dreams - dream catcher in sunlight

Dreams: The Author’s Collaborators

By Rayne Hall


On reading Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s introduction to Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus (Shelley, 18-20), I discovered that the author had conceived the basic idea in a dream. The foreword to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde told me that that story, as well, had started as a dream experience  (Stevenson, p. 160).

Seeing that two great works of speculative fiction originated in dreams, I wondered: Do other authors use dreams as collaborators? Could I make dreams work for my writing?

cofee writing in the morning

My Personal Journey of Discovery

I was skeptical: too often I have woken up after dreams and thought “Here’s a great story, I must write it down,” or “what a perfect plot! What an innovative twist! What wonderful humor!” only to have the dream evaporate within minutes of waking. If I managed to jot it down, my handwritten notes were illegible or nonsensical. It felt as if I were attempting to catch colorful, slippery fish barehanded. Now and then I succeeded in putting a dream to paper, but the “perfect plots” turned out silly, the “innovative twists” improbable, and the humor not funny at all. The exotic fish, so vibrant in their water world, died when I brought them ashore.

I used to look down on the “catch a dream” school of writing. Many years ago, when I was an aspiring author, I took a creative writing class. The teacher instructed us students to set alarm clocks at 2:30 a.m. every night, with the intention to record whatever came to our supposedly dream-enriched minds when we were first roused. All that came to my mind were creative curses and a strong desire to strike the alarm clock.

On the other hand, I have more than once woken with the sudden answer to a problem posed by a current work-in-progress. Sometimes these insights pointed to useful source material; at other times they explained why a character would take a certain course of action, or suggested workable ways to make a conflict more compelling, even if I couldn’t  remember the dreams that provided them.

I decided to find out more about the connection between dreams and writing. To my surprise, I discovered that many contemporary authors – Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, Anne Rice, Sue Grafton and Stephen King among others – consciously use dreams for their writing, and talk about it frankly (Epel).

If prize-winning and best-selling professional writers can look to their dreams for help with their writing, perhaps the idea is not so stupid after all. Maybe there are more practical and more efficacious approaches than setting the alarm clock at 2:30 a.m. in the quest for random inspiration.

I have often received dreams in “genres,” structured and labelled as “thriller,” “historical romance”, “contemporary crime”, “science fiction” as neatly as the paperbacks in an airport bookshop’s shelves. I’m sure “normal” people don’t dream in fiction categories.

Many of my dreams even followed the fiction writing “rules” for flashbacks, expositions, scene transitions and such. This indicates that the dream producer, my unconscious, possessed a good understanding of the writer’s craft and would be capable of giving competent help. It could have acquired this knowledge from no source other than my – author’s – self. I reasoned that if the unconscious was capable of learning professional skills, I might be able to train it further. But how could I do this?

My unconscious seemed willing to work with me as a collaborator, using dreams as a method of communication. I became determined to establish a working relationship between my conscious and my unconscious self, to find a means of receiving messages more efficiently, and to make it a two-way communication. I set out to explore dreams in depth: how they are created and how they are interpreted.

dreams unconscious impossible

Dreams as Expressions of the Unconscious

Out of the many theories why our unconscious communicates with us, I found three particularly useful: those of Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, and Gayle Delaney. I will focus on these three here. 

Freud: The Unconscious Conceals

Sigmund Freud treats the unconscious as a forbidden, dark and dangerous place, a veritable Bluebeard’s chamber, where dreams are the secret keys which the ordinary human must not use without professional permission and protection. 

According to him, an acknowledged or hidden wish lies behind almost every dream. Because most of these wishes are of an infantile, aggressive or sexual nature, people find them unacceptable and suppress them. In dreams, the unconscious lives out these secret desires but disguises them as acceptable images. Generally, Freud treats dream images as signs, which have little or no meaning in themselves but point to something else. For example, the rhythmical and breathless activity of climbing stairs stands for sexual intercourse (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 466-529). The unconscious conceals the truth behind socially and personally acceptable symbolism.

