By Beth Terrell
When I was a little girl, a family friend once told me, "If you tell your dreams before breakfast, the three bears will come down from the hills and eat you." This was enough to make me hold my tongue until after the table was cleared, but not enough to keep me from sharing my dreams.
I've been told that no one likes to hear other people's dreams. Apparently, I'm an exception to the rule. Dreams fascinate me--my dreams, your dreams, everybody's dreams. Listening to someone else's dream is like a glimpse into another person's mind.
They say everyone dreams, though not everyone remembers. I've also heard that you can increase the chances of remembering your dreams by keeping a journal by the bed and writing down everything you remember about your dream the moment you wake up. The more frequently you do this, the easier it becomes to remember your dreams.
Betty Webb, author of Desert Cut and Desert Wives, dreamed Lena Jones, the protagonist of her Arizona-based mystery series. I've heard of other writers who dreamed the plots of their novels. I don't remember all my dreams, and some of the ones I do remember aren't interesting enough to share. But every now and again, I have a dream that seems like a gift, a dream that has a plot and characters, a dream that makes me open my eyes and think, "Thank you, God."
I usually dream in close third person, and while there is a protagonist with whom I identify and whose emotions I share, it is more like watching a movie than anything else. Friends who don't write are often baffled by this. An artist friend dreams in pictures, all light and form and color. This makes me wonder if writers dream differently from accountants or architects or attorneys or visual artists, not only in content but in structure.
Because of this fascination with dreams, I put a dream journal on my website: www.elizabethterrell.com. I've been thinking of doing a Dream Project, in which people email me their dreams, genders, hobbies, and occupations, and we compare and contrast the types of dreams different people have.
Dreams can reveal character in our stories as well, but they must be used with caution. The action-packed beginning scene that turns out to be a dream is not only a cliche, but a sure way to make the reader feel cheated. Long, detailed dream sequences are more likely to interrupt the action and feel self-indulgent than to rivet the reader to the page. On the other hand, a few lines or a paragraph about a troubling dream can illustrate a character's inner turmoil: Even in sleep, Elise couldn't escape her ex-husband. He chased her through her dreams, his belly distended with other women's rotting flesh, so close behind her that his grasping fingers brushed the back of her shirt. She woke up gasping, voiceless, tangled in the bedclothes, the sour smell of fear and sweat rising from the sheets.
Okay, that's not great writing, but doesn't it show how much Elise fears her ex-husband? Much more than this, though, and we risk losing the reader. Not every story needs a dream, and even those that do rarely benefit from excessive detail. Dreams in fiction are like fine spices, which can enhance a good meal--or ruin it.