Take the bones and build a story!

If you have ever tried to write a poem or short story directly from a dream, you will probably have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really work. Dreams are pure subjective substance, which has to be transmuted into something a reader can share.

But although you can rarely use a dream exactly as it is in writing, dreams can be a great source of inspiration. They can energise your writing because they are fired by the very themes and emotions that are currently bubbling beneath the surface in your waking life.

One of the approaches I use in workshops for writing from dream material is to extract the bones of the dream and build it up into a story.

 Dream themes – building from the bones

Choose a recent dream if you would like to try this exercise because it will have more immediate resonance for you than one you had a while ago. It doesn’t need to be long or detailed. All you’re looking for is a moment of action.

Describe the dream in a single sentence beginning, ‘Someone is…’ Use non-specific nouns, ‘something’, ‘someone’, ‘somewhere’ – keep it as general as possible, with the focus on the verb. ‘Someone is cross with her husband,’ would be too specific. ‘Someone is cross with someone’ is the pure action, plain and simple, capable of supporting a whole new cast of characters.

Examples from workshops include, ‘Someone is searching for someone’, ‘Someone has forgotten something’, ‘Someone is asking questions’, ‘Someone is not what they seem…’

Write a few alternative verb-focused sentences for your dream, and then decide which one you’re going with. Don’t over-think it. You’re just playing about with some ideas.

Now forget the dream, take the sentence and build a new context around it. If your sentence is, ‘Someone is being chased,’ who is it? Who is being chased? Start by making a character sketch.

When you are creating a character, it helps to know their name, even if you aren’t going to mention it. When you’re thinking about their appearance, imagine you’re watching a video of them, or looking through their photo-album.

Then ask them a few questions to get to know them a bit. What do they like? What do they hate? What is their earliest memory? What was their childhood ambition? Ask as many questions as you need. Ask the things that you want to know.

You won’t use everything you know about your characters in any story, but knowing a lot about them gives you context; it makes the writing flow more easily, and feel more three-dimensional. Any story is like an iceberg; the bit the author shows you is just the tip of what they know.

Make character sketches for anyone else involved in the story – who is chasing them? Who gets in the way? Who helps them?

When you’ve got some good character sketches, think about the settings. Ask, ‘Where?’ Look around at the scenery. Use all your senses to be right there. Where are they running to? Where are they running from? Ask, ‘When?’ The season, weather, time of day and the historical era, are all part of the setting.

Then ask, ‘Why?’ Why are they being chased? Ask, ‘What is the issue? What is at stake? What happens if they don’t get away?’

Who, what, where, when, why, how… these are the prompts for imaginative play, and they will always take you straight into a story.

Fully imagine the scene, and when you are ready, write it. Don’t try to write well, just write. It’s a first draft. At this stage, being ‘good’ is not important. What you need is to be present.

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Using dreams to spark creative writing not only guarantees you will find stories which feel enjoyable and meaningful to you, it is also a good way of deepening your understanding of the dream.

Furthermore, because dreams are related to waking life, writing stories from dream material can be a kind of rehearsal, a way of finding creative solutions to waking-life situations, and so feeling empowered.

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4 thoughts on “Take the bones and build a story!”

  1. This is an interesting approach Jenny. I guess, in a sense, dreams are ideas that come in our sleep aren’t they? They are, perhaps, not that different from ideas that appear in our waking hours – except that in our waking hours the trigger is generally something more tangible – a smell, something we see or overhear. As you say, our dreams are often triggered by subconscious thoughts and the events of the day, but take on another shape in our sleep. I love your posts – they always make me think!

  2. Thank you, Abi! I think dreams are very similar to creative writing – they both offer story-versions which explore and expand upon the themes and emotions at work in the moment in our waking life, and the imaginal substance of which as individuals we are made. That isn’t all they are, because you can have predictive dreams, voice of God dreams etc, but that’s kind of the top layer – what I think of as ‘close in’ dreams.

  3. Great idea to do it with a recurring dream, Angie – the crucial part is to completely let go of the dream once you have the bones – forget it and make a brand new story. Remember you aren’t looking for psychological solutions, but creative resolution – the forging of new pathways through complicated emotional situations. I’d love to hear how you get on!

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