Freud compares the unconscious to a writer who disguises a political message because it might displease the authorities:

If he presents them undisguised, the authorities will suppress his words… A writer must beware of the censorship, and on its account he must soften and distort the expression of his opinion.

Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 223

According to Freud, the best method to uncover the hidden meaning of dreams is free association, preferably under the guidance of a doctor. The dreamer builds mental bridges and comparisons. The chain of thoughts, however embarrassing and ridiculous they are, will eventually lead to the hidden secret. If free association doesn’t yield results, the therapist is entitled to interpret everything in a sexual/incestuous way. That patients resist this approach is natural, since they cannot bear the naked truth. It takes time to break down their resistance.

He holds that daydreams and nightdreams are essentially the same:

… fantasies in which repressed wishes and their derivatives come to expression in a distorted form.

Freud, Writers and Daydreaming, p.136

However, while nightdreams come from the unconscious, daydreams are the result of conscious playing.  His essay Creative Writers and Daydreaming compares the creative writer’s craft with a child’s play activities:

He creates a world of fantasy which he takes very seriously – that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion – while separating it sharply from reality.

Freud, Writers and Daydreaming, p.132

According to Freud, one kind of suppressed desire frequent in both daydreams and fiction is that for invulnerability, which is expressed in the hero’s brave deeds and wild adventures, from which he always emerges unharmed. (Freud, Writers and Daydreaming, p.137-138) 

What Freud’s Theories Mean to My Writing

woman asleep while reading

A series of dreams last autumn about long-forgotten childhood incidents motivated me to explore my relationship with my father in my creative writing. I produced several short independent pieces of creative writing, in which a main character is directly based on my father, and I also incorporated the daughter/parent relationship motif in the novel I was revising at the time.

These dreams dealt with desires which my conscious had long suppressed but which my unconscious still remembers: the child’s desires to be acknowledged and loved, and a yearning for white chocolate and glace cherries that I, as a five-year-old, did not allow myself to admit. I don’t perceive any hidden sexual meanings in these dreams. I simply love glace cherries and white chocolate, and now I know why. To me as a child, they represented the parental attention and love I was denied.

I have since written a draft of a short story about a girl pretending not to like white chocolate, which stands as a symbol for parental love.

I agree with Freud that daydreaming and writing are related, although in my experience this applies only to certain aspects of the writing craft: plotting, character development, world building.

Many writers enjoy fantasising about plots. Novelist Anne Rice, for example, says she is a heavy daydreamer.

To me, daydreaming is intimately connected with writing. Writing is like daydreaming. It’s putting down in dramatic form whatever is on your mind.

Rice, in Epel, p. 210

As writers, we play with desires, and we have the opportunity to fulfill our wishes on the page, even the secret ones. I agree with Freud that wish fulfilment underlies most written works of art to some extent, both consciously and unconsciously. For instance, during the thirty years I was based in rainy, grey-skied England, one of my conscious wishes I indulged in was to live in a warm, sunny place, and during that period I often chose hot climates as the setting for my novels and stories.

We can make ourselves the heroes of adventures, living exciting, rewarding lives and earning the appreciation we crave. We can express our unfulfilled romantic, emotional, sexual needs within a fictional context. But our creative works are far more than that. For example, setbacks, losses, character weaknesses and conflicts don’t feature much in wish-fulfilling daytime fantasies – at least, not in mine – but they are essential ingredients of good fiction.

Jung: The Unconscious Reveals

Carl Gustav Jung’s major contributions to the field of dream interpretation are the concept of a “collective unconscious” and the theory that dreams serve to reveal rather than conceal.

He theorizes that our unconscious is not trying to hide anything, but to show us connections and knowledge our conscious mind has missed. According to Jung, our unconscious is purposely speaking to us, and dreams are the language through which it communicates. Images and symbols have meanings in and of themselves, and are an effective way for our unconscious to get across multiple meanings to our waking minds.

