Writing Should Be Like Dreaming—and Here's Why

I've been dreaming a lot lately … the kind of dreams that last all night. The ones that tell a continuous story—an eight-hour saga that grips my interest and never lets go. It's had me thinking.


Like me, you’ve probably had a few dreams in your life that you never wanted to end. Sometimes I'll wake up from a dream and try to go to sleep again to continue the dream (why does that never work?) because it’s just that good—like a thrilling book I can't put down.


So here's my question: if the human brain is so great at telling stories while we sleep, why is writing a novel so hard?


Is it possible to write a story as good as your dreams … and do it while you're awake?


The answer, in short, is yes. With a condition.



The Stuff Dreams Are Really Made of


Even while you're sleeping, your brain is busy as ever.


When you dream, a part of your brain called the limbic system—which deals with memories and emotions—is lit up with activity. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex—the part that deals with logic and self-control—is far less active.


In other words, dreaming is mostly driven by your desires, emotions, and memories instead of logic. This is the reason our dreams are often irrational, illogical, and jumbled.


But how does your brain tell a story without logic?


You already guessed the answer. Emotion.


With very little logic to hold it all together, your mind is capable of dreaming up a story that puts you on an emotional roller coaster. Exactly what a good story should do.



So What's the Catch?


What stops you from writing this way during the daytime?


Logic and self-control, thanks to our prefrontal cortex. Which is plenty active during the day. Your inner editor catches every error, typo, and flaw in your work and makes you second-guess yourself. The more logical a person you are, the more critical you are likely to be of yourself and your work.


Now, don’t go throwing logic out the window, but let’s explore an idea:


Feel it first. Think about it later.


Yes, your mind can tell sweeping, heart-clenching stories, and it can do it during the day. But to do that, you must stop criticizing your work.


Yes, your mind can tell sweeping, heart-clenching stories, and it can do it during the day. But to do that, you must stop criticizing your work.

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It’s tough. I get it. Part of being creative is being a natural perfectionist. Trying to turn the perfectionism off can feel like turning your eyes from blue to brown.


My most frustrating moments as an author happen as I’m staring at my story, trying to figure out a logical solution and finding none, forcing the emotion to take a backseat while I attempt to solve inconsistencies.


Funny that my worst problems as an author—illogical storylines—aren’t such a big deal when I’m dreaming.


I get caught up in the details. The why. It’s easy for me—I’m an extremely logical individual. When a story makes no sense, it’s hard for me to connect emotionally.


Unless I’m dreaming.


Unless I’m so caught up in the emotions and the nostalgia that logic gets left behind in the mist of pure imagination.



Feel it first, think about it later. 


It’s not, Never think about it. It’s, Think about it later.


No, you can’t flip a magic switch and turn off your critic. But you can postpone your critique. For a long, long time.


Decide to like your writing. Yourself. Decide that the mess is beautiful. Stop trying to impress yourself and be impressed.


Decide to like your writing. Yourself. Decide that the mess is beautiful. Stop trying to impress yourself and BE impressed.

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You're probably wondering how.


How do you turn off a part of your brain that is designed to keep you sane during the daytime?


There's something you need to believe.


If you believe this one thing, you can (temporarily) override your inner critic. But you have to be absolutely convinced of it. Here it is:


You will never know how to tell a story.


I’m going to repeat that, with emphasis on the essential words:

You will never know how to tell a story.


Oh yes, you can tell a story, a fantastic one. But you’ll never do it by applying a mystical formula to a spreadsheet and logically organizing events into a timeline.



Don't Overthink Your Story


When you wake up from a dream, you haven't got a clue how you dreamed that. You just did. And you will never be able to recreate it.


The same thing will happen when you write the novel you were born to write. The novel that will rock the world, top the bestsellers.


Nobody will see it coming … including you.


Stop trying to figure it out. Just don’t. You can write a story—a better one than you realize—but it will come from your heart, not your head.


Stop trying to figure it out. Just don’t. You can write a story—a better one than you realize—but it will come from your heart, not your head.

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The more you try to rationalize your story, the more frustrated you will become. 

Go gentle on your brain. Your logical side wasn’t created for telling the story … only for refining, polishing, fixing it. But save that for later. Eventually, your novel will be tight as a drum. It may even look like you did it on purpose.



This Applies to Outlining!


Maybe you’re wondering how to apply this if you pre-plan your stories before writing them (which is a great technique, by the way).


Yes, go ahead and plan your book. But don’t plan it like a logician; plan it like an empath. Let the plot flow organically, based on your character’s crazy desires, ideas, emotions. Let the logic serve the emotion … not the other way around.


Never stare at a character on your outline and wonder, “Why does he want to do that? What’s the reason?”


You may never know, and it’s none of your business to decide for them. Let your characters want what they want; stop trying to determine why. One day they may even tell you. But you don’t have to know … at least not yet.


Knowing why is for the third draft, not the first.


Nobody knows why E flat comes after the G in Beethoven’s opening phrase of his fifth symphony. It just does. There’s not a logical explanation. But it has emotional resonance, and that's all the reason it needs.


Let instinct start your story, and then finish it with logic.


Of course, there’s a balance. There are formulas, strategies, and structural concepts to writing a good story. That’s why it’s invaluable to cram your head with storytelling know-how. Feed your imagination constantly. Read as much as possible, and learn the craft from other authors. Pack your mental storehouse with enough material to write a thousand stories. Fill the well.


But at the end of the day, it all comes down to trusting your brain can tell the story.


Because your inner critic isn’t always right.


Trust your brain, then give yourself permission to mute your self-criticism. Your book's going to be great. It will make sense, sure, but better than that—it will hit your readers emotionally.


Your readers will gawk, gasp, ask you how you knew.


And you’ll just grin and shrug. “I’ll never tell.”

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Joshua Pior

I'm a twenty-something writer of several short stories and (bad) novels, an artist, board game enthusiast, and homeschool grad. God has used stories again and again to impact my life, which first inspired me to become a writer and to help other young adult authors write their best stories yet!

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