There’s no possible way I can tell you the right or wrong way of writing dreams. Some complain that it’s too life-like, but if it’s too psychedelically weird where whales are flying and the character can breathe lava, then it seems useless to the story. The fact is that dreams can be all over the place from totally life-like to off-the-wall I-can’t-believe-I-dreamed-that-am-I-crazy weird.
Some people dream of waking up, taking a shower, brushing their teeth, getting dressed and getting to their car repeatedly as if the CD was on loop before they actually woke up to do those exact same things. My mom had that dream, and did that routine until she got into her car at 5:30 in the morning to realize that it was a Saturday so she didn’t have to wake up or go to work (she was mad). When I was seven or eight I dreamed I got up and went to the bathroom, not realizing I was actually going in my bed.
There are some who dream in full colors, some who dream in a limited palette, and some who dream in black and white. I tend to dream in color, but they aren’t generally bright. Most of the dreams I remember are of something in a horror movie kind of color palette, but I do get a few bright dreams (the bathroom light was bright). One of my dreams in particular had a very limited color palette. I—well, my arm—was black and white, I wasn’t in any place, it was just that everywhere was blue and fog-like, and I was holding my bloody left kidney, with and artery still linking it to my body.
Like my kidney dream, some dreams don’t have a story or a rolling plot, and others do have stories, or story-like components. Some story dreams run a complete reel from start to finish, and some have separate scenes to the same story. I love these kinds of dreams because that’s where I get the strangest stories. A few days ago I had two separate story-like dreams, both of which were more of the separate scenes category. The first one was creepy as hell, so when I realized I was lucid dreaming, I forced myself to wake up, and when I fell back to sleep, I had another completely different story-like dream.
Lucid dreaming is when you’re asleep, dreaming, but you realize you’re dreaming. Some people continue to watch the dream at the pace, some can fast forward especially if they know they’re going to wake up soon, some can face the monster and ask it “What’s your name?”, and some people force themselves to either change the dream completely or wake up if they don’t like it.
The first dream, which I titled “Asusa”, takes place in a Japanese setting and “I” was a half Japanese and half German boy who just moved to Japan. I moved into the house and there was a welcome party with lots of parents and lots of children (while I was somewhere between thirteen and seventeen). During the party, all the babies, toddlers, and little kids were sitting in a group, and their parents were trying to get them to watch a show, but they kept looking up the stairs. When I looked, I couldn’t see anything, but when I looked behind them I saw a girl. She was a friend and was supposed to be there. When I looked back at the parents for a split second, and looked back at the girl, there was another girl in shadows next to her and startled me. The other girl wasn’t supposed to be there. Then these beetles kept making an appearance, hollowing out bananas, leaving the peels perfectly intact. I don’t know why that’s even relevant—the hollowing out bananas part, not the beetles. In the next scene, I’m in my room and I look out my window to see the girl hanging by her neck looking at me. She mouthed the words “Come outside.” I sneak out to see a black cat. When I look away and look back there are several smaller black cats in its place. I find the girl with the noose hanging loosely around her neck sitting on Olivia’s, my “mother’s”, headstone. We talk, and I find out her name is “Asusa”. I told her I would help her somehow and we shake hands, but when I talk about the beetles, her rope gets yanked over the fence right behind the gravestone so hard she gets decapitated. I hop over the fence and tear the rope off of where it’s hooked, and when she’s freed, an eye—not hers—looks at me through the fence. When Asusa recovers she cries that the beetles were her brothers. And that’s when I woke up.
Maybe someday I’ll actually write the story, but as it is, or as it seemed like in dream-form, it seemed more like a The Grudge rip-off. Asusa isn't even a name at all, let alone a Japanese name.
The next dream was more of an anime media, and I wasn’t too specific. I wasn’t anybody—I was watching it as if I was watching it on TV—but the main character was a young teen boy in the Takao Miyazaki style. He lived in a strange town, and I actually don’t remember too much of it, even as I wrote it down soon after I woke up. Basically, one of his best friends died bloody, and when there was a mud-slide, he realized the mud was actually blood. He knew because his best friend’s blood felt the same as the “mud.” Then the “camera” zoomed out to show me that the town was on the back of a dragon. That’s it.
I had two completely different dreams in one night, pretty unbelievable, right? The mind works in mysterious ways, so the best way to relay it in fiction, is to start writing down your own dreams, and tries to decipher it. Dreams can show what you’re worried about—with the kidney dream I was worried about my mom’s health because she smokes and drinks a lot, and in a way, I’m scared that I’m going to end up being like her. Dreams can show you solutions to your problems, or what you’re subconsciously thinking of—I wanted to use the bathroom, so I dreamt it, but too bad I didn’t actually wake up (I dreamt about the cold seat and everything too). Basically, there is a connection from your conscious to your unconscious, so when you’re writing your dreams down, try and find the connection.
Dreams can also represent, or show, a memory. Whether the memory be in tact or distorted is up to you and your story.
Also, I love Japanese horror movies, and I love anime, so of course I would dream of a Japanese-like horror movie, and of an anime. In fact, I’m quite passionate about both. So find out what your character’s passionate about, whether it is gardening, house cleaning, hobbies, or anything else. It can at least help give you a start.
