Where Ideas Come From: Dream A Little Dream

Dreams can offer us a wealth of startling images, bizarre encounters, and fantastical situations. At their most memorable, they convey the emotional texture of our deepest longings, our most paralyzing fears, the memories we would as soon forget but must not, the people we will never see again, for good or ill. The stuff of great stories, right?

Wrong.

Well, maybe. The problem with using dreams as story material is the very illogic of them, the juxtaposition of images and actions without regard for the laws of physics, psychology or anything else. Without delving into the analysis of dreams (neurological or Freudian), I can safely say that the same process that make some dreams so powerful also makes them highly personal. The dream-story that unfolded between your ears last night was your individual brain at play, uncaring of the waking conventions of shared experience and assumptions. Simply put, your dreaming mind is a world unto itself. No translator is available.

Throughout ancient times in many different cultures, prophets and sages attempted to interpret dreams, to create an overlay of sense. Often, this required a considerable feat of mental gymnastics. When in doubt, they could call it a prophecy and proclaim that all would be made clear. Eventually.

Yet dreams move us, terrify us, inspire us, linger in our waking thoughts. As long as we respect their idiosyncratic nature, they can become a treasure trove of idea-seeds. With perspective, discernment and literary craft, we can turn them into stories that will mean something to a reader. The trick is not to transcribe the dream but to transform it.

JAYDIUM began with a dream-image: a tunnel, dark and poorly lit. A ghostly figure of a man floating there, his feet not touching the ground, his hands passing through the rock walls. In itself, this is not particularly innovative. I’d seen something like it many times in film. Usually, the figure is adrift in time or some cross-dimensional warp. The hero’s goal is to rescue him, to bring him into normal space/time.

As I started playing around with the image, I wondered what would happen if such an attempt might have the opposite effect — to bring the rescuer into wherever or whenever the adrift-guy was. Again, this was not terribly original, but had more “story-ness” that the starting image. Notice that what I did was to take a situation and ask, “What if?”

About a hundred rounds of “What If?” later, I knew I had something. My rescuer had become a pair of unlikely allies, each with a different reason for being in the tunnel, and I’d set up not one but a series of “getting knocked sideways,” not only back in time but across alternate histories. On the way, my pair pick up more companions (including the ghost), outwit some nasty pirates, and end up in the clutches of an alien scientist. So far, so good. But not good enough.

I wanted something more at risk than just “not getting home.” What if (those magic words) getting home means something else happening, something really terrible that affects much more than just these few characters? What if the alternate future in which they don’t get home is the best one?

At last, I had the makings of a story — four characters with different, not necessarily compatible goals, and a dilemma each of them must face. I have conflict between characters (and cultures) as well as within my primary characters, not to mention some spectacular scenery and a ticking doomsday clock.

Now we’re cooking!

Deborah J. Ross has been writing fantasy and science fiction professionally since 1982. Her first novel, a space adventure written under her former name, Deborah Wheeler, is now available as an ebook from Book View Cafe Press. Read her latest collaboration with Marion Zimmer Bradley, the Darkover novel Hastur Lord.

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