Writers are always told our fiction should be informed by our experiences, because the best stories have a kernel of truth to them. With this in mind we smuggle our quote books into our characters’ mouths. We cast colleagues as our leads, and we misappropriate our memoirs into our material. We find and replace our own names and over-share under aliases. We launder tell off speeches through nom de plumes and reveal our truth through jest.
We write what we know until we write the fantastic elements of our story. Then we drop that mantra completely. Without the experiences to draw from we use other methods to ground our stories. We impose rules on the impossible.
A ghost can pester the living from the further, but will be weaker than a person who dares to go there. A magician can project a torch flame across the room, but the heat will diminish 60%. A Jedi can project his consciousness across the galaxy, but the journey will kill him.
We rely on western storytelling conventions to suspend our readers’ disbelief. We hope an internal logic will do the trick. For the most part it works, but what if there was a way to make our fantasies resonate with the same sense of authenticity as stories in our diaries? What if we had fantastic life experiences and we didn’t even know it?
Dreams are Experiences
Dreams are the only place (outside of drug fueled journeys, psychotic episodes, and virtual reality) where we experience true fantasy. Unlike daydreams, dreams push us out of the driver’s seat. When we ride through dream country we’re not creators, we’re experiencers. Our feelings aren’t manufactured, they’re reactive, and due to this delusion of perception, our observations are authentic.
I have friends who check out whenever I pitch them a story, but they lean in whenever I start talking about nightmares.
This is why I advocate the keeping of a nightmare journal, a Compendium of phantasms, an Atlas of the abyss, a Bestiary of bogeymen. You get the idea.
Dream Diary Vs. Nightmare Journal
The difference between a dream diary and a nightmare journal is a dream diary lets you bask in the ethereal while a nightmare journal require you to sell your experience.
Dream journals encourage dreamers to search their subconscious for symbolism, to take a slow stroll through dream country, and unpack every encounter. They’re great for deepening your understanding of yourself. They bring lucidity to how you feel about your life, relationships, and surroundings, but they’re not always entertaining.
Nightmare journals are, because nightmares tap into our fear centers, call up a sense of urgency, and get our pulses pounding. So when you record your nightmares you need to recreate that sensation.
What Makes Nightmares So Effective?
As horror writers we need to reverse engineer our nightmares. We should know how they trick us into thinking the impossible is happening, how they are so quick to give us the shivers, and what gives them so much staying power?
I tend to have three kinds of nightmares: The daymare, the slow burner, and the endless runner.
A Daymare is an emotional nightmare. They take place while the sun is shining, within the realm of reason, and star people I see all the time. They aren’t life-threatening scenarios. They’re social life-threatening scenarios. These are the dreams where I catch lovers cheating, where I erupt at our coworkers, and say shit I can’t take back. These are nightmares insomuch as they upset me, just a little heartbreak before daybreak.
Daymares inform our dramatic scenes by forcing us to experience scenarios we dare not imagine upon waking. They teach us to be mercilessly cruel to our hero’s in order to draw out our reader’s empathy.
Slow Burners are the nightmares that come under the guise of dreams. They’re subtle and insidious. They may start as daymares, but their threat level will gradually escalate into true terror.
These are the dreams that feel threatening long before the actual threat presents itself. They’re atmospheric, filled with long shadows across windswept fields, abandoned cliff side castles, and ghost towns at nightfall.
These are the dreams where horror writers should go shopping for set designs. They give us the tools to establish the mood on page one. They teach us how to tell stories using our surroundings, rather than relying on dialogue and action.
Slow burning nightmares laud on the evidence until there’s no denying the danger. Then they transition into…
These are the visceral nightmares, where the devil is hot on your heels and you’ve got nowhere to hide.
I have so many dreams where I’m parkour running through a jungle gym of a wooden rafters and splintered doors. It seems like no matter how many spiral staircases and cobblestone corridors I put between the monster and myself it’s always right over my shoulder.
As crude as these nightmares seem they teach a very important lesson. Imminent threats don’t give our intellect much time to poke holes in our situation. A compelling sense of urgency grants that same power to our stories. Readers are more likely to just go withit if there’s a daunting threat.
Now that you know which part of your nightmares to mine for inspiration let’s work on enhancing your recollection of your dreams.
Ever notice you’re less likely to remember dreams when you sleep in as opposed to when you’re awakened by an alarm? That’s because the alarm catches you in the middle of the action. When you set your alarm give yourself some buffer time, before you rise up and start your routine. Take a moment to recall the story beats. It’s rarely the dream itself that crystallizes into memory. It’s the story you tell yourself about upon waking.
And if you’re a lucid dreamer committed to facing recurring nightmares then put off all forms of exercise, eat before bed, drink yourself into a coma, and live a life of constant debilitating stress. Ask your doctor to tweak your medications often. Ask to hear the side effects before the benefits and smoke a bowl of coffee grounds just to be safe.
Your subconscious is an incredible casting agent, a brilliant set designer, and a lackluster storyteller. Dreams have short attention spans, they’re full of plot holes, and rarely will they ever give you a sense of closure.
I’ve written about this before. Dream logic isn’t story logic. BUT nightmares will give you raw emotional moments, otherworldly atmosphere, and visceral scares. You’ll still have to piece those things together. You’ll need well-constructed characters for your painful reveals to work. You’ll need a mystery worth investigating in your mystical locations, and all your relentless revenants will eventually need a reason for being.
Just remember a nightmare journal isn’t thestory. It’s a secret weapon for making your fantasy-writing seem authentic. It makes the impossible feel real. I helps you continue to write what you know.