“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
– C. J. Cherryh

How to Generate Ideas in Your Sleep

The best part about Daylight Saving Time in the fall is that extra hour we receive. Twenty-five hours in one day. A dream come true, right?

And while you may not realize it, that extra hour offers a prime time to tap into your imagination—without any effort on your part. That’s right—it’s possible to generate ideas in your sleep.

Whether they’re realistic or completely fantastical, dreams are a wonderful source for unique story ideas. You simply have to realize their creative potential. Here are a few ways to mine your dreams for your next big idea:

alarm clock

Photo by Rob and Stephanie Levy

Sweet Dreams

1. Capture your dreams.

Some of us recall our nighttime thoughts better than others. Don’t let those dreams slip away! Keep a pen and paper on your nightstand to scribble down the details you remember as soon as you wake up. Review those musings when you’re looking to stimulate your imagination.

2. Use the basic conflict.

Those bizarre happenings or unexplainable events in your dreams don’t have to show up in your writing (unless you’d like them to!). Instead, get to the heart of the main conflict in your dream and the emotions it elicited in you. Translate that conflict into the basis for your next story.

3. Pull out details.

What part of your dream intrigues you or stands out? Perhaps a person within it would make the perfect protagonist or villain. Or maybe the setting would be just right as a backdrop for your latest work-in-progress piece. Isolate the most interesting details in your dream and write away.

4. Look for the theme.

Whether you believe in dream interpretation or not, do a quick search to discover the common perceived meaning and apply that as a theme in your writing. For example, dreaming of your teeth falling out (a surprisingly common dream!) may indicate anxieties, feelings of powerlessness, or concerns with money—all great themes to fuel your creativity. Bottom line: check out a dream dictionary for some fascinating ideas!

Do you have a reoccurring dream? Would any part of your dreams make an amazing story?

PRACTICE

Recall a recent dream you had. Use one of the strategies above (#2, 3, or 4) to write about the dream for fifteen minutes.

When you’re finished, please share your practice in the comments section. Or let us know how you use your dreams as writing inspiration.

About Melissa Tydell

Melissa Tydell is a freelance writer, content consultant, and blogger who enjoys sharing her love of the written word with others. You can connect with Melissa through her website, blog, or Twitter.

  • Marla4

    My husband dreams of building towers that rise into the
    heavens.  When he has gone as far as he
    can, he realizes he’s grown wings and can fly. 
    And so he does, circling his masterpiece, the chrome and steel and glass
    tower, awash in the light from the moon. 
    The sun is male, he tells me.  The
    moon is female.  She is the bow, when she
    is just a sliver in the sky, and the Indians make their bows to match that
    waning moon.  The bow never fails, he
    tells me.

    I ask about the sun, the Fred Astaire to the moon’s Ginger Rogers,
    and he says.  The sun shoots the arrows,
    straight and true.  I aim my bow and
    shoot my arrows like the sun shoots light. 
    It is all I need to do.

    I want to learn to dream like him.  I think about becoming blood kin with
    him.  Of making a cut on my arm, of
    cutting him, and pressing our flesh together. 
    Maybe his Indian blood would stop the dream I’m having, the dream I have
    had since I was five.

    It is always the same. 
    My mother is babysitting.  Three
    kids.  My brother and sister and I sleep
    on the living room floor, while the visiting kids take our bed.  I wake from a nap, my hair wild, and I wander
    alone through the house. My mother is humming in the kitchen.  I ask her for water and instead she hands me
    a cigarette.  I take it, drop it on the
    red floor, cover it with my bare foot.

    My mother shrugs but she never stops humming.

    I walk to my bedroom, where two boys sleep, one on each
    bunk.  I pull the quilt back on my bed,
    the one nearest the floor, and I see the boy. 
    He is not breathing.  I scream for
    a long time.  Eventually, I check on the
    other boy, who is also dead.  In my
    brother’s bedroom, a girl my age sleeps. 
    I walk down the hall, I step in the room.  She is uncovered on my brother’s bed.  She is not alive.

    When my father comes home, he asks my mother why.  She does not know.  The police come, and my father tells them he
    is guilty.  My wife tried to stop me, he
    says.  She disagrees.  She confesses too.

    I see a bridge covered in fog. My mother and father are
    dressed in gray. They are holding hands. They are crossing the bridge.  An officer waits on the other side.  There is a gas chamber behind him.

    I wake at this point each time.  I am paralyzed by fear, no matter how many
    times I dream it.

    My husband tells me I am in control of all I dream.  He tells me the story of the spirit that
    watches as we sleep, who takes us on journeys to meet our ancestors.  You are afraid to live, he says, and so you
    cannot meet your ancestors. You can only see your parents choosing each other,
    choosing to leave you behind.

