The Stuff of Nightmares

Writing a novel is like making love, but it’s also like having a tooth pulled. Pleasure and pain. Sometimes it’s like making love while having a tooth pulled. — Dean Koontz

Ever had a nightmare?

I’m not talking about the uneasy "I went to school in my underpants, whatever will I do now?" types of dreams. I’m talking about a full-on, dear-God-in-Heaven-where-am-I-and-how-am-I-ever-going-to-get-out-of-this-alive-and-where-is-everybody-and-what-the-hell-is-that-crawling-up-my-leg type of nightmare; the ones where you wake up sweating, screaming, kicking, running, or any combination of the four.

Sure you have.

We all have.

Know what’s potentially more frightening than your own nightmare? Experiencing someone else’s. If you’ve ever been startled awake in the dead of night by someone you love screaming in her sleep, you know what I mean. Your first instinct is to leap out of the bed and scream along with her. Next, you struggle to to clear enough of the fog of sleep from your head to put together exactly what’s going on and to fix it, to rescue her from whatever’s "after" her and bring her back to safety.

Writers, especially beginning writers, put quite a lot of stock in dreams as a plot device. Even experienced professionals rely on it from time to time as a means of prediliction, psychological evaluation, or–in the case of 1980s nighttime soap Dallas–erasing an entire plotline.

As a result of its commonality, writing a dream sequence is something I mostly try to avoid in my own fiction. That’s not to say I’ve never written one. I have. And I was never happy with it. Besides, I find experiencing a dreamer’s nightmare from outside their head much more terrifying.

Perhaps I’ll write about that experience the next time I feel the urge to use a dream sequence as a plot device.