A lot of poignant things I have learned in life, I learned from anime. (Yes, I am a colossal weeb under my innocent exterior, and I’m not sorry.)
I will always remember the first time I heard Jubei say ‘Everywhere you go, the sky is the sky, and people are people’ and felt how true that is.
I will also always remember another quote, made by Erika Chinen. ‘Humans have to be the only species stupid enough to never get enough sleep’.
And that is true too.
The Demon Named ‘Tired’
Being tired is one of the worst things. And of those worse things, the worst of all is perhaps just how much it lies to you.
Now, this being my writing blog, this is, of course, going to mostly focus on how sleep and writing go together, so let me start with this:
Do not write while exhausted just to get some words done today. Maybe make a few notes of that ‘awesome twist’ you thought up, but just go to sleep instead.
Writing while tired makes you miss things, and your brain acts like it’s drunk. Well, mine does anyway.
If I try to write while tired, I usually end up writing rambling nonsense at worst, and even at best, I write trite sentences and often my characters start acting out of… well, character.
Being tired sucks. Everything stops working right because your brain is crying out for a chance to clean itself up while you let your body have some downtime. That is hardly the right time or state of mind to be in to try and write compelling or even fun text.
Naturally though, because you are tired, you don’t realize this and think ‘hey this is a great idea, I should spend the next hour bashing up a thousand plus words. Damn, I’m good’, only to re-read it in the morning and wonder just what the hell you were thinking (or at least I do, anyway).
Sleep to Dream
The reason I decided to have a little rant about the wonderful thing known as sleep today has a lot less to do with writing tired if I’m honest.
I started thinking about sleep today because of dreams.
I’m currently working on another chapter in my ‘horror’ novel, and parts of the story hang around dream sequences. Which gets me grousing and pondering on just why writers so often get dreams wrong.
Now, as a full disclaimer before I go further, I am kind of committing the exact sin against realism I am about to rave about. My main character, Evelyn, has terribly lucid, ‘sensible’ and progressive dreams in the story to understand the supernatural creatures she is stuck with. When she wakes up, she remembers the dreams pretty clearly, at least long enough to note it all down so she doesn’t forget.
In my defense of this, this is because the dreams are implanted and manipulated experiences which these weird creatures feed off, and not your run-of-the-mill brain idling of real dreams. There is a reason why she has such clear and plot-helping visions (and this novel is not going to be one I ever try to sell. It’s a personal project, and thus not bound by a need for stellar writing conventions.)
So why, then, do so many other authors write just as detailed and convenient dreams for their normal characters?
Every single one of us sleeps, every single one of us dreams, so why are we so rubbish at writing accurate portrayals of this natural part of being human?
I think it starts with cliche.
Most of us are pretty good at detecting cliche’s in our media, but some become so innately ingrained, such useful and oft-used devices to convey an entire idea in as few words/shots as possible, they become normalized and we cease thinking about them as what they truly are.
Dream sequences definitely seem to be one of these. A dream sequence conveys to the reader that the character has some subconscious awareness of things going on in the story, and rest (which is code for ‘time to think about it’ a lot of the time) allows this subconscious idea to become fully rounded, without anything getting in the way. Sometimes, the ‘getting in the way’ isn’t even about the character being distracted – it’s about making sure the reader doesn’t get distracted. That last part means it’s a great device for books aimed at younger readers, too, so we mostly all grew up with stories using it, and thus… it’s normalized.
I hate talking about laziness in terms of writing, because lords know, writing is anything but a lazy thing to do. Especially if you are passionate and determined about it.
That said, some tropes we fall on are lazy, especially if you are writing while tired (I mean it! Go sleep!).
Using a dream sequence can allow the plot to take a necessary jump forward, without the usual constraints of believability or context to the main work. They are a shortcut, and a quick route to get from a to b, or to write yourself out of a corner.
Sometimes, it’s just easier to use a dream sequence than to go back and restructure the last two chapters or more to fix the plot point in another way.
Perhaps the worst crime of all these, in terms of laziness, if those dream sequences that turn out to be prophecies of the future, wherein all the misty ambiguity of the dream is neatly tidied up in some closing scene, with extra details. Often, this occurs when a writer is trying to drum up interest for the book in the early stages with some ‘mystery’. I know that for me at least, on the rare occasions I see this, it just makes me roll my eyes.
Another big reason I think dream scenes often don’t have a tang of believability to them is the simplest reason: forgetting.
We’ve all been there. You startle awake after a particularly vivid dream, maybe your heart rate is spiking a little, and you have some really clear images in your head of what you were dreaming about.
If you settle down for more sleep, you probably won’t remember any of it next time you wake up. If you don’t go back to sleep though, and really think about the dream, maybe you remember some long sequence of what you were dreaming about. Most of it will be a bit wacky and zany, but still legible, in its own way.
Example: ‘I had this really weird dream last night. I dreamt I was in a field with the whole gang, but we were really paranoid about bees trying to sting us, so when some showed up, we ran into the city. No one was really real, you know? Just like, blurry shapes, but I knew they were you and Joe and Karl. So we ran into the city to get away from the bees, and then it was really important we went to see this movie and Joe kept complaining the popcorn wasn’t sweet enough…’
The thing is… that isn’t what you dreamt. It’s what you understood from your dream because our conscious mind does its best to link things up, tries to find patterns or form a narrative.
Basically… we’re not very good at being objective about our own dreams, and that if we even remember them at all.
All this makes it sound like I’m really against dream sequences in writing, and to a degree I sort of am. They’ve been really overdone in a lot of works, and people are kind of aware of them right now for what they are – cheeky shortcuts in a work, and that is obviously not a good thing for reader or writer.
But, I do think there are places where dream sequences, and addressing the very human trait of tiredness are appropriate and even good. Dreams portrayed ‘accurately’ as much as possible, helping the story along without just lazily connecting two points.
Dreams where the effect on the character, rather than the dreams’ content can be great.
Dreams where a characters nature is reflected. Dreams where no one dreams about things they have never seen before (this is impossible unless it’s a supernatural dream. Can’t dream something you have no basis for.)
Good dreams should be interestingly bizarre, short, and the emphasis in my mind should be much more on the characters’ reactions and how they handle whatever may have sparked the dream off. If I’ve been heavily involved in a specific thing for the whole day, it’s not uncommon for me to dream about it at night – this is the sort of dream I would risk putting into a marketable work.
Ultimately though, it has to be relevant, otherwise, why is it in the book at all?
I guess what I’m really rambling about today is valuing your brain.
Sleep when you need it, it tends to lead to better writing. Value how awesome your brain is at cleaning itself up, and the sheer oddity that is dreaming.
Sleep is one of the great unifiers of our species – we all do it – and thus it’s a great medium for discussing the human condition, sharing your thoughts through your words in a way others can relate to.
Also, sleep is just awesome. I like not being tired!