    He is telling me this in a coffee shop where we met four
    years ago.  It is raining, and the wind
    is picking up.  He stands to retrieve our
    order and his black hair shine blue in the overhead light.  Tonight you will sleep in his arms, he tells
    me when he comes back.  He touches the
    place on his shirt that covers his heart. 
    Here you will sleep, he says, where you can hear my soul speak.  I will take you with me to the tower, he
    promises.  I will teach you to fly.

     

    • Mirelba

       Wow!  Very different.  Powerful. 

      I so rarely remember my dreams, that they’re pretty worthless to me.  I get my brilliant ideas puttering around the kitchen.  This morning I was stumped with my NaNoWriMo story, went up to the kitchen for a bit (not even cooking this time), and came up with an idea which almost helped me reach my quota for the day.  Just got back home after being out all day, so back to finish my quota…

    • This was really great Marla. I particularly enjoyed the opening about the husband building the tower so high that at the end he realizes he is flying. The bit about the sun and moon hit home for me too. Great stuff 🙂

    • Oddznns

      New voice. I like it. It’s different. 

  • For a semester I kept a record of my dreams. They took me like 45 minutes to write each morning and made little to no sense a few days later. This was part of a project for a Beat Generation class I was in. Word of advice: don’t publish your dreams like Kerouac did. It’s really not a pleasant read.

  • Garrett is running up to me through the copse of myrtle, shouting about something. He’s wearing a large brown coat I’ve never seen before and his beard has grown in full. It looks good.

    “Are you ready?” he says. I assume he’s been saying it over and over again this whole time.

    “Yeah. You?”

    “Yeah.” We slap our palms together, slide them away and then bump fists. Tradition and something extra. This time when we do the slide, we switch bodies. No big deal.

    “Lookin’ good,” Garret who is now me says. 

    “You too.” He’s about a foot shorter than I – Garrett – am. His hair is a muddy almost-orange and the clothes he’s wearing are either too baggy or too tight depending on whether you’re looking above or below his belt. 

    “Thanks a million for this, man,” he says and leaves with a wave. He shouts something back at me, a warning it sounds like, but I can’t make it out and when I look back, he’s gone.

    I exit the copse in the opposite direction. Toward the city. Or I think it’s a city, because from here it looks more like a giant bookshelf. Books as large as skyscrapers, blocking the young sun as it rides up from a hazy horizon. 

    As I get closer, my suspicions are confirmed. There are no buildings in the city, only books so tall I can’t see the tops of them. Even if I stretch my neck back and get on my tippytoes. At the base of each book are hundreds of holes, roughly the same diameter as my arm, that look like they’ve been dug by clawed hands. I can’t tell how deep they are, but I have no desire to find out.

    Instead, I walk up the street, unsure of what it is Garrett wants me to do. I pass an alley that is unnaturally dark. Staring into its impossible blackness, I am overcome with a sense of dread. This place is forbidden. To tread here would be the doom of us all. Seems simple enough to avoid, however, and I continue on my way.

    The room I come to is cold and deserted, save for a single full-length mirror propped up on who-knows-what, gazing at me as I enter. In the reflection I am still Garrett, but as I move, my mirrorself does nothing. I flail my arms about, jump up and down, the whole show and my reflection only watches. 

    “What the hell?” I ask no one in particular and then point at my mirrorself with fingerguns. “Stick ’em up!” 

    It smirks – “It” being me, in the mirror – and slowly, as if walking through a thick slime, it steps out of the mirror and into the room. My eyes widen as it makes its fingers into the shape of a gun and points directly at my head. Fear grips my heart and I run for the door. As I am passing through the doorway, part of the frame explodes, as if from a gunshot.

    Out in the street, the reflection is still chasing me, firing its gun, shouting “Bang!” with every shot. From the holes in the base of every book stretch pale, emaciated arms, and they are all shooting their fingerguns at me. “Bang! Bang!” The street erupts in a hail of gunfire.

    What is going on? Is it Garrett they’re after? Do they know I’m not him? Or would they be gunning for him as well? I don’t have time to think it over because in my haste I turn a corner and step into a swallowing darkness that consumes me and the world. 

    I fall into the alley, but there is no floor, only the abyss. It begins with sinking, but turns slowly into floating as a lack of gravity, or reference, abandons the idea of “down”. 

    I drift into the black forever, until I no longer know if my eyes are open or closed. I can no longer hear the gunshots from the street, not the thousand shouts of “Bang! Bang! Bang!” The forever-black chews away my perception and I forget to breathe. Maybe for a minute, maybe for eternity. However long, it’s long enough and in the end the black is all there is.

    • Until the guns, this felt a little Harry Potter-esque to me. Not sure why.