Some of these images and symbols are individual to the dreamer. Others can be understood in a cultural context, while yet others stem from the “collective unconscious,” which the dreamer shares with all other humans.

The collective unconscious is a storeroom full of knowledge and wisdom, which our ancestors acquired over the millennia, and have passed down to us. This knowledge rests in our unconscious mind and speaks to us through dreams. It is most likely to express itself through ancient mythologies, such as the sacrificed and reborn hero/king, and through archetypes. Archetypes are energies, which take on images we unconsciously recognize, such as “the wise old man” and “the great mother.” While the energies, or “tendencies” as Jung calls them, are timeless and universal, the archetypal images representing them are likely to be shaped by our culture and religion.

Although Jung holds that the unconscious talks to the individual’s waking mind, he thinks the common dreamer cannot understand the language and needs help from someone who is as competent in ancient mythologies and comparative religion as in psychoanalysis. Unlike Freud, he thinks that an interpretation which feels wrong to the dreamer cannot be the correct one. In many of his writings, Jung emphasizes that meanings arising from the personal, environmental or historical context of the dreamer should be considered first; interpretations from the collective unconscious should be made only if an image has no individual meaning for the dreamer.

Jung defines archetypes as:

…pre-existing tendencies of the human mind to create mythic images… One finds these practically everywhere… We cannot attribute them to a specific period or part of the world or race.

My own translation. Jung, ch. 5 of Symbole der Traumdeutung: Der Archetypus in der Traumsymbolik (1961), published in C. G. Jung: Traum und Traumdeutung

What Jung’s Theories Mean to My Writing

girl falling asleep with book on head outside

Since reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces in which Joseph Campbell outlines the basic structure underlying most of the world’s myths and the adventures and archetypal images the “hero” encounters on his “journey,” I have been intrigued by the use of archetypes in fiction.

Christopher Vogler, in How To Use Myth To Power Your Story, shows that many successful contemporary novels and films follow the same pattern. He encourages writers to use this “hero’s journey” structure for their own writing, and let our hero encounter “the herald,” “the shape-shifter,” “the wise old man/woman” and the rest of the team. He argues that deep down, readers recognize the archetypes as familiar, and will therefore relate to them strongly.

I have always drawn on mythology for inspiration. After reading Jung I was able to apply archetypes to my fiction writing with greater understanding, avoiding stereotypes and giving them the grandeur and eternal attraction archetypes are meant to have.

Jung’s theory pointed me to dreams as an obvious source for archetypal images which are at once individual and universal. Reading through my dream journals, I found archetypes in the shape of deities, judges, teachers, priestesses, guards and thugs among my dream cast. They were all-knowing, larger than life characters who usually cross-examined or instructed me. I have begun to use dream archetypal images for the creation of fictional characters. Although I develop them as fully-fleshed humans in order to avoid stereotypes, I am making them “larger than life.”

A writer who uses elements from mythology and archetypes from the “collective unconscious” shares something that is at the same time familiar and private, and so creates a bond between them.

When a dream image puzzles me, I consult dream dictionaries, although these are much derided by modern dream analysts, including Delaney. Two dream dictionaries in particular have often proved useful to me (Parker, Secret World, and Poessiger). Instead of explanations of what a dream means, they offer suggestions for what it might mean. I believe they are so often right because their interpretations of symbols and archetypal images draw on the same source as my dreams do, which may be the collective unconscious, since the authors of both books favor Jung’s approach.

Delaney: The Unconscious Replies

Gayle Delaney holds that the primary function of dreams is to solve our current problems and that the communication between the unconscious and the conscious mind can, and should, be interactive.

