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Dreams, dreaming, interpretation

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Dreams, dreaming, interpretation

Where do ideas come from? Dreams are a big deal for writers.

If you are writing commercial fiction, such as thrillers, you can research what is contemporary and popular in the news and then come up with a plausible and interesting story.

But literary fiction about character needs a more subtle origination. Which is not to say that any fiction is coming from somewhere deep, even the most hard-boiled of stories.

For instance, a popular fiction staple – Spy fiction – what is that all about? Secrets, cheating, lying, fear, punishment, shame, death. That sounds like an anxiety dream.

Dream diary

Many writers keep a dream diary, and have books on dream interpretation, analysis of dreams, books about dream movies, perhaps a dream dictionary or three… and of course some books by Sigmund Freud.

In fact, my own story ‘African Story‘ (see my author page here) was composed from fragments of three dreams I had over consecutive nights while living in Paris, the City of Light (that is to say, darkness).

Dream films, books etc listed below: these are often ‘dream-like’ rather than straight ‘dreams’. Many writers go for a state that is ‘alternative reality’ rather than ‘dreams’; and some (like David Lynch) use hidden structures in their films or books, which means unless you can figure out the puzzle, the effect will be confusing.

Common dreams

  • Chase – scary or not. Often with action film elements, taken from TV or movies
  • Dead relatives – can be reassuring and part of healing
  • Wet (erotic) – anyone or anything can be the object
  • In the office – goes on forever with no apparent point
  • Anxiety – eg, Tests or Exams – lack of preparation
  • Falling – either with or without a bit of flying
  • Famous people – Madonna, Beckham etc.
  • Teeth – perhaps due to mild ache or discomfort
  • Death and/or the Void – scary or just weird

Types of Dreams

If you want to write a dream story, or use dream material, perhaps focus on a type of dream, or your story will get confused.

  • Daydreams – when awake, semi-directed fantasy, used in psychoanalysis. Might be about love, hate, sport, career
  • Lucid Dreams – when asleep, but can direct or somehow participate in direction. Often happen before waking up
  • Nightmares – scary dreams
  • Recurring Dreams – your brain is stuck; can change slightly each time; can be same night or over days
  • Healing Dreams – seeing others in a different light (no pun intended)
  • Prophetic Dreams – precognitive or psychic – religious or apocalyptic – too much cheese or junk TV?
  • False Awakening and Wakeup Dreams – Groundhog Day – can be quite scary or unsettling
  • Signal Dreams – solve problems, provide answers. The benzene ring structure was seen in a dream by August Kekule – a snake biting its tail
  • Epic Dreams – even more cheese
  • Naked Dreams – erotic or not, can be funny
  • Toilet or public exposure Dreams – shame

Dreams in popular culture

Often what seems like dreamy or dream-inspired work is actually a puzzle. Hidden plots, obscurantism, time slips, memories, etc. These are now a staple of Hollywood and are not really about dreams, more about the computer gaming generation being familiar with complexity and puzzles. Inception even has ‘levels’.

I have a dream – speech – Martin Luther King.


  1. Outside the Dream Syndicate – Tony Conrad / Faust
  2. Moloko – Fun for Me – “I dreamt that I was dreaming…”
  3. Tomorrow’s Dream – Black Sabbath – “this time I’m gonna have the star part”
  4. Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream – King Crimson
  5. Dream of Mirrors – Iron Maiden
  6. Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
  7. All I have to do is Dream – The Everly Brothers
  8. California Dreaming – Mamas & Papas
  9. Day Dreaming – Aretha Franklin – from the album: Young, Gifted and Black
  10. I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night) – The Electric Prunes – written by Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz
  11. Dream Baby – Roy Orbison
  12. Dream Lover – Manhattan Transfer
  13. Requiem for a Dream (soundtrack to Aronofsky film) – Clint Mansell / Kronos Quartet
  14. Freddie and the Dreamers – all

Dream Movies – films

  1. Anything by David Lynch – Mulholland Drive, Eraserhead
  2. Wizard of Oz
  3. The Matrix
  4. A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven, USA) – Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
  5. Requiem for a Dream
  6. Field of Dreams
  7. Waking Life
  8. Vanilla Sky
  9. Most interpretations of Philip K Dick – for example Total Recall – although he does memory/dream/reality which is a bit literary
  10. What Dreams May Come
  11. The Cell
  12. Inception – although this could have been more dreamy and far out and less mechanical

See Dreams in films and movies


  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – William Shakespeare
  2. The Interpretation of Dreams – Sigmund Freud
  3. The White Hotel (and others) – DM Thomas
  4. Mikhail Bulgakov- Master and Margarita
  5. Kafka – arguably his scenarios are dreams – The Castle, The Trial, especially The Metamorphosis: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous insect”, rather than comments on totalitarianism (which is a Western political interpretation)
  6. Burroughs – generally, with the cut-up method, his fantasies, adventures, and so on, there is a large dream element
  7. Many others…

[There is no reason for the numerical order in the lists above]

The Surrealists explicitly used dreams as their inspiration as a way of breaking down bourgeois preconceptions. Unlike the Dadaists, who were more nihilistic, surrealism was very popular and has become scorned as ‘poster art’, especially Salvador Dali, who is the most well-known.

It was primarily a philosophy or movement, and the art works (paintings and writings) were the end result, not the start point. Nowadays, people see a Dali painting and think ‘far out!’.

Other famous surrealists include André Breton, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Luis Buñuel (films), Joan Miró, Francis Picabia, Yves Tanguy, Alberto Giacometti.
Writing that relevant to Surrealism, although not of the movement (which had Breton as general big cheese, which is a bit contradictory) include Comte de Lautréamont, Arthur Rimbaud, Raymond Roussel.

Surrealism was a between-the-wars phenomenon, a response to the horror of the First World War, the flowering of Dadaism, and a reaction to the political extremism in Europe at the time, the violent battle between Communists and Fascists.

Automatic writing

Automatic writing (stream of consciousness) was seen as the main route to a higher reality. So this form is always popular with young writers. It is also a useful method to get interesting poems or song lyrics, where profundity gleams from the strange phrases.
Writers included painter / writer René Magritte, Louis Scutenaire, de Chirico (dreamscape novel Hebdomeros), Desnos , Marcel Duchamp , Leiris , Peret , Queneau many others in the general and preceding period.

English writers did not really get into the movement although JG Ballard has a strong surrealistic influence, mainly in his early books; also see Angela Carter. Later unconventional writers like Steve Aylett are more influenced by post-Surrealists like William Burroughs.

Surrealist writers page >


Sleeping has 4 or 5 stages, the first is the dozing off phase (transitional) the rest repeat 4-7 times a night.

Dreaming happens in the last phase called REM sleep (rapid eye movement). Most dreams are completely forgotten unless you are woken up in the middle of REM sleep. Often the dreams you recall are those that happen in the last phase before waking.

I had a friend who would wake up at 6am, eat rich food, then go back to sleep in order to have amazing dreams before he woke up again. He did a bit of painting of fantasy scenes. What a life eh? Only a student once.

Computer aided dreaming

Symbols in creative thought, which includes dreams, day dreams, rational (logical) thought and group brainstorming. Random generators can be used to make dream-like sequences of symbols (say, phrases or images). See Cow Boils Head in my author section.

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