How To Mine Your Dreams For Story Gold

We’ve all experienced it…the curtain to consciousness opening, and with it, the realization that the best story idea we’ve ever had is carefully unraveling with each passing second into wakefulness. We grab something–anything–and start writing down a the images, thoughts, character tics, plot snippets and world building details before they can escape.

dreamcatcherAfter a shower, a coffee, and if we’re lucky, some form of breakfast that doesn’t have the word “leftover” in it, we sit down to reread our brilliance. And often, the only word to describe what we see is gobbledegook.

It’s disheartening, because we feel that heart flutter, that sense of knowing that a gemstone resides within the clatter of words. But if our dream catcher fails and the images seem no more than disjointed fragments, how can we turn what we’ve collected into something usable?

I’m turning the blog over to author Anthony Metivier, visiting us from Germany, because he’s pondered this very question and has some great ideas to share. Please read on!

FleuronIt’s well known that if you want to consistently remember your dreams, you need to write them down each and every morning.

This practice used to be a pain back in the day of pen and pencil, especially if you slept with another person.

Today it’s as simple as iPhone and the Plain Text app syncing the words to Dropbox faster than you can thumb them in.

With that problem solved, the question is: how do you get the dream material you’ve recorded into the form of a narrative, a compelling story that people will actually want to read?

A lot depends on exactly how you dream, but it seems to me that irrespective of whether you see narrative shards or full blown scenarios, all dreams serve the same function as Tarot cards spread out on a table before the interpreter’s eye.

As Doktor Freud once taught us, dreams provide the basis for association and the more dreams you have, the more associations to the dream you can make. Recent advances in psychology have worked to demonstrate that dreams probably have no meaning, but that doesn’t suggest that dreams can’t be interpreted and mined for narrative treasure.

Thus, imagine the following scenario:

You wake up and write down everything you can remember from the cinema of your sleep. Because you’ve been practicing “dream writing” for awhile now, the dreams tend to blossom large in your mind and you have no difficulties capturing full portraits of your night time activity.

Instead of looking for a story within the dream itself (which is also a perfectly reasonable and wonderful thing to do if the material is present), look at the dream you’ve written down and its images and let your mind free associate. You might come up with a completely new story or find yourself reflecting on something from your past. It could be something for yesterday, last year or a decade ago.

Using the most prominent association that comes to your mind, examine it for the following characteristics of compelling narrative:

  • Does it involve a driving desire that is in conflict with a critical need (like wanting a home with a white picket fence but needing to be a better parent before that house can have any authentic value and serve as a home)?
  • Does it involve being trapped or imprisoned in a particular social situation (job, family, etc.)?
  • Is there a dilemma in which many options offer themselves as possible solutions without any of them being particularly desirable?
  • Has a crisis forced you or someone in the association to take action?
  • Did the action lead to some kind of confrontation?
  • Did any sense of self-revelation or a better understanding of the self emerge?
  • Was there a resolution?

Although the disconnected fragments of a dream may not contain these elements, the episodes our dreams sunder in our minds for association often will. Exploit these and then combine them with the intense imagery of your dreams to make narrative magic.

To give you a case study, during a recent trip to Athens I dreamed of a pregnant woman with a butterfly tattoo on her cheek getting out of prison. She approached a throbbing wall made of human bones and flesh, behind which a dragon was spouting flames. She gave birth to her child and held it up to the wall, which immediately disintegrated into pieces.

When I woke up, I wrote the dream down and immediately started associating it with whatever came to mind. After a few seconds, I arrived upon the Berlin Wall and started to think about a futuristic alternative world in which people are kept out of East Berlin instead of being trapped in it.

I had also recently seen my girlfriend buy a lottery ticket, something that shocked me because I never would have suspected she was a gambler. For whatever reason this came to mind during the free-association, it gave me the idea of having some kind of lottery involved in how people get into this new version of East Berlin.

The next step was to take the scenario and answer each of the questions given

The result:

A basic sketch for a visually intense novel I drafted over the next two weeks tentatively called Electville. Using nothing more than my dreams, random associations and my iPhone, I crafted the basis for what would become a rich first draft, most of which was also drafted in bed upon awakening.

The sexiest part of this kind of practice is that it builds what you might call a self-interfering feedback loop. What I mean is that you create one novel-sized plot from a dream and then continue dreaming while working on the novel and still writing down your dreams on a daily basis. Although it doesn’t seem to provide more dreams that richen the novel drafting process, it does seem to compound the intensity of the dreams so that the idea-generating aspect get more and more intense and the depth of the outlines and sketches that emerge become a treasure trove for future exploration.

Even if unused (as most of our ideas ultimately must be), these outlines and sketches are like the gold coins in a pile you never spend because you always have enough to sustain yourself from the surface. And yet those coins you do pick from would never be so evident to your fingers and agile in your imagination if it weren’t for the unspent coins supporting them from below.

