writing advice: turning your dreams into fiction

Every Friday, I answer a reader’s question about writing, editing, or the writing process. I’m happy to take submissions via comments or email, so if you have a question you’d like me to answer, send it in!

This week, we have a question about short stories/dreams:

For those of us who cannot commit to an entire novel, what are some strategies for short stories? I’m throwing around the idea of using my dreams for short stories. Of course I risk having the plot be too surreal or personal to to be appreciated by anyone other than me. Then of course there are the dreams that don’t even really have a major conflict to develop the plot. Do you think it’s possible to make something readable that is a mix between short story and poetry? I’m envisioning something that’s mostly exposition, but I wouldn’t know where to go from there.


Austen, this is a fantastic question with many different facets. There are a couple of different aspects of this inquiry that I want to explore, but I do want to say right off the bat that there is no reason that you cannot use your dreams to inform your creative writing. In fact, many writing teachers recommend keeping a dream journal to catalog your brain’s nighttime activities. Dreams make good writing fodder.

Audience Appeal

The first aspect of this question I want to address is your intended audience. You are concerned about the risk of being surreal or overly personal, and I definitely understand where that concern comes from. Still, I think it’s really important to consider that it may not matter whether or not people understand what you’re writing. It all depends on who your intended audience is. There is a simple and deep pleasure that comes from creating something beautiful for yourself and no one else. If you choose to write about your dreams for you, then the surrealism and the personal nature of your writing doesn’t matter. As long as you appreciate it, it’s good enough.

That being said, if you’re looking to write for a larger audience, your concern is apt. As you likely have experienced, listening to other people’s dreams can be tedious or uninteresting, even when those people are personally close to you. Reading a stranger’s dream journal, even if beautifully presented, has the potential to be quite a snooze.

If you want to ensure that your dream-writing has wider appeal, I would spend time thinking about why that dream is particularly memorable to you, and then try to tease out the core human emotion or conflict that it invokes. When we dream, there are two aspects to the dream: our perception of the events as they play out and our reaction to the events that we have witnessed. If you have a dream about a white bird, and that white bird invokes terror, why are you afraid of it? What deeper fears is this white bird dredging up? What kind of reaction do you have to this imagery?

While the dream itself may not translate very effectively into fiction, the emotions and concerns and fears and joys that surround the dream can be easily integrated into a short story, whether you want to assign them to a character, explore the emotion’s effect on a human relationship, or use that feeling to inform your conflict. When you address fundamental human experiences in your literary fiction, you have the opportunity to broaden your audience appeal. It is much easier for people to relate to an acute fear of loss than it is for them to relate to a dream about miniature blue chickens running a fast food restaurant.

Exposition vs. Conflict

Given that the narrative line that came along with your dream may not be the most effective fodder for a short story, there are a couple of angles you can take in order to drive  your story forward. First, realize that a short story doesn’t need to have the world-changing kind of conflict you sometimes see in book-length fiction. There’s not time to develop that kind of conflict, and you don’t need it to push your readers through the story. Most short stories focus on a small segment of a larger narrative arc that occurs outside of the scope of the short story.

Thus, the narrative in short stories (and poems) is often centered around character change and driven by an intra-personal or inter-personal conflict. These types of issues are small enough to explore thoroughly in short-form fiction. This is why I suggest using that intense feeling inspired by your dream to drive your conflict. One way to accomplish this is to insert a character into the natural dream and explore the conflict you’ve experienced through the character’s point of view.

For example, you dream about the white bird and realize that white bird represents an acute fear of loss. From this experience, you could create a story about a woman with a cherished white bird that she keeps as a pet. During the course of the story, the bird becomes sick and dies, and you can explore her sense of loss as you narrate her experiences and perceptions to the reader.

While some dreams are particularly expository in nature, the transient, fluid, and disjointed nature of dreams make them unlikely candidates for successful expositions. In fiction, unlike life (and dreams), everything has to make sense. The thing about dreams is that oftentimes, they simply don’t make sense. While you can use chunks of the exposition to inform a story line or use the intense imagery to inform setting, I would caution against using the narrative arc of the dream as exposition. Instead, insert elements of the dream into a traditional story structure, and use the characters to explore the dream element that inspired you in the first place.

Prose vs. Poetry

Finally, I do think it’s possible to create something readable that is a blend between short story and poetry. While poetry and prose are two discrete literary forms, the distinction between the two can become rather blurry. Shel Silverstein and J.K. Rowling occupy very different places in literature, but there are poems that are very story-like in nature, and well-crafted prose often invokes poetry. There’s no reason that a very poetic short story (or a form that blends the two) could not be successful.

One recommendation I would make here is to explore short stories or poems that have a similar quality to what you’re looking to create, and pick them apart a bit. I’m not suggesting you do critical textual analysis here. Rather, look at how the author pulls you into the story. Look at how they slip between concrete and surreal language and how they help the reader know what to expect. Do they indicate the change visually? Is there language that helps indicate the change?

Also, examine what helps drive the conflict, or what catches you when you read short stories or poetry. How does the author use conflict to create interest? For example, the imagist poem “This Is Just To Say” is mostly about the taste of plums. But even this short poem invokes relationship conflict. A poem about nothing besides the taste of summer plums could be boring, but when you combine that potent imagery with the richness of human interaction and the potential for inter-personal conflict, you have something that speaks to the soul, dream-inspired or no.

So. Go forth and dream. (And write, of course!)

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