Dreams are weird.
On second thought, the above three words seem vague. I might as well make statements like, ‘life is weird’ (it is), so let me go into some more detail on the subject of dreams.
I would argue that our concept of fantasy, and our ability to imagine fantastical situations, comes from dreams. It’s an interesting idea–one’s database of sensual information is all that’s needed to create a myriad of bizarre situations. Perhaps that is the only difference between a creative person and someone who is ‘not creative’. The person with the greater imagination is just better able to re-combine their memories while in a lucid state; they don’t have to be unconscious to make stuff up.
On the subject of lucidity, not all dreams are experienced when a person is unconscious. I’m assuming you’ve heard of, or maybe even experienced, lucid dreams. Lucid dreams are pretty amazing. They give us an inside view of just how much detail one’s mind can store, because we realize what we’re doing. I once realized I was dreaming whilst standing on my porch just after a light drizzle. I could see every crack in the bricks on the walls, and the moss under my bare feet felt moist and moss-like–the air smelled fresh. It was like everything had upped the real factor to become some sort of ultra-reality.
Lucid dreams are also fun because you have a fraction of control as to what you think about. I say ‘fraction’ because even when I realize I’m dreaming, I have issues with actually making stuff happen, because my consciousness seems to put a weird ‘parental’ block on my ability. It’s as if I know what I want to do (normally, this is flying), but I doubt my ability to actually make it happen. So it doesn’t.
There are lots of different theories as to what one should do to have a lucid dream: repeatedly asking yourself ‘am I dreaming’, looking at your watch every fifteen minutes or so, etc. When I was keeping a dream journal, I had several, which I think is because my mind knew I would be recording what was happening later so it paid more attention. Personally, though, lucid dreams are rare beasts which hate following rules.
I would be curious to know if creative people have more lucid dreams, simply because they have that control of recombining memories and ideas.
Speaking of creativity, story creators are very fond of using dreams to convey information, move the plot along, or show something that the character is unconsciously thinking. I believe there are two general kinds of literary dreams:
Dreams that you know are dreams from the beginning— these are fun. They usually start with something really bizarre, which is always cool. A good portion happen when the character is injured/ill. Although this could partly be a coincidence, because if the character is knocked out or hallucinating with fever, they’re obviously not going to be walking around downtown in the next scene so it has to be a dream.
Dreams which start out believable and then… wait? What?!— from my experience, these are generally the less accepted sort. This is understandable–no one likes to be tricked, and it can be a pain to ‘re-write’ what information we know. That said, occasionally, someone does this type of dream well by using its qualities to make the reader second guess what they know about reality; I would describe the medium these types of dreams work in as being ‘artsy’.
I’ve recently been watching an old TV series called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I will say this–the creator, Joss Whedon, loves his dream sequences. There are a few more ‘wait–this a dream?’ than I would like, and, at the end of season 3 now, one of the first thoughts I have during an opening sequence is, ‘is this a dream?’ I wouldn’t exactly call this a bad thing, however, because if the viewer is questioning what’s happening, then they pay more attention to details. For me at least, it gives me a chance to recognize the artsy camera work!
I often use dreams in my own writing, because I like the surrealism I can create. It’s also a good motivator for lazy characters–if in doubt, give them a helpful dream!
Here’s the beginning of a dream that Aza has in one of my current WIPs, Marsip. (Aza has this dream when she’s suffering from an intense fever after being wounded by a small, dragon-ish creature I invented):
Aza stood alone in the darkness. She could hear the pines around her as they shook and whispered and rubbed together, but there wasn’t any wind. Aza put her hands in front of her and tried to push away the blackness.
A tiny pinpoint appeared. It wasn’t light, but it brightened the darkness. A long, straight path led toward the pinprick. Aza’s eyes followed it as she looked down at her feet.
Grey dust rose as she moved her toe. The smell of burnt things hung in the air. The path was covered in ash. Aza took a few steps forward and the ash under her drifted against itself and rubbed together.
The trees whispered to themselves and leaned forward. They weren’t pines. They were blacker than the darkness, and they didn’t have needles or even leaves. The branches were bare and curled into each other so that Aza couldn’t tell where one tree ended and another started. They twisted and writhed–changing shape while she watched. Where was she?
Am I dreaming? Aza wondered.
She walked down the path and the pinprick grew bigger. Around her the trees’ whispering grew louder. It gave Aza the feeling that if she listened harder she would hear what they were saying, but the whispers didn’t make any sense.
The pinprick was now as big as her fist. A faint clicking sound came from it.
The sound grew louder as she approached. Other sounds filled in the space between clicks. Something growled and a bird screamed. There was a slow creak followed by a clunk.
Between each sound was another sound. The layers piled on top of each other until they blended into one continuous volley of noise. Only the trees were silent. They had stopped whispering and were waiting.
That was a fun dream to write, although technically (as the reader discovers), it’s more of a vision/secrets-of-the-universe thing. Maybe comparing it to the weirdness Harry Potter experiences near the end of the 7th book would be appropriate?
Dreams are weird and awesome.