Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Incredibly Inspiring Bizarreness of Dreams

I know some people who say they never remember their dreams. Maybe it's because I'm a light sleeper, or maybe it's simply a function of the way my memory works, but I have never had that issue. I've had more than my share of nightmares in my life, but most of the time, my visits to the dreamscape are just really, really bizarre.

I had one a couple of nights back where I was a kid again, and my dad took me down to the dark, scary basement in some biology department's research building (he was a molecular biology professor, and this basement was rather like the one I very vaguely remember visiting when he was a grad student at MIT when I was really tiny). The weird thing was, he was taking me down there to use something called "the atomic toilet." Fortunately, I woke up before that aspect of the dream played out.

This so-called atomic toilet looked like a weird mixture of the space shuttle toilet, a solar toilet from the high country, and the atomic clock at NIST. Efforts to reconstruct where this dream came from yield the following insights:

1. I had to go to the bathroom,.
2. I'd been thinking about my dad (whom I still miss a great deal) before I went to bed.
3. My dad had once wanted to get a composting toilet for his property in Paso Robles.
4. There was a rerun of Big Bang Theory on a while back with a space toilet in it.
6. I'd read something about the atomic clock a few days before, because I was researching the way the definition of a second had changed throughout history.
7. I'm getting older, and while I'm mostly okay with this at a conscious level (it beats the alternative), I'm often a younger version of myself, even a kid again, in my dreams.

And strange as this dream was, I've had stranger. In fact, nearly all my dreams are strange and seem to be amalgamations of random memories, emotions and fears. I don't have an inordinate number of nightmares as an adult, but I can sure remember some doozies from when I was a kid, often involving falling, coming home to a strangely abandoned house, or being chased by something. As an adult, many of my nightmares entail things like teeth falling out or getting a horrific diagnosis at the doctor's.

Ugh. At least dreams about atomic toilets make me laugh when I wake up.

I've had dreams that felt intensely symbolic to me that have provided insights about relationships. I've also occasionally had dreams that have provided story ideas or that have given me insights about how to deal with something in one of my novels.

Scientists are still not completely sure why mammals (and possibly birds and reptiles as well) dream. But the emotional and bizarre nature of dreams means that they have played an important role in spirituality and art, and have inspired some important works of literature. For instance, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were purportedly inspired by dreams the authors had.

But incorporating dreams (by a pov character) as actual plot elements in novels can be problematic at times. Dream sequences often end up on agent and editor rant lists. And whenever the subject comes up on writer's forums, the sentiment seems to be at least 3:1 against including scenes that describe a dream the character is having.

So what are the problems with using vividly described dreams in books?

1. If they're used in the wrong place, they can distract the reader from the plot and can interrupt the flow of the story.

2. They're sometimes used as info dumps re backstory or as "quick and easy" ways for the pov character to gain an insight about something without working for it. They can sometimes be seen as a deus ex machina type resolution to problems in the story.

3. They are sometimes used to introduce an element of tension. But since tension surrounding something that isn't really happening, many readers feel cheated by it, especially if the dream is introduced in such a way that it seems "real" at first--and then the character wakes up.

4. But if it's clear from the beginning that it's "just" a dream, then some readers wonder if it's important enough to read at all and will skim or skip it.

5. Real dreams are strange and don't always make a lot of sense. Yet in books, they're nearly always realistic or richly symbolic.

6. If the dream has relevance to another character in the story, and he or she then has to tell another character about the dream, the author may end up covering the same ground twice.

7. There are often other ways (i.e. flashbacks, dialog, expository lumps) to achieve the same end in a story.

Now in speculative fiction, there's a potential for a dream world to exist as a "real" spiritual realm (like in H.P. Lovecraft's works). It's also possible for dreams in speculative works to provide the characters with access to hidden knowledge or with a connection to another character. Sometimes the dreams are even an integral part of the plot, like in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven. And of course, if the entire point of the story is a dream world becoming more real in some ways than the waking world (as in Alice in Wonderland) it's hard to think of a way to forego using them.

But even so, I think the author has to consider whether or not the ends could possibly be achieved in some other way. And as with any other plot device, a light touch is often the best approach. No one wants to read a long, jumbled piece of dream narrative that confuses, or worse yet, bores.

Detail from The Knight's Dream (1655) by Antonio de Pereda (1611–1678)


  1. I don't often have genuine nightmares - my bad dreams tend to be frustrating more than scary, including one or two Kafka would have been proud of.

    I agree that one of the things that authors tend to do wrong most often with dreams is to make them too realistic. That's why I never bought the film version of The Wizard of Oz being a dream - it was following the book, which isn't a dream, and it's far too logical, unlike the Alice books which really do have a dreamlike randomness.

  2. Yeah, I think Carroll's world was much more dreamlike than the movie Oz. He was good at working those strange little touches into things.

    I get lots of frustration dreams. The real nightmares I get as an adult tend to be more emotional than physical, though I do have an occasional falling dream. Had one a while back where I was in the car with my sister in law and we drove off a tall bridge (death was certain as we plummeted. Then I woke up).

  3. It's strange that some people don't dream. My husband (who rarely reads fiction and is a very practical sort of person) hardly ever dreams. Like you I dream every night, though can't always remember the details. It very often involves chases, teeth, extreme gore and violence, absolutely wacky situations—the Christmas turkey with the face of Maggie Simpson being a case in point.
    Nineteenth century novelists used dreams (beginning of psychiatry) with greater or lesser degrees of success, but generally, in modern novels the dream smacks of a device. Unless you really believe dreams are premonitory then they serve no purpose in the story, and if they are premonitory why spoil the surprise?

  4. Well technically speaking, nearly everyone dreams (unless they have a neurological condition), but we don't remember most of our dreams. And some people remember their very rarely or not at all. We do spend less of our sleeping time in stage 1 REM as we get older, but even so, the average adult has something around 6 dreams a night and spends 1-2 hours per night dreaming. I don't know why some people really come up blank with regards to actually remembering theirs, though. My husband doesn't remember his (or even dreaming at all) nearly as often as I do, but he seems to be a heavier sleeper. I wonder if that has anything to do with it. I suspect the personality trait (or defect according to my grade school teachers) that leads us to spend a lot of time lost in our own imaginations doesn't hurt either.

    I just read a really good blog entry by Margaret Atwood on dreams as inspiration and in stories.

    She covered some of the same ground I did, but of course, far more eloquently :P