Syphoning Nightmare Fuel

1. Syphon

The Difference Between Dream Logic and Story Logic

People always ask authors where their ideas come from. In the case of Sandman creator, Neil Gaiman, fans always ask if he gets his ideas from dreams. On his blog, he answered:

No. Dream logic isn’t story logic. Transcribe a dream, and you’ll see. Or better yet, tell someone an important dream – ‘Well, I was in this house that was also my old school, and there was this nurse and she was really an old witch and then she went away but there was a leaf and I couldn’t look at it and I knew if I touched it then something dreadful would happen…’ – and watch their eyes glaze over.

Dream logic is story logic’s drunken roommate, mumbling through an anecdote, easily distracted by details, always losing his place. Despite dream logic’s meanderings, its abstract nature makes it interesting. Dreams feel prophetic, like a sixth sense foreshadowing coming events. Dreamscapes seem like they’re aware of the dreamer’s presence. Every object is personified. Even the walls have feelings. Dreamworlds are hardwired to our emotions. They resinate with importance, which is why, despite their abstractions, they’re still a source of inspiration.

Filmmaker, David Lynch has directed three movies with dream logic: Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire. Their themes drive their stories, more than characters or structure. Their plots are incomprehensible by design. Their outcomes are open to interpretation.

As much as I enjoy Lynch’s work, I believe nightmares can fuel clear stories too. David Robert Mitchell, writer/director of the new horror hit It Follows, says his film was based on a reoccurring dream where he was being stalked by a slow moving predator. Everyone has their own version of that nightmare. Mitchell tamed his, gave it rules, and made it fit a story structure.

Dreams don’t conform to story logic, but Lynch and Mitchell show how they can be repurposed. I’m going to show you how to make your dream sequences feel relevant and how to mine your nightmares for material that makes sense.

2. Syphoning

How to Make Dream Sequences Matter

The “It was all just a dream” trope can feel like a waste of your audiences’ time, unless the dream does more than provide a cheap jump scare.

In 1845, Elias Howe was struggling to invent a working sewing machine. He had a nightmare that cannibals were stabbing him. He looked down to find their spears had holes in the tips. When Howe woke up he realized he needed to put a hole in the tip of the needle for his contraption to function.

Have you ever struggled to remember a word only to recall it when you didn’t need it? Your subconscious continued to work on a problem long after your conscious mind had given up. Howe’s subconscious continued work on the machine after his brain had called it a night.

This is why dream sequences aren’t useless. They can clarify information characters were exposed to earlier but didn’t understand. To be clear, a dream sequence shouldn’t be a dues ex machina, a plot device to get your character out an impossible situation, it needs to be set up early in the story so it feels earned. A dream can present images the hero has already seen, but in an order that makes them make sense.

The rules that apply to every scene apply even more to the ones happening in your hero’s head. Nightmares need to reveal character in a way your hero would never dare externalize. Show us the dark side of the hero’s ambition. Show us the doubts they have about their goal. Show us the internal nature of their conflict.

You can play with metaphors to reward more attentive readers. Make sure there’s substance in your symbolism. If the sequence features a backward talking little person, make sure there’s a reason behind that decision, even if it’s never fully explained.

The scene should further the plot. As with Howe’s dream, the surreal should offer solutions to real world obstacles. This way your audience won’t feel cheated by something that didn’t actually happen.

Mine Your Nightmares for Material that Makes Sense

Some nightmares are so powerful they linger long after you’ve torn their page out of your dream journal. They stick in your memory like good stories. The trick is to find a way to cram their square shape into the circular peg of narrative structure. I do this by whittling them down to their essence and building a fresh story around them.

So you just woke up screaming? Here are some ways to tell if you have something worth developing.

Audition your Nightmares

Clive Barker keeps a dream journal. He says he discards 98% of the material, but the remaining 2% is filled with creatures like Hellraiser’s Pinhead.

James Cameron says he got the idea for the severed torso of the Terminator from a dream.

Mary Shelly said she dreamt about a pale student kneeling beside a “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with uneasy, half-vital motion.”

Her vision became Frankenstein’s creation.

In each of these cases, the appearance of these phantasms inspired the premise for their stories. Before casting a nightmare as your villain, ask yourself what makes them narrative worthy. Do they wear their origin on their face, like Freddy Krueger? Do they have a reason for stalking you? Could that reasoning speak to a greater theme?

3. Syphoned

Consider your Subconscious’s Pitch

The best nightmares to lift material from are the ones set in interesting situations. The trouble is most of these situations aren’t grounded in reality. They need to be reigned in.

