Using my unreleased manuscript An Angel On Her Shoulder, I am showing you my techniques for reworking a story into a more readable, more enjoyable piece. It’s 45+ lessons in about 45 days. (To start at Chapter 1, click HERE.)
To view it best, bring up the two versions in different windows and view them side by side to see what was changed.
Then give me your thoughts in the comment section.
By their very nature there are no rules to dreams, so there can’t be a lot of rules to writing dream sequences – except that they not suck.
And most dream scenes suck.
Why? Because we try to be all ethereal, defying logic and physics in our dream scenes. Which is totally fine, because dreams do that. But as readers, we need rules in stories to suspend our disbelief. Gravity has to work unless you create a basis for it to not work. Your dining room table doesn’t float away and it doesn’t turn into a dragon – unless those are the rules you created in the world you created.
It’s hard to do, and most new writers don’t do it well.
The literary exceptions are rare and notable, whereas in movies and TV, it’s much easier. They give us visual clues to let us know we are heading into a dream sequence, like a wavy TV screen or putting a fog transition in.
Or they don’t, and they scare the heck out of us when the dream is a dream inside a dream, like a character dreaming who wakes up in the dream, but then wakes up for real – like American Werewolf In London.
See? It’s confusing just to write that.
My approach is to ease into it and let the reader know it’s a dream. Then I try to tell the story as best as I can for that scene, acting as if it’s real. Then I let the reader know dream time is over with an announcement like: I woke up.
Simple, effective, and best of all, understandable by your reader. Probably.
Let’s see how I did
Chapter 17 “FINAL”
By 3am, I was still wide awake but the cold sweat had faded.
I silently cursed the churrasco and salsa, but that wasn’t the reason. After changing out of my drenched t-shirt, I dug through the pantry to find some Tums. Plopping down on the living room couch, I sorted my thoughts in the darkness and tried to put the lion dream behind me.
There wasn’t much point in going back to the church. They weren’t going to advance the ball. Father Frank had gotten my wheels turning—he seemed to think I wasn’t crazy, and that was a pretty good start—but a conventional church approach was never going to be the right way to go. Not for our situation.
What did I really know about whatever this was, anyway? Somehow, I had to find someone to help me connect the dots—if the dots were supposed to be connected. Father Frank seemed to think they were.
Maybe the church doesn’t go into stuff like this. Maybe that stuff like exorcism is just for the movies. Maybe I should try to find some other options, and then go back and give the church another shot if those didn’t pan out.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, rubbing my stomach. The lion dream really shook me up. Who dreams about being chased by lions, anyway? I mean, once they’re older than five?
It was just a stress dream. I used to have them all the time back when I worked for this jerk of a boss, in a really crappy job. Waking up and going to that job was a real downer. With a psycho tyrant manager whose goal was to find for ways to ruin everybody’s day, I constantly felt like I was about to lose my job. It was an ugly time.
I kept having what I called stress dreams. I had the same problem years before, when I worked for a different psycho tyrant boss, in a different job. There aren’t a lot of psychos out there, but I guess they all find their way to middle management.
The stress dreams were awful things, making me toss and turn all night, then wake up more tired than when I went to bed. They made no logical sense as far as I could tell.
I’d be in a room full of copiers, twenty or thirty of them, all whirring and popping and cranking out some important report. One by one, each of the copiers would jam or otherwise fail in some way. Maybe they ran out of paper; maybe the feeder got stuck. It was completely random, but in the dream it was my responsibility to keep that report cranking out, so I’d be running from machine to machine, hurrying to see what was wrong. Right about the time I’d get one copier working, another one would stop. Or two. And all the while, the stress was building and building. Keep the machines running! Keep them running!
It was the craziest thing, making me toss and turn for hours until I woke myself up. Then I’d sit there with a headache, dreading going back to sleep and hating the thought of staying awake. I’d end up exhausted, and if I went back to sleep, the stress dream would start all over again.
I didn’t know what it meant and I didn’t care. Eventually I got a new boss and the stress dreams stopped. Same job, different boss, no more crazy dreams.
That’s not to say I never had a nightmare after that. I’m sure I did. Not more than any other person, but they would happen occasionally. I couldn’t think of the last time I had a nightmare. Probably a year ago, maybe longer.
Until the lion dream started happening.
It didn’t make sense, but what nightmare does? I was walking down the street and when I looked up, I was in a forest. I glanced around but couldn’t see a way out. However I got there, I couldn’t see anything but trees and the tall brown grass of autumn all around me. The sun was high in the sky, so I wasn’t worried about being lost in the dark, I was just confused about how I ended up there.
In the distance I glimpsed an opening in the trees. A big, horseshoe-shaped clearing with a large tree stump off to one side.
As I approached the clearing, the grass by the far edge moved. Not like the wind had blown it, but together, in a group, like the grass there was all connected. Then I saw eyes.
