Dreams and Writing

Photo of Laura Deal


by Laura K. Deal

Robert Stone said, “…dreams and making fiction are two ways of relating to something that is, in fact, out there. I suppose it’s that part of the universe that isn’t you, which is most of it.”*  Creating fiction is a more structured process than having a dream, but the imagery and the emotional power behind the images come from the same place. So how can you tap into that creative power of dreams and use it to help your writing?

Using dreams for inspiration

Keep a journal or a voice recorder near your bed and record your dreams as soon as possible. If you don’t recall your dreams, listen inwardly as you would for the next line of dialogue or the next plot twist, and see if you can sense a mood or a song running through your head that gives you a clue about your dreams. With practice, this gets easier. And once you’ve started recording dreams, see what images resonate with you the most. It’s easiest to get insight into dreams by exploring them with other dream workers, but it’s possible to learn a lot by consulting several (not one) dream dictionaries. Never take anyone else’s word for what your dream means, but see what other people have said and whether any of that resonates with you. Once you’ve awakened your awareness to the themes that your dreams show you, you can work those archetypal energies into your plot. I once wrote a short story because of a character in a dream who was mentally handicapped. It proved a useful way to explore a part of my own psyche, especially as the character in the story surprised me with her other ways of knowing things about the world.

Sometimes the dream provides the key to the knotty problem a writing project is presenting. Sometimes the dream images seem to bear no resemblance at all to the world of the story, but the writer wakes in the morning with the problem solved. These are precious gifts from our unconscious selves, and the more we honor them, the more gifts we tend to receive.

Dreams as a plot device

Though I’m a big fan of books that use dreams well, too many books use dreams as a kind of Deus ex Machina, in which the key piece of knowledge is revealed in a dream, thus making it possible for the protagonist to triumph in her struggle. (Though this does happen in real life!)  For dreams to work in a story, they have to be subtle and multilayered, just like our dreams are. If you want help understanding dream symbols, consult several dream symbol dictionaries, and include some that offer thorough discussions of the historical and or cultural associations with the symbol.

Metaphor and motifs

I believe that metaphorical thinking is a fading art and it’s clear to me that dreams and fiction and poetry (and other arts) have metaphor in common. The way I explore the meanings of dreams is to find all of the associations I can with the symbol and see which resonate for the dreamer of the dream. In writing, we use metaphors to try to convey levels of meaning that might not come through in straightforward prose. This can be done on every page (The Book Thief is still my favorite example of a novel full of metaphor), and it can be used to establish the motifs in the book. For example, say I want to write a story about a man who believes his dead wife is trying to communicate with him. I might use birds as a motif in the story, because in many cultures birds are considered the messengers of the spirit realm, able to fly in the heavens and return to earth. Or I might use a moth, which is often associated with the dead as a symbol of the spirit of the departed.

As Clive Barker says*, the only person whose company I can always depend on is myself. “And a third of this ‘myself’ is a sleeping self. An important third, perhaps the most important third. So let me be quiet with myself and sit with myself and like myself, and what my subconscious is telling me.” What is your subconscious telling you?

*The quotations are from Naomi Epel’s wonderful book Writers Dreaming.


  1. Thanks, Pam! I’ll have to look for THE TIGER’S WIFE.

  2. Interesting stuff, Laura. I like the connection you made between dreams, fiction, and poetry. I’m reading THE TIGER’S WIFE; it too is full of metaphor, which I don’t fully understand. Maybe if I’d been recording my dreams all these years…


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