I’d once dreamt a killer bound a line of victims up like paper dolls. He strung their naked corpses across a walkway in the middle of the night. The morning commuters were mildly upset by this horrifying presentation. They shook their heads, saying things like:

“Will you look at that?”

“Well, that’s too bad.”

“Geez, not again.”

The drivers’ tepid reactions made the dream all the more disturbing, but if I were to adapt this situation into a story, I’d have to up the ante. Traffic would have to stop. Drivers would have to be hysterical in the streets. The sky would be full of news choppers. Police tape would be everywhere. The bodies would be covered, while the authorities tried to figure out a way to take them down.

Stephen King got the idea for Misery when he fell asleep on a plane. He said, “I dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, ‘I have to write this story.’ Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling.”

Although King’s original vision was far more ghastly, he had to change it to play better in reality.

Develop Your Dreams

Once your subconscious earns its ‘story by’ credit, it’s up to you to do the rest. You need to filter your dream through story logic. Things in dreams can happen for no reason. If you’re going to adapt an idea from one, you have to find a cause to justify the effect the nightmare had on you. Come up with an explanation for why the shapeshifting creature stalked you through town. Then your nightmare will be a story worth telling.

8 thoughts on “Syphoning Nightmare Fuel”

  1. I agree that dreams can help solve a problem in writing. Whenever I’m stuck with a character or have a part in a story I’m unhappy with, I find that I will dream about it and the dream usually offers up a fix for the problem. If not, then I will consider scrapping it 🙂

    1. I should’ve mentioned that sometimes I dream I’ve figured out a scene and written my ideas down, only to wake up and find nothing on the page.

      When I’m writing horror, my dreams are very kind to me. The other day I dreamt that every time I shut the door in my house, everything (and everyone) in the room disappeared. That might make an interesting premise.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  2. Drew, how do you keep doing it week after week?

    I appreciate this particular entry because I’ve used dreams to fuel stories. No, they don’t look entirely like the dream, but the sparks are there. Writing dreams in novels have to hold together better than the real deal, but those are the places where the most secret of character motives and sometimes foreshadowing lie. A powerfully-written dream sequence holds clues for the future as the characters act on the disturbing nocturnal revelations.

    A powerful tool to generate the friction needed to write a compelling story or to generate friction within a story, I agree it requires a delicate hand when evolving it into interesting prose.

    Kudos on another winner, Drew. Keep them coming. 🙂

  3. Dreams.

    I could write a book about my own. I have remembered them in vivid detail all my life. I have dreamed entire “dreamscapes” full of landmarks and streets and businesses and people — and returned to them in future dreams often, catching up with the people there about what they’ve been up to since I was last there (and their asking me how my “other life” is going). Yet none of it is mundane by any stretch. And these dreams have often provided great frameworks for stories.

    That was far less compelling than I know it could have been. But that is intentional, since the bit that caught me eye was elsewhere. It’s one of the things I’ve found aspiring writers having the hardest time grasping: internal validity. You put it this way: “… make sure there’s a reason behind that decision, even if it’s never fully explained.” It does seem the temptation is great with many writers to break one side or the other of this advice: to add in details that are “cool” without reason or to add non sequiturs to cheat past parts that would take time and discipline to write otherwise; or to over-explain background detail to the point where it feels more like an excuse (“See, reader, I DID have a reason I said such-and-such! Let me spell it out for you …”) and less like a story.

    Much of the hard part of writing is the thinking and planning that needs to be happening when our hands aren’t on the keyboard. Skip it — and everyone will know. They might not even know WHY they know, but they’ll know just the same that “something doesn’t feel right.”

    I’d be interested to know from individuals how much dreams affect your writing, or conversely, how much people feel the writing begins to affect your dreams.

    Always an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, Drew.

    And by the way — I notice, understand and appreciate the amount of time you put into the IMAGES that accompany your posts! They work wonderfully; but perhaps not everyone understands the planning and then the actual time that goes into making just one of these images, let alone an entire sequence of them to cohesively support a theme and your brand image. It’s immense — and you do it with excellence! Just wanted you to know that it is noticed and lots of respect goes out to you for the work you put in to include them.

    1. I try to remember as much of my dreamscape real estate as I can, adding wings to my memory palace.

      Even I struggle with internal validity. Every time I think I can breeze through a flashback in a paragraph, I end up forcing myself to commit to a chapter. I also have my shared of detailed darlings I always end up removing. Half the time, I know I’m going to edit them out as I write them do. I write them anyway to inflate my word count ego.

      Thanks for acknowledge all the work that goes into Photoshopping my images. I try to streamline them as much as possible, but they still take up most of the day I do them.

      As always, thank you so much for reading and your well thought out comment.

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