This I have learned from making dreams the horde of gold that supports of all my fiction.

AnthonyAnthony Metivier is the author of Lucas Park and the Download of Doom, How to Remember Your Dreams and founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a 21st century approach to the Memory Palace Method that makes memorizing foreign language vocabulary, poetry, and the names of the important people you meet easy, elegant, effective and fun.


Image: PublicDomainPictures @ Pixabay


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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[…] 7. Dreams give us inspiration. All of us have dreams so strong, they push us to the page. But what about literal dreams? Angela Ackerman at Writers Helping Writers did a great post called How to Mine Your Dreams for Story Gold. […]

6 years ago

So very well written. This process of dream interpretation has just come to me lately. I agree Anthony Metivier and will re-read this often. Thank you for sharing.

Anthony Metivier
6 years ago
Reply to  Marilyn

Thanks for the comment, Marilyn. Let us all know if you turn any dreams you interpret into a nice piece of fiction!

Ash Litton
6 years ago

The wonderful thing about writing from your dreams is that you’re free from the constraints of “Happily Ever After” that we subconsciously try to apply to our stories. I’ve had dreams that ended with myself (the narrator, when I wrote it out) dying for committing a crime — when I wrote it out, I had to fight the urge to give the story a Happily Ever After because it wouldn’t be true to the dream. I love writing my dreams for this reason; my dreams help me break the norm.

Anthony Metivier
6 years ago
Reply to  Ash Litton

Thanks for this great observation, Ash. Imposing judgment on the products of both our conscious and unconscious fantasies is something of a crime we do and recording dreams are a great way of letting ourselves be honest to the material in our minds.

On the flipside, a great way to impose darkness on even the most lighthearted story is to have the protagonist to successfully achieve the goal … only too late for it to be of any worth. This is perhaps one of the hallmarks of tragicomedy and always worth exploring in order to “hack” one’s normal inclinations.

Becca Puglisi
6 years ago

I’m digging this post, Anthony. Our subconscious is always working, so it makes sense that by paying attention to our dreams, we’re kind of opening the door to more ideas that can further a story. I’ve always had vivid, weird dreams that I remember fairly clearly upon waking. Only one of them has ever inspired me to write, but your free association idea is a great one for fleshing out all those psychedelic fragments. Thanks so much for being here today!

Anthony Metivier
6 years ago
Reply to  Becca Puglisi

Great to hear that you have such an easy time with dream recall, Becca. Can you think of any reason why this might be the case for you that others could “reverse engineer?”

Carrie Butler
6 years ago

You know what’s weird? In my dream last night, I actually had the thought that the experience was “total book material”. I wanted to write it down when I got home—of course, everything shifted and that didn’t end up happening. LOL I scribbled fragments when I woke up.

Great post!

Anthony Metivier
6 years ago
Reply to  Carrie Butler

This might sound strange, but if you know how to use Memory Palaces, you can set up your bedroom and use mnemonics to kind of “burn” the dream elements into place in the corners or on the walls. Should writing the dreams down in detail not happen or be impossible, you can retrace a great deal more in this way. It takes a bit of practice, but it’s well worth. And once you know the method, you can use it to memorize anything.

Anthony Metivier
6 years ago

Thanks for posting it, Angela!

Will we maybe one day see the “Free Association Thesaurus” from you? 🙂

:Donna Marie
6 years ago

Sadly, I rarely remember my dreams, and when I do, they’re not the subject matter I care to write about (typically the memorable ones aren’t good ones!). There have been a few occasions, though, when I remember something in a dream that might actually be interesting in the writing 🙂 Great post!

Anthony Metivier
6 years ago
Reply to  :Donna Marie

I used to have many dreams that I’d rather not write down either, but through the discipline of doing so, it’s really created a lot of material for introspection as well as stories.

Another thing that’s important here is that writing down our dreams first thing in the morning – regardless of what they entail in terms of images, plots or themes – is a great way to get into the “mechanical” habit of writing. This is transferable to collecting words at any time because you train your hands to “translate” whatever is there without judging it. I think the distance that writing dreams down can create, if only for this reason alone, can be very powerful for many writers.

Jemi Fraser
6 years ago

Good ideas! I’ve had to train myself to push away my dreams because they’re so vivid and horrifying. Love the free association idea – and how it built your story!

Anthony Metivier
6 years ago
Reply to  Jemi Fraser

Your dream experience sounds intense! I’m curious: what steps did you take to push your dreams away? If you ever feel that you want to invite them back, I think that writing them down on a daily basis gives you some influence over them, so there’s a chance you could shift them toward more pleasant territory. It’s worth a try if ever you’re so included. Thanks for the intriguing post!