We can incubate dreams by asking specific questions before going to sleep, preferably writing them down and chanting them. While we sleep, our unconscious works on a solution, which it then communicates through a dream. She recommends a specific dream incubation procedure before going to sleep: Writing notes about the day’s events; discussing the problem, its causes, possible solutions and associated feelings in detail, in writing; phrasing a specific question or request; repeating the phrase over and over, like a mantra. (Delaney, All About Dreams, 204-205)

Since the unconscious, to which she refers as “the dream producer,” creates the dreams for the individual, it uses a language that the dreamer can understand. Only the dreamers themselves can interpret their dreams correctly. Like Freud, Delaney encourages mental bridges and comparisons, but unlike Freud, she discourages free association because it leads too far away from the original message. When our unconscious talks to us through dreams, it gets almost straight to the point and does not complicate the messages with far-fetched connections.

Instead of asking “what does this remind me of?” dreamers should explain, as if to an alien from another planet, who or what the person or object is, and add a three-adjective description. The next step is to ask: Is there something currently in my life, or is there a part of myself, that is xxx, yyy, and zzz?”  This keeps the interpretation firmly focused on the present.

According to Delaney, dreams do not normally deal with childhood issues, even when they use images from childhood memories. For example, if we dream of our long-dead grandfather, he represents a person in our current life who has a similar personality or with whom we have a similar relationship. (Delaney, Breakthrough Dreaming, Ch. 5)

She holds that dream incubation and dream interpretation are safe to practice without professional input. (Delaney, Breakthrough Dreaming, p. 35)

What Delaney’s Theories Mean to My Writing

woman sleeping on a couch in front of windows

As part of my journey of exploration – about twenty years ago –  I participated in a five-week on-line course in dream interpretation, written and taught by Gayle Delaney (Barnes & Noble University, Premier Course, All About Dreams).

The first dream I incubated under her guidance was for a a vague fiction idea I wanted to develop into a story. Inspired by the biblical exodus, this would be a story about several foreigners seeking to escape from the country where they are held as bond workers. I wanted to know how the protagonists felt, and what their individual reasons for leaving were.

The subsequent dream disappointed me at first. It was unpleasant and seemed irrelevant, using images from the days when I was held in China against my will. But when I wrote it down, I understood that the “dream producer” was reminding me of how it felt to be unhappy in a foreign country, and that I should draw from China journals and my vivid memories of that period. As if to confirm that this was indeed an answer to my “exodus” question, the “dream producer” had included a plague of locusts, an allusion to the biblical exodus.

From then on, I incubated dreams almost every night for several years, mostly for writing-related questions, and I have received useful answers to more than half of them. I like this method, because I am in control, and because it gives almost instant results. The problems I identify during my writing day are solved during the night, freeing me to write more the next day.

My unconscious frequently draws on my own memory as a source. When I ask a question about matters of plot, setting or characterisation, it seems to search in my store of memories for something suitable, and presents it in a dream.

Here’s another example. When I was working on a series of short stories re-imagining ancient Greek myths, I asked for ideas for a story about Odysseus’ return to Ithaca.

In a dream that night, I returned to the town of my birth, to find some things unchanged, others drastically changed. My responses to both the familiar and the irrevocably changed were intensely emotional and varied.

I remembered how it felt when I visited places where I used to live after several years absence, and remembered the longing, the delight and the pain, the pride and the disgust, and understood exactly how Odysseus would have felt when walking through the streets of Ithaca again, and I believe that I can create these intense feelings in my writing.

Five more dreams the same night provided further useable suggestions for Odysseus’ return to Ithaca.

Dream incubation does not have to be formal. One evening, I wondered what color scheme my story heroine would choose for her room, but was too tired to write down the question, let alone to compile my thoughts on it the way Gayle Delaney suggests. I went to bed and fell asleep at once. In the morning, I remembered an apparently meaningless dream in which I was offered a bowl of oranges. It was only when I wrote the details in my dream journal that understood the pun. My heroine would choose the color orange.

Which other authors have consciously incubated dreams to generate ideas for their fiction?