I stopped in my tracks. The surreal aura of a dream faded and the grip of real fear spread through me. The big, yellow eyes stared at me, watching. Between the long brown blades of grass, I made out the snout and ears, then the massive ring of fur around the animal’s enormous head.
I held my breath. A lion, just sitting there. I might have walked right into him. I stood perfectly still, knowing if I tried to run it would trigger his chase instinct and he would attack. So I just stood there, very still. The only sound in the woods is the chattering or small birds overhead, oblivious to the scene unfolding below.
I stared at the lion. He just stared right back at me.
I had no idea what to do. Sweat formed on my forehead, my heart pounding. I could never outrun a lion, and they are better climbers than I’d ever be.
The lion’s foot rested on something, a white lump in the grass. He probably wanted to keep that, whatever it was, and he needed to know I was not there to take it from him. His unblinking yellow eyes stayed fixed on me, telling me all I needed to know.
Twigs snapped behind him as something else approached. It moved through the grass, slinking between the trees. Another lion, even bigger than the first one, emerged from the woods. It nosed the first one away and off the package.
The newcomer sniffed the bundle, pawing at it. As he did, more noise reached me—from behind. The crunching of heavy feet, stalking along the leaves and sticks of forest floor. An icy wave shot through me, causing the hairs on my neck to stand. I didn’t move, didn’t flinch, didn’t breathe. I couldn’t take my eyes off the lion in front of me, but I had to know what was behind me.
Before I could look, there it was.
A third lion brushed right past me. Little flies buzzed around his ears and a pungent smell of musk filled the air. The lion’s large muscles flexed under his brown coat, his claws retracted but visible with every step. He ignored me, striding straight to the white bundle the other lions had toyed with.
The growl filled the woods, a deep, guttural roar from the gaping jaws of the third lion, like a horrible, rumbling moan from deep inside a cave.
He brandished his long white fangs. In a flash, the two large beasts exchanged swipes, standing and grappling, but only for a moment. The bigger of the two, the newest arrival, staked out his domain, forcing the loser away. The third lion now stood over the little white bundle, sniffing at its cloth wrapping and pawing at whatever was inside.
I stood there, unable to move.
A fourth lion crashed through the trees. I flinched, stepping back. He opened his massive jaws and growled, a hellish, deafening groan that caused my insides to quiver. The other lions disappeared into the brush. The chattering noise of the woods became completely silent as the echo of the fourth lion’s roar rolled like distant thunder through the trees. I could hear nothing but my own heartbeat, completely deaf to everything else.
The lion stood alone now over his prize, confident and focused, not even glancing in my direction.
I couldn’t move my legs. My eyes were glued on the animal before me. With a quick swipe of its massive paw, the lion laid open the bundle, lowering his enormous head and snapping up the contents. Meat. He ripped into it with his long teeth and claws, smearing his face red as he pulled it apart. Throwing back his head, he opened his enormous mouth, emitting a growl I felt but didn’t hear. Overhead, birds scattered from their trees. Everything within earshot knew he was the victorious one. With a quick flip of his head, the next mouthful slid down his throat.
He paused, eyeing me, causing a painful shockwave of adrenaline to rip through me. I swallowed, slowly stretching my fingers to the nearest tree for support. The lion lowered his head for another bite.
On tiptoes, I strained to see what he was eating. Meat, of some sort, but what? It was small, compared to him, but obscured by the grass.
The beast drew his head up, part of his dinner dangling from the side of his mouth. Then, in horror, I could see.
It was a small arm. A tiny arm with a bloody string of tendons hanging from the lion’s mouth.
My hearing returned for the piercing, high-pitched cry.
It was a child. A toddler, being eaten alive.
My stomach clutched. I looked away to avoid to not see the feet kicking as the lion’s massive paw pressed downward on the body while his huge teeth ripped the child apart. I didn’t want to watch. I didn’t want to know.
But I did know.
Forcing myself awake, I bolted upright on the couch, panting like I’d just run a mile. I was covered in sweat again and shaking, my chest pounding and my pulse throbbing in my ears.
I raced up the stairs to my daughter’s room and threw open the door.
Holding my breath, I looked to her bed.
She was fine. She was right there, illuminated by her princess night light and curled up among her stuffed animals and Winnie The Pooh blanket.
I knew she would be, but I had to look anyway. Closing my eyes, I held the door frame and let my head fall onto my arm, a huge sigh filling me, washing away my panic.
In the dream, three lions came to attack my daughter, each one bigger than the last. The attacks got worse each time, but damage was just scratches until the fourth lion showed up. He was certainly the one who would kill her.
I wiped my eyes and shook my head, going back down to the couch and turning on the TV. I needed a distraction to help my mind focus on anything other than the terrible dream. On the 24-hour weather channel, the forecasters debated about when they would upgrade the tropical storm to a low-level hurricane.
