Wrong is the creator-owned magazine of uncanny and disturbing stories.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Who's the author of a dream?

I had a dream. No, wait, don’t go. It’s brief and it raises an interesting point.

In the dream I was in a screening room. Somebody said that the movie we were about to watch was remarkable in comprising a single take with a fixed camera position.

The movie opened in the middle of an empty building site. The camera panned around, looking at the surrounding streets but not moving from its position in the middle of the site. Workers appeared. As the camera turned, it took in a wall. Hang on, that wall wasn’t there a moment ago. I noticed the workers moved in jerky time-lapse animation. The building began to sprout up around the camera – which was either watching it being built, or more likely (because that wall was complete in an instant, and free-standing) being demolished in reverse.

OK, so here’s what I find interesting. The dream started with a story hook, that we were about to watch an entire movie with the camera fixed in place, then went on to reveal how that could be. Now, I’ve experienced a lot of sequential narratives in dreams, sometimes complex and fiendishly inventive, but they’re usually like life: event A happens, then B, then C. That’s what the Russian Formalists called fabula.

But this dream was siuzhet, an author’s rearrangement of sequential events to create a story. And what’s odd about that: who is the author? If that kind of thing happened in real life we’d be tempted to believe in God or the Matrix. In a dream – well, you know there is a mind capable of storytelling there, but it can’t both withhold information and be surprised by it. Or can it?

I have three theories.
  1. My dreaming self imagined the hook and then improvised a movie concept to fit it.
  2. There are two parts of the brain at work. One is the spectator. The other creates the dream; it devised the idea, then presented the spectator self with a hook before going on to reveal the answer.
  3. The entire dream was manufactured out of fragments at the moment of waking, so that any sense of narrative sequence is entirely retrospective.
The third answer is unlikely because we know that dreams are usually experienced sequentially in real time. If you take a cat and chemically suppress the blocking of motor functions that usually occurs during sleep, you can see it swiping at an insect that it’s dreaming about – and you can even track the imaginary movement of that insect. So, to cats at least, dreams do occur in real time; they aren’t just manufactured on waking.

So that leaves the improvisation theory or the divided brain theory. As a writer, and even more as an umpire of role-playing games, I’m pretty good at coming up with off-the-cuff solutions to story problems. That probably is the explanation of what’s going on here. But I’m sharing it because I’d like to find out if anybody else has experienced dreams with a storytelling structure to them. Did you ever feel like a spectator in the screening room of your own dreaming skull? Comments welcome.


  1. Dreams are the interpretations of measurable nerve stimulation. The nerve stimulation occurs during the rapid eye movement of sleep. In the simplest way, the more you see someone's eyelids scrunch and relax during deep sleep, the more their brain is being 'fed', as I like to see it.

    It is similar to if one finds oneself frowning, it might be perceived as thinking hard, or of anger, depending on the situation. Often we find ourselves only realizing our facial expression a little while after we have made it. With dreams there is just the frown, and no clues. The mind paints whatever (sometimes loopy) picture it can.

    I do not recall dreaming about such fine things as narrative. I suspect it is the writer's mind that shaped it that way for you, and whether it was the scene that came first, or the idea of a fixed camera, is probably unknowable. What's cool is that it shows how much you think about these things.

    Now go and write another Heart of Ice! :-)

    1. Another Heart of Ice? What was wrong with the first one? :)