The dream that inspired Frankenstein was informally incubated when friends challenged the author to come up with a ghost story plot. (Shelley, p. 18-20)

Writers Amy Tan and Sue Grafton use forms of dream incubation for their writing:

Sometimes, if I’m stuck on the ending of a story, I’ll just take the story with me to bed. I’ll let it become part of a dream and see if something surfaces.

Tan, in Epel, p. 285

I reach a point in many of my books, when I’m very heavily engaged in the process of writing, where I have a problem that I can’t solve. And as I go to sleep I will give myself the suggestion that a solution will come… I know that I will waken and the solution will be there.

Grafton, in Epel, p. 60

I find dream incubation a speedy and effective method for inviting dreams. As an added benefit, I remember “incubated” dreams more often, and in more detail, than spontaneous ones.

Sometimes dreams, though relevant, offer no help. When I incubated a dream for help with this paper, my unconscious promptly sent me a relevant dream. Unfortunately, it contained no useful advice, although I chased a sulking Carl Gustav Jung through the woods and dropped my trousers while hiding in a closet in Dr. Freud’s consulting room.

sleeping outside in city

How I Work with My Dreams

I find that the more I trust my unconscious collaborator with my dreams, the more cooperative she becomes. In periods when I actively work with her, I remember at least one dream every night. The dreams become increasingly detailed and relevant. On some mornings, my dream journal entries have totaled more than 2,000 words. Whenever I neglect to communicate with my unconscious collaborator, the dreams cease, and months may pass without a single remembered dream.

The most useful dreams are the ones I have incubated in some way, by either formulating a key question, writing it down and thinking about it, as Delaney suggests, or reading and revising my drafts before going to sleep.

Writing dreams down immediately after waking is useful, not only to stop them from evaporating, but because the process of committing details to paper often brings out a meaning. I usually notice puns only when I write them down.

Choosing What to Write About

woman asleep in grass outside

When dreams bring up suppressed feelings, or issues from long ago, I accept them as suggestions for something to write about, especially when the dreams continue to haunt me during the day, and when dreams recur over several weeks.

Following a persistent series of dreams featuring my younger sister, I am considering sibling relationships as a major aspect of my next novel.

Creative writing is a safe way to explore dormant issues, because we are in control. We can choose how deep we want to go into the matter. We also choose how our protagonists deal with the situations, let them act out wishes on our behalf, and even let them take the consequences. We experiment on paper without putting others or ourselves at risk in the real world, and yet learn from the experiences and mature through the process.

I have found that if my unconscious finds the subject interesting enough to dream about it, my conscious mind will find it interesting enough to explore, and to write about. If something intrigues me deeply, I am likely to be motivated to stay with it long enough to complete the project. When I look at past full-length fiction projects, I find that the novels I completed are those where the underlying issues kept me hooked. The manuscripts lying unfinished in the drawers are those where my mind was engaged only on an intellectual level.

Dreams sometimes inspire a writer with a plot idea for a new writing project.

Several of my stories started this way, though I find that that I have to change the original ideas greatly to make them plausible to fiction readers.

One night, I dreamt that I was bridesmaid to five brides at once – a crazily stressful situation, dashing from one wedding to another, trying to serve everyone and accomplish everything. Although on waking I immediately felt that this dream had story potential, I knew this wasn’t a realistic scenario. Fiction readers simply wouldn’t believe a bridesmaid serving five brides at once.

I decided to change the unrealistic aspect, while retaining the “feel” of the story. Instead of five brides, my bridesmaid served only one – but this bride was so demanding and unreasonable, it felt like five. 

While the dream had provided the scenario, it didn’t actually supply a plot. I chose to make it a tale about a young woman (the bridesmaid) finally learning to stand up for herself. This story (The Daffodil Dress) proved a breakthrough in my fiction writing career, the first of my fiction pieces to get published in a major magazine.

