How to Use Your Dreams to Inspire Your Fiction

by Melanie Marttila
published in Writing

How many times have you heard an author say that the idea for a story or novel came to them in a dream? Has that left you feeling a little envious? I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I’ve always been a dreamer and while there are creative types who share the gift (or curse—I still remember the nightmares I had as a child, vividly), there are those who do not. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just the way we’re wired.

No matter how you’re wired, even if you don’t regularly remember your dreams, there are some things you can do to tap into that sleeping giant of a creative resource.

First, however:

A few words about sleep

In order to dream, you have to sleep long enough, and soundly enough, to reach the rapid eye movement, or REM, stage of sleep, where most of the dream magic happens. Dreams can occur during the non-REM sleep stages (there are three of those), but it’s rarer.

The sleep stages cycle throughout the night and to get through non-REM one to three and into REM, or the final stage of sleep, it takes between 90-120 minutes. Each time you cycle through, you stay in REM a little longer. The longer you’re in REM, the more likely you are to dream right up until the moment you wake.

This is why you want to create the best conditions for sound and restful sleep.

Besides, sleep is a critical component of your physical and mental health.

To promote healthy sleep habits, you should:

  • Create a routine. Wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day. Yes. Even weekends.
  • Keep the light out. Circadian rhythms are influenced by light and dark. Dark means it’s time to sleep. Illuminated alarm clock? Turn it away from you. Use black out curtains, a sleep mask, or both, if you’re hardcore. This is also the reason you shouldn’t use your devices right before you sleep. Yeah, yeah. I know, but try it.
  • Keep it quiet. If you live in the city, this may be a tough one. If you can’t stand ear plugs, try a white noise machine. It’s like static for your ear balls and will cancel out a lot of other noise.
  • Avoid caffeine in the evenings. I never believed this, either. Trust me. You’ll get to the point that coffee or non-herbal tea after supper will have you doing the jitterbug into the wee hours.
  • It’s best not to eat too late, either. If you absolutely must east something before bed, aim for a banana or some yogurt (they contain tryptophan), or some oatmeal (carbs make you sleepy). Warm milk with honey is a sleepytime fave of mine. If you have restless legs, try tonic water.[1]

For more information, Google “sleep hygiene.” It’s a thing.[2]

But I don’t dream!

Everyone dreams and we dream from infancy to death, every night of our lives. The problem may be remembering your dreams.

If you wake up abruptly—and it’s hard not to if you wake to an alarm clock—your dreams may fade before you realize you’ve even had them. Like many other things—writing, for instance—habit and practice are the keys to opening the doors to your dreams.

How to remember your dreams:

  • Keep a notebook or journal by your bedside. Night time notes can be hard to read, though. Try a digital voice recorder. You can get an inexpensive one that doesn’t have a big screen (don’t use the app on your phone—bright light!). Or, if you talk in your sleep, you’re partner can always record it for you.[3]
  • Try a different kind of alarm. There are a number of alternatives: ones that increase the music volume slowly over time, ones that use a brightening light to simulate sunrise, or ones that use nature sounds (like birds chirping) to wake you up.
  • Wake up gently, regardless. Set your alarm a little earlier and just stay in bed for a few minutes. Relax. Breathe. See if you can’t remember something. Even if it’s not a whole dream, if you do it regularly enough, you will remember more as time goes on. It’s practice.
  • Set an intention before sleeping. Tell yourself that you’ll remember a dream when you wake up.
  • Sleep on a creative problem. Similarly, if you’re stuck on a scene or a plot point, ruminate calmly on it before you sleep. Even if you don’t dream up a solution, your mind will be working on the problem and when you head back to the page, the answer might just appear. Like magic.

The language of dreams

When you start to remember your dreams, not all of them are going to be the stuff of great novels. Try not to be too disappointed. Stick with it. It’s a process. These days, I might have one dream a year that leads to a story. Sad fact: you spend less time in REM sleep the older you get.

Some dreams are about ordinary daily activity. And if you’re stressed about some of those daily activities, your dreams will reflect that.

Sometimes, though, your unconscious mind gets creative. It makes up stories about you and those dreams are the awesome ones. Your dream language will be personal to you. You will be the only person who can decode it.

That character or scene that you dream about could be the beating heart of your next story.

[1] Tonic water contains quinine, which can help.

[2] A great place to start: How Sleep Works.

[3] There’s a fabulous Brainpickings about Amanda Palmer recording Neil Gaiman’s nocturnal musings.


Melanie Marttila creates worlds from whole cloth. She’s a dreamsinger, an ink alchemist, and an unabashed learning mutt. Her speculative short fiction has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction Magazine, On Spec Magazine, and Sudbury Ink. She lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, where she spends her days working as a corporate trainer. She blogs at http://www.melaniemarttila.ca and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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