Monday, January 17, 2011

Seeding Dreams

by Laura Bickle

Dreaming is a funny thing. Our subconscious uses its free time at night to be creative, solve problems, and just meander aimlessly. We often believe that we're at the mercy of our dreams, held hostage by the repressed portions of our psyches as they march us through odd landscapes and strange situations.

Often, that's true. The subconscious is determined to be heard, and we're stuck twiddling our thumbs, listening to it drone about our issues.

But it's much more productive to take one's subconscious by the scruff of the neck, give it a good shake, and put it to work. At least, that's the way I've always worked while writing.

Sometimes, I get stuck in the writing process. I get stuck on a character's motivations, stymied about a plot point, or vacillate on what should happen next in a story. I tend not to get much from brainstorming sessions. Sometimes, I pick up a random Tarot card or putter with my own perversion of bibliomancy - I open a book at random and see if I can find inspiration.

But, when all else fails, the only solution for me is to sleep on it. I keep a notebook beside the bed. Before I go to sleep, I write down what's bothering me about the story - I "seed" the dream with an idea or question. Usually, it's something like:

What's my antagonist's motivation?

Do I need an extra day in the timeline to smooth out my pacing?

What the hell does that fanged rabbit that keeps recurring in my story MEAN, dammit?

Before I go to sleep, I scribble my question down and leave it by my bedside. I set an alarm for a decently early hour of the morning, when I know I'll be interrupting my REM sleep cycle. I try to think of my problem as I'm going off to sleep.

And...more often than not, I wake up hip-deep in a dream that works out my problem. My subconscious has fiddled with the issue most of the night, and manages to spit out an answer about the rabbit, the motivation, or my missing day. I snatch up my notepad and write down whatever I recall about the dream.

Usually, I get pretty good results. Why waste waking time brainstorming when your brain is looking for something to do at night? Waking time is precious enough. Delegating to the subconscious can help. I used this a lot when I was testing software in my previous career. I'd awaken in the middle of the night, having conjured up a test scenario that I knew that the software was doomed to fail to address. I'd scribble it down and test it in the morning.

Seeding your dreams won't help, of course, if you don't often remember your dreams. You may have to time your REM cycles and set an artifical interruption, like an alarm, if you're a heavy sleeper. And it requires practice. But only you can pull your story from between your ears. May as well exploit all of the brain cells while doing it.

How about you? Have you had a dream that's helped you in your work (creative or not)?


  1. This is so true. Many times I've had dreams that gave me an idea to get through the next few pages. Another technique I use is to let my thoughts run while driving. Kind of tricky to do, but sometimes I notice a thought or an image that makes sense for my story.

  2. Everyone knows the fanged rabbit means one thing and one thing only:

    RUN AWAY!!!

  3. This is a great post. I've also found that dreaming/sleep helps to work out problems, both in my fiction writing and in my time as a biology grad student. I've never tried to do it deliberately, though--what a fantastic idea! Thanks for the tips.

  4. @authorguy...I can see why long car trips are excellent for idea seeding. Especially when one's on a long highway that stretches forever. Very meditative. Thanks for the tip!

    @Jeffe...Gee, and I thought I was being visited by Bunnicula. Well, I hoped, anyway. I haven't been visited by Bunnicula in my dreams since I was about seven. :-(

    @A.J...I hope they help! Sometimes, I get a bit burnt out analytically during the day, and dreams can help resucitate that. :-)

  5. Great post!
    I myself often dream about things that haven't happened yet and sometimes it prepares me for those events, but most of the times it tells me my fears of what might go wrong.

  6. Some of the strangest plot twists have come from the fanged rabbits. It's a little askeery how well they see their way through the warrens of red herrings, dialogue, and settings!

  7. @Sullivan, your subconscious is like mine...worrying about the future. But forwarned is forearmed! ;-)

    KAK, never doubt the wisdom of the fanged rabbit. ;-)

  8. Oh, I totally love this post. My dreams tend to go their own way, much as I'd love for them to be useful to my writing. They are useful in other ways, I admit - very insightful about what is going on in my life. Not so much with my writing. I do like the idea of seeding dreams - and I shall try it.

    KAK - oh, the fanged rabbits are my friends! They don't come to me in dreams, they just show up in the middle of a scene, wiggling their ears and then making me chase them through the rabbit hole. I'm always glad I followed.

  9. Hope it works, Kerry! Dreams are such fun stuff.

    Almost as much fun as the fanged rabbits. ;-)

  10. For the most part I don't really remember my dreams, so when I do I tend to pay attention. I've tried the journal beside my bed thing, but I've yet to manage to actually write anything down when I wake up, so I suspect that's a bit of a lost cause for me. I will often fall asleep trying to think of plots, however, so it could be that my dreaming self is processing the issues, only to reveal them a few days later under the guise of an "idea".

  11. Awesome post, Laura!

    My subconscious (and my conscious for that matter...I have a brain wave disorder while I sleep!) is super active in sleep but I'm not sure I could ever learn to control it like that. On occasion I'll wake up with an idea stemming from a dream sequence, but it's always accidental!