      • Haha, me either Katie, but I hope that means you enjoyed it. At least until the guns 😉 

    • Marla4

      I could feel the tension in this. I love the description of Garrett and the line about the young sun. You are a brilliant writer.

      • Thank you very much, Marla. You’re too kind 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    • annepeterson

      Loved it. Your descriptions just pulled me along from one scene to the next. It was great!

      • Thanks so much Anne! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • Becki Moody

    I get many of my ideas from dreams, usually as visual images that I need to try to interpret/explain. This is from (maybe) my NaNoNovel:

    Prologue
     
    Screams filled the air around him as Nathan was pulled roughly from his bed. Nathan opened his eyes to see a strange man in a dark overcoat. Fear triggered his survival instinct. “Mommy!” he screamed, beating at the man’s chest. He flailed his arms and legs, trying to get away. One of his kicks connected with the man’s groin, and he grunted and dropped Nathan. Struggling to his feet, Nathan ran for the door. He opened the door but stopped at the sight of another stranger. “Mommy!” he screamed again and ran toward the window. As both men headed toward him, he grabbed a ragged and worn teddy bear from the bed and sank to the floor. A potato sack was lowered over his head and the room went dark.
     
     
    Some time later, Nathan opened his eyes to complete darkness. His thumb found his mouth as he waited for his eyes to adjust. He could sense movement around him and struggled to make out his surroundings. He seemed to be in a rectangular room of some sort, but there were no furnishings. Other shapes around the room eventually came into focus, and he recognized other children from his village. He thought at first he was the youngest, but a soft mewling cry from the corner revealed the Smith baby, and he noticed a couple of toddlers lying motionless. John, who often helped his father at the general store, seemed to be the oldest. Most of the children were not moving, and Nathan wondered if they were sleeping or if they were sick. He was still holding Teddy, and he was grateful for the small measure of comfort. He wondered where his parents were and why the men had taken them.
     
    Nathan crept closer to an older girl he recognized. “Sarah?” he whispered, as he touched her arm tentatively.
     
    The girl gasped and shrank back from him. “Get away from me!” she cried out, but then she recognized Nathan. “What’s going on here?” She looked around her fearfully. “John? Where are we?” She reached out and touched the side of the rectangular space. “What is this? It feels like metal, and there are no windows.” Running her hands along the wall, Sarah explored the space.
     
    It was several moments before John spoke. “I’m not sure, but I think it’s a train car. That’s what it feels like anyway. I don’t remember being brought here, so I think they knocked us out first. Some of the others are still unconscious. I checked and they are all breathing at least.”
     
    “Well, then where is the door? Let’s get out of here!” Sarah began pounding on the walls.
     
    “Stop! You don’t know who or what is out there.  We should try to figure this out on our own. Start on your side and feel along the wall. See if you can find any kind of crack or opening that might be the door.”
     
    Nathan was comforted by the activity. He knew that John was really talking to Sarah, but he needed something to keep him occupied. Holding Teddy in his left hand, he began to trail his right along the wall. The corrugated metal tickled his fingertips. He realized that the ridges were probably disguising the door, so he slowed and began to investigate each valley more closely. Within the third indentation, he felt a draft of cold air. “John!” his whisper was frantic. “I think I found it.”
     
    John carefully maneuvered through the still sleeping bodies to Nathan’s side. “Here, let me feel it.” His fingers replaced Nathan’s and he began tugging at the ridge next to the gap. Feeling no movement, he tried pushing instead.  “It’s no use. It’s locked from the outside.” He sank back against the wall in defeat.
     
    Nathan reached for Sarah’s hand, needing comfort. Nothing in his four years on earth had prepared him for a situation like this. She squeezed his fingers, and he snuggled closer, smiling gratefully although he doubted she could see him.
     
    “So what do we do now?” Sarah whispered. Both of them instinctively looked to John for direction.
     
    “I don’t know. Wait, I guess.” The three of them shifted into more comfortable positions, and soon Nathan fell asleep again, thumb firmly planted between his lips.
     
     
    Hours later, the train began to move.

    • Marla4

      Oh my gosh. What a vivid story. This is so good.