In one particularly surreal, terrifying dream I was studying a painting – and got pulled into the painting itself, becoming one of the people depicted in the picture, unable to get out. Since I write fantasy and horror fiction, this was great story fodder. But again, the dream had not provided a plot. I decided to let the character get pulled into the horrific experience of a shipwreck scene. The only way he can escape is by getting into a different painting, and he chooses the one in which lions devour martyrs in the arena.

The dream had not given me any characterization, backstory, message or meaning – I had to add those myself, creating relationship conflicts and unethical choices to give the reader the feeling that this character got the punishment he deserved. The story The Painted Staircase has been published in several collections and anthologies.

Since most writers – myself included – have more ideas than we have time to write, many dream-suggested ideas get shelved and never developed. I have a whole file of story ideas that would be worth writing… once I’ve completed the other three hundred stories haunting my mind.

Developing and Refining Plots

Some  of my writer friends enjoy finishing unfinished dreams, allowing their conscious mind to complete what the unconscious has started. I have tried this approach; it did not work for me.

However, I find that dreams help me improve already thought-out plots. Dream incubation, Delaney-style, often helps me with tricky plot problems. If part of a storyline is implausible, if timelines don’t match, if I don’t know how to get my hero to a certain place, my dreams provide paths.

Free association, Freud-style, is also effective, especially for plot details and twists. It does not matter if the interpretation is “right,” as long as the resulting idea fits the story and is interesting.

Whenever a dream feels as if it was relevant to my current writing, but does not contain any obvious suggestions, I sit down and question myself: “What if this happened to my hero? What if the town had such a temple? What if the people worshiped these deities?” This method is very productive.

Breaking Through the Barriers of Reality

For writers of speculative fiction (that is, fantasy, horror, and science fiction) dreams offer a lot of inspiration. Unlike writers of other genres, we are free to take what we see literally, to invite the dream dragon into our book, to recreate magic spells, to let flames rain down from heaven, and have a whole fortress fly away.

We can use plot elements and bizarre twists as long as long as we make these events plausible by the rules of our invented world. This permitted me to write the above-mentioned The Painted Staircase in which people get absorbed into the scenes of the paintings they view.

Playing with elements that have no place in our real lives, such as demons and shape-shifters, magic and hereditary curses, is what makes writing speculative fiction so much fun. In practice, I sometimes feel inhibited by reality; my conscious self censors me when I play. Dreams are a way of escaping from my daytime censor.

Deepening Characterisation

Dreams help a lot with in-depth characterisation, especially for understanding quirky aspects that appear in already-developed characters halfway through a work in progress. Sometimes I slip into the role of my fictional characters, dreaming the way that character would. This gives me new insights about that character’s attitudes. 

Dreams which take me into the role of a minor (non-point-of-view) character are extremely useful. It is as if those minor characters slipped into my unconscious to remind me of their existence, and to correct my presumptions about them. These dreams occur mostly when I have completed the draft for a scene. Having experienced an aspect of the scene from a different point-of-view allows me to improve it a lot during the revision.

Novelist Amy Tan also uses dreams to gain insights about her characters:

I don’t normally see my characters in dreams exactly as they appear in a book, but I do experience a similar kind of feeling or emotion, something that gives me new insight into the questions that I’m asking of those characters.

Tan, in Epel, p. 285

Evoking Intense Emotions

I like to tap into the feelings of a dream; the emotions expressed are often the ones I have neglected to give my characters. Dreams can tell me how they really feel about the events.

I have often heard it said that the difference between a “good novel” and a “great novel” lies in their emotional intensity. Some dreams are intense, and I try to recreate this in on the page by looking for details which made the experience so intense.

Creating Suspense

Dreams instill in us feelings of horror, terror and fear. They achieve this not so much because of the nature of the threat, but by how it is presented. Dream “monsters” are sometimes apparently harmless items, such as a glove, or a lamp. Sometimes the threat they pose is unspecific; sometimes they are not even visible in the dream. Yet they frighten the dreamers out of their wits. I still shiver at the chilly memory of a toy train in a nightmare when I was four years old.

