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On Writing Nightmares

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Anonymous asked: “I’ve just read your post on nightmares and thought to ask you that can’t nightmares be prophesied too?”

So, I won’t say that they can’t be. There are books that I love – including the example I’d mentioned in that last post, The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero, that include nightmares as visions or prophesies, but as a reader I’m a little hesitant to endorse that. Dreams can either be a cool new way for characters to make mental connections between seemingly unrelated things, confront issues in their everyday life, or grapple with emotions that they don’t let themselves show. 

I think dreams are a really cool thing to include in a novel, especially if they are well-done and can play a major role in the story. One book I loved that handed dreams was The Dream Thief by Maggie Stiefvater – the second book of her Raven Cycle series. Because of how the story sets up, the characters are able to spend a lot of time focusing on dreams and the significance and meaning of dreams – whether they be at all prophetic or not. 

With dreams as prophesies, I tend to be a little skeptical – just as a reader. If the character is psychic or clairvoyant, maybe that’s something that happens, but an ordinary character having one dream that will change the direction of the plot is not really something I get behind as a reader. 

One thing I recommend considering very carefully is how these characters think about and perceive dreams and nightmares. I’m currently working on a novel where dream interpretation is something that the characters actively think about and talk about. The dreams aren’t at all prophetic, but reflective. Your characters and the world of your novel are going to matter a lot. A character who won’t give zodiac signs a passing glance is not likely to run after a nightmare. 

While I am hesitant to talk really about dreams as prophesy, there are cases where I think it can walk a fine line between believable and incredulous – for instance, if the dream is about something that the character already fears or is stressing about in daily life. If the villain in their nightmares is a villain in real life that they just have a bad feeling about. A nightmare can be “predictive” of future conflict even if it is not exactly prophetic. This is one way that a nightmare could potentially have a strong effect on a character while it doesn’t necessarily come out of the blue. 

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