  • Rana

     

    I do actually  base lots of my stuff on dreams I have, afterall, they do tell us what’s going on deep down in our subconcious. In fact, here’s one I wrote based on  a dream  I had seven years ago.
    The Miracle

     

    I was standing there admiring the beautiful babies.
    Then suddenly, and out of nowhere, I heard bombing. Oh goodness, I have to take
    them to a safe place. But how many of them can I carry? Oh, look at that
    adorable boy dressed in bright light green apparel. He’s smiling at me, I must
    take him. Come on little darling, you will be safe with me. Let’s get a move on
    before things get worse. So I run and run. But suddenly I stop. I want to turn
    back to save that cute and lovely little princess. Look at those light brown
    little curls on her hair ends. Her chubby cheeks tempt my fingers to give her
    tiny pinches and kisses. She is looking me in the eye too. I hope I have time
    to rescue her too. I don’t want any one else to take her. These babies must be
    from heaven. My eyes have never seen such fine beauty.  I do believe in miracles and children are one
    of those wonderful and fabulous miracles. 
    How such perfection is created from a drop of water; how it grows in
    darkness; how they captivate the hearts of their parents.

    Then suddenly I found myself waking up. Oh what a
    dream. How I wish it were real. The color of that baby’s clothing is not like
    any green I’d ever seen. It must be the color of the trees in Paradise.  His picture has captivated  my mind. His innocent smile has seized my
    heart and soul. My heart is throbbing to cuddle him up in my arms.  He must be out there waiting for me in some
    part of the world. I know I’ll find him one day. He will recognize me.

    And like I said, if you believe in miracles, they are
    bound to come true. For it was only a few years later that Allah blessed me
    with one set of triplets; two wonderful girls and a charming boy

    • Marla4

      This is lovely.

    • annepeterson

      Really liked it. The flow, the softness. 

  • Does anyone else find it difficult to remember their dreams when they’ve been doing a lot of writing? The only time I ever seem to remember my dreams is when I haven’t written anything in several days.

  • Oddznns

    I have my phone charging on my nightstand, and sometimes I wake up and tap what I’m dreaming into it. When I wake up in the morning and read my note though, it turns out to be mostly drivel.

    Something great happened at the beginning of this month though. I have this novel about a married couple, but I didn’t know whose POV to write it from. Then I had a long complicated dream on the morning of November 1st (Start of Nanowrimo).  It was a really interesting dream… but just as I got to the end, my husband came in from his bike ride and said, “Aren’t you going to your bible study group?” I woke up and promptly forgot everything about the dream except that it was interesting and at the end, there was a woman cafetaria worker flashing a whiteboard at me which had “Beef Muscles” scrawled on it.

    Believe it or not… that woman’s become the masseuse with beefy arms who falls in love with her customer’s husband, the man everyone thinks is gay but actually isn’t.  The story’s being written from her POV.

    I’m always surprised how the muse talks to us. 

  • Nicky Peacock – Author

    I’m with you; one of my stories was inspired by a rather gruesome nightmare – the dangers of being a horror writer! http://nickypeacockauthor.wordpress.com/ 

  • annepeterson

    It was a dream of long ago, yet somehow still vivid. I stood in the backyard at Rice Street. The yard with Hollyhocks and overgrown weeds. There were carrots growing and a small patch of green beans. The clothesline hung between the four poles. Often the clothes would hang int he fresh air till the sheets became stiff. It was a day before clothes dryers unless you had a lot of money. That wasn’t us.

    Mom had just finished the wash and was walking over to me. Staggering, really. It was as if she wasn’t real. I could see her but she looked different. She wore the black flowered dress that I loved so much. All black with every kind of flower you could imagine popping out against the background. 

    So she tried walking to me and I kept calling her. My arm hurt and I wanted her comfort. I wanted her to look at it.

    But she’d get close, but never to me. She just kept wavering like the flame of a candle.

    And then I woke up. And realized the pain was real. I had slept on my arm and it was throbbing. But the rest was a dream. She was faintly visible because she had already left us. At only 43 she died of a massive stroke.

    Immediately when I awoke to my harsh reality I began crying. Knowing I could call forever and she couldn’t come to me anymore. Sixteen is too young to lose a mom.

    Later at school Mr. Drechney, our English teacher,  asked for a volunteer to answer the question, “Why did Pedro hate his mother?”

    Finally he said, “Okay class you can all just write out the answers instead.”

    Taking out a piece of notebook paper I began to scrawl the words, “Why did Pedro hate his  Mothe…I tried again but found that tears were falling on my paper. A shower ensued as I started shaking violently. The sobs caused Mr. Drechney to come over immediately. 

    My head was now on my desk and I sobbed without abandon. Just attempting that word was torture. I lifted my head and saw that blood was now covering my paper. In all my anxiety my nose had started bleeding. 

    Mr. Drechney chose someone to accompany me to the restroom where I washed the tears and blood from my motherless face.

    It was too soon to return to school. She had only died a few days ago. It was then in the washroom I remembered the dream. Remembered I called her but she never came. And the thought of her never coming again was too much for my 16 year old self to bear.

    Later on in a math class I heard one student ask another, “Did you hear about the girl who got upset in Mr. Drechney’s class? She hadn’t done her homework.

    If only that had been my problem.