I recommend actually buying a large encyclopedia of dream symbolism, and if it matters, try and find various dream symbolisms from different cultures. The snake may have been the sign of evil to Christians, but the snake means a sign of wisdom and a cyclic consecutiveness to alchemists. Different cultures have different meanings to different symbols. For Asusa, I would have to find a Japanese dream encyclopedia, and compare it to an American and German encyclopedia to see which makes more sense. You can look online, but I prefer actually getting books, just because I find the organization better, and so I don’t have to keep turning on my laptop to see what this or that means. Another thing you might need is to look up dream superstitions. While symbolism and superstitions can be thought as generally the same thing, you‘ll get a different list of results, at least on the internet.
One strange superstition I’ve found to be true for one person is that she dreamed of someone dying (that sounds bad!); however, in dream superstitions, if someone dreams of death, someone or something will be born, but if one dreams of birth, someone or something will die. It turns out she became a new big sister.
There are some occasions where dreams just don’t make sense no matter which way you look at it. In your fiction, if these kinds of dreams aren’t important, or if the answers won’t ever reveal themselves, then you can either lightly reference on it with little to no detail, like:
“Dude, I just had this really weird dream; you [a guy] were there, but you were in a bikini . . . and really hot too. . . .”
Or just skip it. Like anything that isn’t important, you can either trim it down, or you don’t need it at all.
There are some mythical writing rules that declare the words “Never start you story with. . . .” Description is one of them, but I already talked about that in “How to Not Write Like You Have a Mary-Sue”. Dialogue is another one, but I don’t think I need to go into that. You can start off the entire story with “Dude, where’s my car?” and you already have the plot, but, yes, dreams and flashbacks also make the cut with this “rule”.
Yes you can start off the story with a dream or a flashback. One of the Batman movies starts off with a dream. I haven’t read any books that start off with a dream, but I’m sure you can find them. Any rule that says don’t or you can’t, there will be exceptions for, even in my Mary-Sue guides.
One good example of how dreams work (at least from the nightmare angle) is in a short nine volume manga called Nightmare Inspector (Shin Mashiba). It’s about a boy who inspects nightmares, helps solve the dream, and then eats the nightmare, but it shows how the nightmares, the solutions, and the identity of the dreamer, can be totally unexpected. One of the dreamers was even a weather vane. Even though this guide is a how-to-write sort of guide, I think using manga as examples can still help, especially when they show the connection between the dream and the dreamer (and I haven‘t read any books with good dream sequences).
Also, similar to dreams, hallucinations can also be like dreams, whether the character is on drugs or has a mental disorder, and whether the hallucination is life-like or psychedelic. The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) had one hallucination sequence, and it showed an inner side of Katniss that probably wouldn’t have been possible to show otherwise, at least not in the same way with the same mood.
Flashbacks are generally used to show what had happened in the past, but are important through the present story-telling. This is tricky, just about as tricky as writing dream sequences, because you can do just about anything. Writing non-fiction stories is already basically one big flashback story, and if there is an even further in the past that is important, it could be declared a flashback within a flashback, but for the typical fictional purposes, where only a section of the story is a flashback, let’s stick to the purely fictional—not that fictional stories can‘t have flashbacks within a flashback.
You could write something along the lines of “Here’s what happened. . .” skip two lines and tell the flashback as another story, instead of having the character have one huge paragraph of dialogue telling the story. You can dedicate a chapter, or several chapters telling the flashback story. Flashbacks can take up over half the story, or can be as short as one line. You can separate the present narration from the flashback like with the previous examples, or you can even casually insert it within the narration.
“Oh, you know what I just remembered? John told me to get him some stuff for his cigarettes. He was real stern about it, too, saying I had to get the tobacco and the rolling paper instead of the cigarettes in a box. He acted as if I was a little kid, but I‘m his wife for gosh sakes. I know that he likes rolling his own instead of the boxed cigarettes.”
Fruits Basket (Natsuki Takaya) had a few dream sequences, but they had plenty of flashbacks too. It told separate stories of how Tohru Honda met Arisa Uotani and Saki Hanajima, along with how Kyo Sohma met Kyoko Honda, and how she died. There was also a flashback of how Kyoko met Katsuya Honda. In between the story and the major flashbacks there were mini-flashbacks of how Ayame Sohma met Mine, his assistant, along with Akito, her parents, how Yuki Sohma was hurt by Akito (he also had a hallucination when he was locked in a school closet)—basically everyone had their own flashback. Half of the series was full of flashbacks.
“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner is by far the most interestingly formatted story I’ve read using flashbacks. The story starts off with Emily Grierson’s funeral, telling the readers how great of a person she was, and how much dignity she had, making sure to give plenty of examples that could be counted as flashbacks, but as the story progresses, oddly enough going backwards years at a time, showing the different events that happened up to thirty or forty years before she died, you start to get a different sense of what kind of person she really was. Then, in the last scene, after Emily is dead, back to telling the story forward, they find the body of her soon-to-be husband. Basically, the story started, and then it went backwards, then it went back to the first scene to finish the story.
Don’t let dreams or flashbacks scare you. It takes practice to master it, so start practicing! I know I do.