Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Re-writing a Dream

WARNING: This is a post about writing, not likely to be funny. We will return to our regularly scheduled sarcasm later this evening or tomorrow; funny conversation with elder child is half-transcribed. Thank you.

In my novel FATE'S GUARDIAN, my protagonist witnesses the murder of his best friend as a child. He watches through the window as she is knocked unconscious by her father, who then sets fire to the house and leaves. Afraid to speak out about what he saw, he suffers from nightmares as he fights to forget the ghastly scene.

In the earlier drafts, I had a very macabre telling of the dream, where he exacts revenge on her father.

I re-wrote the scene today, and instead of showing what he dreamed about in detail, I decided to focus more on what he looked like from the outside. I took 2,000 words and distilled them down to 250. I took a scene that had six characters and focused on one (in the first version he woke up his brothers and parents). There are glimpses of his dream, but they are painted with very broad strokes, so the reader can fill in the rest (I'm taking the literary approach)...

Gil fought sleep as long as he could, but eventually he did succumb. For the first hour his body rested in a dreamless slumber, healing many of the physical exertions from the horrid day.

His body twitched as the nightmares started. First his fingers, gripping at the sheets. Then his feet and legs. Kicking. Running. Sweat broke out on his brow and he clenched his jaws, concentrating on his struggle against an unseen foe.

He tried to wake up, but he could not pull himself out of it. Fear and panic evident on his face, his breathing became shallow and fast and his heart raced to catch the wind in his lungs. The dream world took all the realities of the day and enhanced them with childhood imagination. Colors swirled. Julie’s blond hair and pink shirt doused in red blood and blue flames.

In his mind, he ran. The world around him a disoriented blur, he ran to escape from Julie, from Mr. Flaherty, from his own memory. But they were all there, following him, surrounding him at every turn. The things he did. The things he didn’t do. The threats he avoided, only to come home and find that they followed him.

In his dream he screamed. A silent, breathless scream. His jaws stretched wide and air rushed through his throat. His vocal chords vibrated so hard they made his neck hurt, but his voice failed to find a sound and carry it to those who could help. And so his desperate cries went unheard that night, as they would for many more.


Scott said...

A very compelling passage, Rick.

Laurel said...

Very solid. I've done the same thing in my WIP (not dream sequence, but change perspective/cut words) and it is amazing the difference it can make.

Dreams are tricky, anyway. I used to have horrible nightmares, bad enough that I tried not to go to sleep, and I have never read a description in a book that captured the intensity through detail. (Although Dean Koontz probably comes the closest.)

Nightmares are universal and unless the info in the dream is necessary for the plot, implication is much more frightening since it lets the reader's mind call their own fears to the story.

Lady Glamis said...

A writing post!!! Awesome. I think you've done a good job with this. It's very visual and full of senses. I think distilling complicated scenes down can really do wonders!

Aimee K. Maher said...

"The threats he avoided, only to come home and find that they followed him."

This confused me.

"A silent, breathless scream."

And this seems necessary.

But the rest of it sounds great. I really liked it.

Laura Martone said...

I agree with everyone here, Rick. Distilled to its essence, this passage is very effective... and poignant.

Thanks for sharing!

scott g.f. bailey said...

That's a really cool idea, to switch focus from the dream itself to your protagonist dreaming. I really like reading passages like this, and I really like when I have ideas that move the story-telling away from straight linear structure. Well done!

beth said...

Great idea.

In general, I almost always think that cutting something down makes it better. I love how you shifted the focus, too, making it more unique and less cliche. Bravo!!

Rick Daley said...

Thanks everyone! This was one of those times when you write something then sit back, re-read it, and go "Damn, how did I do that?"

It's like that golf shot that actually goes where you want it to, the kind that keeps you playing even though you shot an 85. On the front nine.

The first part you mentioned about the threats following him home is more clear in the full context of the story. To make a long story short, his friend's father is not accused of the murder, and Gil's father invites him to stay at their house since his burnt down.

Did you mean the "silent, breathless scream" was un-necessary? I can see where you would find it redundant, but I like its emphasis because Gil has been/will remain silent over what he saw, and from a psychological perspective the dream points to his own subconscious awareness, desperate to tell someone but unable to do it.

Elizabeth Bradley said...

I was taught in school to stay away from putting the character "in a dream". Not that rules aren't meant to be broken, but I agree with your choice. Much better approach you've taken here.

Rick Daley said...

Thanks Elizabeth. The nightmares (and resulting insomnia) will play an important role in the character's development, so they need to be included in some way...but the dreams themselves would just be trippy and distracting.

jbchicoine said...

Anyone who has ever had a nightmare, the kind from which you awaken in a cold sweat, when your skin actually hurts from the exertion of it—this excerpt brings it to the fore; we know what it feels like and we don’t need all the specifics. You have whittled it down to a chilling few concise ideas. I don’t know how an extra 1,750 words could have conveyed it more acutely. Nice.

Specifically, I liked the gradual build up; the twitching, the sweat, and finally the full blown “His jaws stretched wide and air rushed through his throat. His vocal chords vibrated so hard they made his neck hurt.” Good descriptives without going overboard.

Rick Daley said...


The extra words actually made it less visceral and just strange.

As I re-read this, I see even more of the dream than I did before with the added words, because they were so descriptive they left nothing for chance. Now my mind has the freedom to take the 250 words and paint a 5,000 word picture of terror.