Have you ever had a dream that, the second you wake up, you want to write it down? “This would make a wicked story!” you think to yourself, imagining the potential plot. Especially if you write horror, dreams can be a wonderful source of inspiration. The feeling of being trapped in a nightmare, with something horrible chasing you, or something just wrong with the world of the dream and you can’t pinpoint it but you know it’s horrible. If you could translate these feelings into words, surely you’d be able to terrify readers. I sometimes turn to my dream for inspiration but there’s something I learned from repeated attempts at transcribing my dreams too closely.
A while ago, I had a dream that deeply disturbed me. I dreamed I was being pulled through a department store. I felt like something evil was growing inside me. I didn’t know what it was but I could feel it growing, taking over more and more of me. I struggled against whoever was tugging me. People stared in horrified disbelief at what they saw. We passed a mirror and I felt the horrible urge to look and see what was happening to me but I was too afraid. I kept closing my eyes and jerking away but somehow my eyes kept fluttering open. Each time they opened, I caught a glimpse of something monstrous squirming in the mirror. Finally, the terror reached a fever pitch and I woke up. Needless to say, I woke up frightened but inspired. I saw the potential for this story. In fact, I was sure that the story would write itself. This was December of 2010.
By May, I was still nowhere near completing the story. The story I had decided on was still based on the dream but incorporated heavy elements of Chinese mythology and the history of Unit 731. I suggest reading about it because it is one of the finest examples of how the atrocities of human beings will somehow always outdo the things we writers can imagine. The story was about a college student living in London whose family had somehow escaped the atrocities of the infamous unit. On the night of a particular festival that her family observes she goes to a concert instead of observing the ritual and begins to have horrible hallucinations and comes face to face with the thing the ritual was supposed to keep at bay. Now that I think of it, and with the distance of time separating me from the story, I can see where I went wrong and how to make the story work but, during those frustrated months, nothing I did seemed to be enough to get the story moving.
Since then, I’ve actually derived a short story I completed and a novel that is being developed from the raw materials of this one unassailable short story. In the process, I figured something very important out that has since helped me not just in turning my dreams into stories but with writing in general. My ideas went all over the place when writing that story. I was hell-bent on capturing the effect the dream had on me. I wanted the reader to feel terrified and confused. After two initial attempts, I had the confused part down. But with that version, there was a serious disconnect with the character and what was happening to her. She felt like a cipher. I didn’t feel connected to her and I didn’t know what she was doing or why. I also couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all just a bit too much to expect my readers to suspend their disbelief this far. The story was breaking down and I didn’t know why. The harder I tried to put it together, the worse it was coming. I came to the conclusion that I needed to change the setting. I changed the setting and powered through the story. I came to the end and I still wasn’t totally satisfied. What was wrong?
Now that I look back, it is obvious. I could have kept the original setting. I could have kept the original characters and the original story problem. What was wrong was much less tangible than the setting. The story lacked a skeleton. It wasn’t plotless but it lacked cohesion. It felt strained, like it was trying to be more than it was. I had crammed too much in, had too much backstory, too much of everything but a central narrative pillar. There is probably no story so crazy that it can’t be turned into a working story. What I had done was mixed the lines up between what works in a dream and works on paper. A dream works according to a unique, internally derived logic. By sticking too closely to the dream, I was trying to have both a nightmarish, dream-like experience while adhering to a story in which the rules of the real world mostly apply. If I had gone with a totally surreal set-up, that would have worked without nearly as much as the hassle but instead I mixed both together and kept tearing itself apart as quickly as I tried to stitch it back together. The root of the problem I think came not from even a lack of focus but too much focus on creating a certain emotional effect without enough thought to the story that would carry it. Sure it might be creepy at parts and I might get the result I’m aiming at, but without a narrative and characters to carry it forward that might as well be a description of a napkin blowing down the sidewalk. Sure it can be poetic but it’s still not a story. Because I was so single-mindedly pursuing my goal, I forgot one of the most important things about writing which is to tell a story with memorable characters.
Routinely, I have dreams and nightmares that I think would make good short stories or could be worked into a novel. However, I now realize that the important thing is not to transcribe the dream image for image or feeling for feeling onto the page but to think about what the dream was about. Sure one can incorporate those images and feelings but to concentrate solely on those aspects will probably lead to frustration. The trick is to analyze the dream and figure out what it was really about. The most affecting part of these dream experiences are how they reveal deeply ingrained, almost hard-wired fears and vulnerabilities. By looking at one’s dreams and learning to read them and thus learn why it was so deeply affecting, one can create a story that will haunt readers by digging into those liminal areas of their consciousness that they keep hidden.
So go beyond the image, dig past the outward horror to find what it is about the experience that is truly traumatic. That is where your story lies. I’d suggest keeping a dream journal where you record your night’s dreams. It will help you identify and zero in on the aspects of the dream that will work and that will create a great story.