Dreams, it seems, use the same method as fiction writers: they build up suspense, tease us cruelly with anticipation, with lurking dangers, with the felt presence of an unspecified menace, long before the terrible event happens.

I am usually pleased with the suspense scenes I write under dream-influence, but feedback from my critique exchange partners shows that they are overlong, repetitive and in need of much rewriting. My dreams give me ideas for creating suspense, but they have not taught me yet how to do it in a concise style.

The power of nightmares is probably the reason why so many horror writers use their dreams for inspiration. I have already mentioned Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson. Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe is said to have eaten indigestible food at bedtime to induce the desired nightmares, while horror-story writer H.P. Lovecraft drew largely on nightmares he remembered from his childhood (Grant, p.77). Stephen King’s novels The Body and Salem’s Lot owe much to remembered dreams (King, in Epel, p. 135-136). For Clive Barker, dream images are starting places for stories (Barker, in Epel, p.34), and William F Nolan claims that some of his best horror story ideas come from dreams (Nolan, p. 22).

Writers of other genres welcome nightmares for the same reason. Crime novelist Sue Grafton says:

A frightening dream is wonderful for me because it re-creates all the physiology that I need in describing my private eye heroine Kinsey Millhone in a dangerous situation.

Grafton, in Epel, p.61

Metaphors and Symbols

Dreams are rich in metaphors and symbolic images, and dream interpretation is a discovery to what theme the imagery metaphorically applies.

Finding out what metaphorical meanings the objects in my dreams have, and even giving my imagination free reign and making up metaphorical meanings, are the most enjoyable aspects of working with dreams. Here I can have fun, and I am not obliged to come up with a “correct” interpretation, as long as the result suits the story.

Sometimes I lift metaphors directly out of the dream and use them as they are; at other times I adapt them to suit the period and setting; for example, the automobile from the dream may have to become a horse-drawn carriage if I am working on historical fiction.

Other authors use seemingly bizarre dream metaphors for good effect. In Isabel Allende’s Love and Shadows, a pig dressed up as a general represents the people’s feelings about the military. (Allende, in Epel, p. 21)

The metaphorical language of my dreams delights me so much that on waking I am often in “metaphor mood,” inspired to create my own metaphors.

When a dream contains symbols and metaphors representing the character’s suppressed desires, I like to I integrate these images into my writing. This way, I can feed my readers subtle clues about what my characters really think, fear or desire, without spelling it out.

Humor Does Not Work

I have found dream humour, unfortunately, to be almost untranslatable into real writing. What amused me greatly in a dream looks bland in daylight.

Dreams use puns a lot, and these are also untranslatable, especially since the ones in my dreams mix my native German tongue with my writing language, English. Besides, they are usually too far-fetched and fanciful to be of use.

dream producer

Conclusion: Dreams

I have found that the unconscious collaborator, the “dream producer,” an inspiring, supportive and critical partner for my writing. Through dreams, it provides me with ideas, draws my attention to flaws, and troubleshoots when I’m stuck.

In keeping with Freud’s theories, dreams help me to choose issues to write about from deep inside myself. Jung opens up the use of the power of myth and the use of archetypes. Delaney’s method helps me use dreams in a practical, efficient way.

But the dream producer does not do the writing for the author; dreaming alone is not enough. Just as a nightmare alone would not have produced Frankenstein, I don’t expect it to write my novels. The real artistry lies in adapting and expressing the experience, and this is the task for the conscious mind.

For me, the unconscious is an artist in its own right, producing creative dreams. The conscious mind is the writing artist. When encouraged to collaborate, the two influence and challenge each other, but each is ultimately in charge of its own creative work.

