Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I anticipated that my kids would have nightmares once we actually moved. Uprooting them from everything they know and moving them thousands of miles away to a location with a very different culture is a highly emotional experience; just the kind of thing to trigger nightmares (source).

What I didn't anticipate was their starting so soon. A good night's sleep has become a thing of the past. At least once a week, one of the boys wakes me with a nightmare. I guess the stress is getting to everyone. I've been fortunate not to have nightmares, but maybe that's because the others wake me, and once I'm awake, I can't shut off my brain and go back to sleep. Hard to have a nightmare if you're awake!

While I'm lying awake at night, I wonder how I might make use of this in a future story. What circumstances lead to nightmares? How can those circumstances lead to bizarre dreams for a character, and how can I make that dream an essential component of the story?

According to the Mayo Clinic, nightmares can result from any of the following.
  • stress Stress may be caused by everyday events (school stress, bullying, work) or bigger events (a divorce, death of a loved one, a move). (This is clearly the issue for us.)
  • a traumatic event Nightmares are one of the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Did anything really traumatic happen to your character? If so, there ought to be nightmares afterward.
  • illness When people are sick, particularly if they have a high fever, nightmares can dominate their sleep. One of the best examples of this that I've seen is in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. In one of the later books, the main character, Claire, becomes deathly ill, and we experience the illness through her dreams and altered perceptions. 
  • drugs Both legal (some antidepressants) and illegal (barbiturates and narcotics) drugs can cause nightmares. What is your character going through? Are drugs involved? (Probably not if you're writing for children!) Make the experience real for your audience by incorporating nightmares.
And don't just include nightmares for effect, put them to work. Make your character's brain pull together pieces of what's happening around him/her into a frightening experience that not only illustrates the psychological issues, but also provides the reader with important information about the character or story line.

That's what I'll be thinking about when I'm wide awake at 3am.

Have you incorporated dreams or nightmares into your writing?


  1. I have actually.
    They were mentioned in my first book.
    In my WIP I have a character describing her nightmares as she recovers from a period of mental illness.

  2. :( Anticipation can be the worst part. I've been through moves and other traumatic changes and can sympathize with what your boys are going through. I haven't used nightmares in my writing (yet), but they seem like a useful device.

  3. Yep. One of my characters gets nightmares, but it has an additional function to the story. :-)

  4. Aw! Poor kiddos!

    I've never used them (since it is hard to work them in to 500 words), but that is a great thing to think about!

  5. I have. I find it cathartic.

  6. Way to turn a negative into a positive! Sorry about your kids, I hope they adjust soon and you can all have many, many good nights sleep.

  7. So sorry to hear about the nightmares, and your sleepless nights. Hope you'll all have sweet dreams and restful nights soon.

  8. Thanks for your well wishes, everyone! I'll be happy when the move is over. :)

  9. Poor kids. Something everyone goes through, I think. I definitely use dreams in my writing to show character, because I think the kinds of dreams they had as a kid can definitely show the kind of person they are.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  10. I do have a few dreams in my current WIP (and they are nightmares). You've presented some great ideas on incorporating them in believable ways.

    I hope you can get a good night's (or week) sleep soon.

  11. Oooh, this is fascinating. I have incorporated nightmares into my writing. At first I thought I was a little weird for doing it, but I felt like it served a purpose. Thanks for the cool information.

  12. Stress definitely causes me nightmares and weird dreams in general. I think it was probably a big stresser on the kids to move. Give it a little time, they and you will come around. :)

  13. I haven't used dreams or nightmares... yet!... since I mostly write picture books, but I may work them into some MG/YA novels I'm trying to write - who can tell?

    Sorry for your boys - hope things feel more settled for them soon so you can all get more sleep! But as someone who is prone to that can't-get-back-to-sleep-when-awoken-at-3AM problem, I can at least say that I get a lot of good thinking done then :)

  14. Yes, my WIP has a couple of nightmares, mostly stress and trauma-induced, with something extra.

    Sorry to hear about your kids' nightmares and your interrupted sleep. I hope it gets better soon!

  15. Thank you, Your writing has helped me,,
    i like this blog,,
    By Diet Solution Program