On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter! Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the composition of ‘Kublai Khan’.
It’s an odd fact that, although most people dream and are interested in their dreams, no one wants to hear about another person’s dreams. ‘I had this dream the other night …’ is a sure way to bore your listeners. We learn early not to do it.
I dream most nights, two or three unconnected narratives like separate novellas. Don’t worry, I’m not about to narrate them.
Sigmund Freud, famously, argued that dreams were related to the unconscious and its often disordered state was reflected in their apparent illogicality and chaos. In one of the many revisions of The Interpretation of Dreams, he added a section on the sexual symbols present in dreams. This provided rich material for the imagination of fiction writers.
Graham Greene is said to have kept a notebook by his bedside and to have written down as much of his dreams as he could recall when he woke. I don’t know why he did this; it seems obsessive. Perhaps it was to gather material for his fiction but I’m not aware that he used dreams in the books of his I’ve read.
But many writers, particularly those writing genre fiction, have their characters dream in the course of the narrative. I do, very sparingly. I believe, in the case of mystery stories, that there are certain unwritten rules to be observed when writing about dreams. It’s legitimate to write about a character’s dream to provide a pause in the narrative, to provide a kind of dramatised summary of the action to that point or to show a character’s state of mind for better or for worse, or to trigger a buried memory. It is not legitimate for a dream to provide clues or a solution to a mystery. Dreams are disordered and at best symbolic in meaning; to use them as realistic narrative elements is to enter the world of fantasy.
In films dreams are often used to trick the viewer into thinking a piece of action is part of the narrative when it is not. This device isn’t available to mystery writers, who must stay within pseudo-realistic bounds. Writers of ghost stories, fantasy, romance and science fiction may suit themselves.
I have sometimes tried to induce a dream, either to repeat a pleasant one or to conjure up someone I was interested in. I’ve tried to do this simply by concentrating hard on the elements of the good dream or on the person concerned. It has never worked.
But what if it did? What if you could induce and shape dreams to your will? I suspect that it would become addictive, that you would end up as in the Everly Brothers song, ‘Dreamin’ [your] Life Away’. It could be very psychologically dangerous. Now there’s a theme for speculative fiction writers … or have they been there already?