After several years of diligent dream incubation, I’ve let the habit slip, mostly because I have more story ideas than I have time to write.  Maybe it’s time to take it up again: My night-time collaborator may suggest a way how I can write fast enough turn all those ideas into fiction.


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Parker, Julia and Derek. Dreaming. Remembering/Interpreting/Benefiting. Mitchell Beazley, London, 1985

Peters, Maggie. Dreamwork. Gaia, London, 2000.

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Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein or a Modern Prometheus, in Classic Horror Omnibus Vol 1, ed. Peter Haining. Book Club Associates, London, 1979

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  • Rayne Hall

    Rayne Hall is the author of over sixty books--mostly horror, fantasy, and non-fiction--and the editor of the Ten Tales series of fantasy and horror anthologies. The books in her acclaimed Writer's Craft series equip writers with professional techniques. She holds a masters degree in Creative Writing & Personal Development. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook. Website: raynehall.com. Amazon: Rayne Hall

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Rayne Hall

Thanks for hosting my article. I wonder if anyone else here is using dreams for story creation?

Douglas Kolacki

Strange that I’ve been writing for many years, yet none of my dreams have really translated into writing. I’m sure much of that’s because of how I quickly forget them once I wake up. The dreams I do remember, though, always seem too bizarre to make a coherent story, LOL.


Lovely exploration of three dream theorists and their influence on your development as a writer. Very enjoyable and relatable descriptions of the frustrations we, as expectant humans, grapple with as we struggle to conjure meaning and story fodder from dreams spawned from our growing up as well as our day-to-day. Have bookmarked this worthy article.

Phillip T. Stephens

This article calls to mind Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes, whose antihero Calvin day dreamed mythic adventures of his heroism and his foes that became stories within a larger story. His foes were symbolized as dinosaurs and giant praying (praying) mantises whose characteristics represented the slights they committed against him. Watterson’s comics reflect a process and model for writers looking to explore the psyche.

Rayne Hall

I’m not familiar with Calvin & Hobbes, but I like the idea of foes symbolised by dinosaurs and giant praying mantises. 😀

Diana Atanasova

What an interesting read. I am nowhere near a writer but I’ve always been interested to read and compare theories about the subconsceous. I usually forget my dreams in a few seconds, if if they have been vivid and detailed. Thank you for sharing!


I also have several times tried to grasp on to the elements in a dream when I’m awake only for it to fall apart. But I have found I could build on a plot I created in the waking while in the dreaming, and this has helped me to get out of writer’s block a number of times.


Quite an informative read. I think that for many new or aspiring writers, dreams are a convenient source of inspiration, though, often times, the most difficult part is translating that thought or idea into a coherent story. I am curious if you have ever tried re-initiating the same dream in order to maybe get a different or possibly clearer interpretation.

Also, I’m definitely going to experiment with waking up in the middle of the night to see what comes up. One way or another it will most likely stir up some ideas 🙂


So dreams are in a way the vehicle that allows the conscious and the unconscious to communicate. That would make sense, since the two systems need a common language in order to cooperate. Never thought about it that way.

yunus taofeek

What a wonderful read. I don’t remember my dreams immediately I woke up but It usually come back to me during my daily activities.
While reading your blog, I could remember an episode from a tv show called “Evil” created by Robert & Michelle King. Kristen was able to use Delaney’s method to confront a demon that kept appearing in her dream.  
I have an idea on how to write faster those ideas. Am suggesting doing a audio recording then ask someone (maybe freelance writer) to listen and type-out the story. You can then rewrite, redevelop or refine the plot. What do you think?


I am an avid dreamer and I have learned over the years not to take my dreams for granted as they usually bring some clear warning or connote a deeper meaning to something I have been ignoring when I absolutely shouldn’t.


This was such a great read. In all my years of writing and dreaming of course, I have never thought to use dreams in such an efficient way as you have done.What I do agree totally with though, is the fact that dreams are funny and really unpractical, it will be a arduous task for anyone to translate that into meaningful writing.

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