The (Unreliable) Art of Dreaming Up Plots

- by Judy Griffith Gill

Last night I dreamed a complete plot! It was truly a fantastic story—had everything, piracy on the high seas, a custody battle in court, an attempted murder, lots of drama and simply magnificent dialogue that sparkled and advanced the plot in ways dialogue never has before. I even hurriedly made notes when I first woke up.

Those notes read:

“Leg off. Nowhere gone. Kid??? Bridges too… Animal sanct.? Lose plat3@&4” (Or something similar—can’t make out my own scribble), and the word “ Forty.”

Now, doesn’t everyone envy such talent? Such lucidity? Would someone please envy it enough to come write the damn book for me? I’m sure there must be a plot in there somewhere, but like most dreams, it’s flitted away and has mostly stayed out of sight since I wrote those notes that were supposed to bring the dream back intact and cohesive, with fully-formed characters, intense scenes, and a stand-out ending.

Dreaming plots is, in my opinion, a good thing. But only if the book is mostly written. In fact, I seldom finish a first draft without having dreamed about the characters and the events in their lives. Usually, it enhances my understanding of them and their motives. Recently, a work in progress was stalled until I dreamed about it. I didn’t know how to get my female protagonist “caught” in a lie of omission. Then, oddly enough, while visiting an old man in a retirement home, she was spotted by a nurse who is an avid reader of those checkout-stand newspapers that reveal all about celebrities and other people I’ve never heard of. (I lead a sheltered life, except I do believe I have seen a Sasquatch, though I never bore his baby.) In that dream, the nurse called a major daily paper with the WOW! news of “Missing Heiress Found!” Actually, she wasn’t missing. She just didn’t want to be found. Being a heiress wasn’t nearly as much fun as she’d thought, so she was a tad miffed at being outed. It got her in trouble with the BF.

There was actually a rational reason for my having had that dream. Not only did it get me out of a plot corner I’d backed myself into, but it came directly as a result of using a source many of us use, consciously or unconsciously—the daily paper and/or TV. The headline that triggered the dream was “Missing Heiress Sought.” I have no idea if the heiress the local paper was writing about was ever found, and don’t really care all that much, though I wish I could make myself look Latina and try to finesse my way into those reputed millions she stands to inherit. What I do care about is that I found the needed toilet plunger to unclog my literary drain.

There are other ways of doing the same. One is to walk away from that particular story and start writing something else. Invariably, because way, way back in your mind the original story is still ticking away whether you like it or not, know it or not, you’re going to start writing something you consider completely unrelated to it, and suddenly find it’s exactly what you need to fix the mess in the original story.

For example, while writing this, I recalled that “Leg off” referred to the father of one of the characters in my dream plot. He’d had a leg amputated some years previously, and when the piracy at sea occurred, he couldn’t find his prosthesis. It was “ Nowhere gone” If I’d put a comma or a dash between those two words, I might have been able to make a little more sense of it. “Kid???” Probably means I don’t have a clue if the child in the custody battle is a girl or a boy and that it might matter so I should give it some thought. “Bridges too… Animal sanct.?” I have a vague mental image from the dream of something that looks like the setting for Jurassic Park, or the jungle-canopy tours in Costa Rica, with railed walkways leading out over rivers, meadows and forests, with beautiful birds flying around, above where the deer and the antelope play, so to speak, which could relate to “Animal sanct.?.” However, “Lose plat3@&4” still needs a lot of work, I suppose it could mean someone has lost something. As for that mysterious “Forty,” I’m pretty well stumped. Since my dim recollections tell me there was a murder or attempted murder, maybe the perp got forty years? Or maybe the piracy was committed by forty thieves?

Since I’m the one who undoubtedly lost whatever “lose plat” etc. refers to, if you find it, please return it. The reward might even be forty dollars. Or forty cents. Or forty imaginative dream-filled nights.

P.S. Melatonin is said to enhance dreams, but I’d really like to try opium if only it were legal.


  1. Thanks for the laugh Judy. I needed one this morning. I’ll let you know if I run across any plat3@&4 that seems lost ;-)

  2. LOL! Thanks, Maggie. And if/when you find it, please let me know what it’s for.

  3. The dreaming isn’t the hard part, is it? It’s the remembering and deciphering the hurried notes. I too dream plots, and sometimes a nap is most helpful in working out problems. Today a plot point came to me while resting.

  4. Judy, You have a wonderful sense of humor. We so enjoyed this blog, and you made such a great observation about the dream world and plotting. Many things come to us as well in our dreams. Neither one of us ever wrote anything down upon waking. However, I think I (Zi) once dreamt I wrote down a dream.

  5. Judy,
    Fun post. I’ve found words recorded in my notebook in the morning that made no sense at all, but I keep recording just in case.

  6. Glad to know I struck a note or two with other writers–also glad to know I’m not alone in writing nonsensical notes to myself. Trouble is, I sometimes do it when I’m wide awake, too.