialogue but pared it right back. It’s kinda necessary to the plot that there’s some. But I’m not sure Grace’s dreams are exactly typical… Let me know how you get on with writing yours! X

  9. Virtually All Sorts (@AllSortsHere)

    I would imagine that writing a dream would be quite fragmented, quite random. And yet somehow it would need to make sense. Like when someone from your school days pops up and isn’t even a main ‘character’ but is significant enough for you to notice them in your dream. And what’s more, is significant enough to remember them IN the dream… Very philosophical (and probably not particularly helpful!) thanks for giving me food for thought Sophie πŸ™‚ #whatimwriting

    1. sophieblovett Post author

      Generally I’d totally agree with the fragmented, random thing – but I’m starting to realise Grace’s dreams are quite atypical… I’m hoping that doesn’t cause people to switch off – I guess I’ll just need to make sure my writing’s irresistible! (Easy, right..?) πŸ™‚

  10. Morgan Prince

    Interesting topic Sophie. I have to say I’ve never written dreams into a novel or story however I have used them as inspiration. Like you say dreams are random and that can be difficult to convey. Good luck with it. xx

  11. Pingback: What if my normal isn’t normal after all? | Sophie is…

  12. Sara (@mumturnedmom)

    This is a very interesting question. I have very vivid dreams, and even though I know I’m dreaming and in fact have a certain amount of control over the dream – so much so that I wake up tired after them, feeling that I have actually ‘done’ what ever happened in the dream – I still find it hard to ‘catch’ them when I wake up in a coherent form (except when I have to ask people if we’ve had a conversation about something that seems so real, but almost always turns out to have been a dream!). I think this would make it difficult for me to write one… dreams are so random and flighty!


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