Terrific. I grabbed the remote.
Clint Eastwood, as a young cowboy with no name, finally took my thoughts from lion dream, letting my heart settle back in my chest and my breathing to return to normal. I calmed down. It was only a dream, after all.
After a long while, my eyes wouldn’t stay open. In a semi-asleep state, I reached over and clicked the TV remote. The set went black and I drifted off to sleep. The lions did not return.
In the morning, I was awakened on the couch by our dog jumping on me. That meant Mallory was up. Sparkles wouldn’t leave her side and come downstairs if she was still sleeping.
I guess I got enough sleep. Plodding to the back door, I let Sparkles outside and then returned to straighten up the couch.
“Good morning.” Mallory wiped the sleep from her eyes as she headed toward the coffee pot. Hopefully she slept better than I did.
“Good morning, honey. I let Sparkles out.”
She peered at the throw pillows on the floor. “Did you sleep down here all night?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“You look like you didn’t sleep at all.” Disappearing into the pantry, Mallory emerged and dug through the cupboard until she produced her favorite coffee mug—the one with the Christmas picture of her and Sophie on it.
Pre-coffee Mallory might hear me talking, but the words wouldn’t sink in right away. She idly placed her red mug under the coffee maker and waited patiently for it to fill.
I finished pushing the sofa cushions back into place as the aroma of coffee wafted over me. I stretched my arms. My back was going to exact revenge all day for sleeping on the couch. “I had a bad dream last night. Too much churrasco.”
Mallory snorted. “You always say that.”
“It’s always true.” I smiled at her. “It’s your fault. You’re too good of a cook.”
“Anyway, I was tossing and turning, having a stress dream.” Placing my hands on my shoulders, I twisted a few times to work the kinks out of my spine. I figured I should tell Mallory about my nightmare so she didn’t worry that I was becoming an insomniac for no reason. “It was terrible. I kept having the same dream over and over.”
Sparkles’ face finally reappeared at the back door. I went over to let him in. “I was walking down the street—our street, I guess—and all of a sudden I was in a forest. Then, one by one, these four big lions appeared, and—”
I whipped around to see shattered pieces of the Christmas mug scattering all over the kitchen floor.
White faced, Mallory gripped the counter, gasping. She stared at me with wide eyes, her mouth hanging open as all the blood drained out of her face.
Original Chapter 17, An Angel On Her Shoulder
It was 3am, I was wide awake, and I was drenched in a cold sweat.
I think I may have been a little stressed out. About several things.
The middle of the night isn’t exactly when I do my best thinking, but churrasco and salsa had seen fit to direct me otherwise. After chewing some Tums, I went back and sat on the couch in the darkness, thinking. The sweat from the nightmare had subsided.
I don’t think there was much point in going back to the church. They weren’t going to advance the ball. Father Frank had gotten my wheels turning – hell, he seemed to not think I was crazy; that was a pretty good start! But it didn’t seem like the church was the right way to go. Not for this.
What did I know, anyway? Not much. Not yet. There wasn’t much to go on, so there wasn’t much for them to do. Somehow, I had to find someone to help me connect the dots – if the dots were supposed to be connected. Father Frank seemed to think they were. Maybe the church doesn’t go into stuff like this. Maybe that stuff like exorcism is just for the movies. Maybe I should try to find some other options, and then go back and give the church another shot if those don’t pan out.
Then there was the dream. The nightmare, really. Lions, for Pete’s sake. Who dreams about being chased by lions? I mean, once they’re older than five?
It was a stress dream. I used to have them all the time back when I worked for this real a-hole boss, in a really crappy job I had. That was back in the days when waking up and going to work was a real downer. The job just sucked, because the boss was a psycho tyrant who seemed to just look for ways to ruin your day. I was about to be awarded the President’s Circle at that company but I felt like I was about to lose my job. It was an ugly time.
I kept having what I called stress dreams. I had the same problem years before, when I worked for a different psycho tyrant boss, in a different job. There aren’t a lot of psychos out there, but I guess enough of them work their way to middle management so they can terrorize their employees instead of committing mass murder or something. When they were kids, they probably wanted to be bullies when they grew up.
The stress dreams were crazy things, making you toss and turn all night, and wake up more tired than when you went to bed. They made no logical sense in any way, shape or form, as far as I could tell. I was a sales manager in a branch office; I had a dozen salespeople under me, and the psycho tyrant over me. I worked with salespeople all day: recruiting them, going on sales calls with them, teaching them how to be successful. It was a great job, all except for the psycho tyrant, who seemed to look for ways to mess with me each day.
Anyway, working with copier machines was not part of the job. I mean, I had to make a copy of something now and then, like anybody else in an office would, but working with copiers, or fixing them, or doing lots of copies on them, that was not even remotely part of my job.
So it was bizarre to me when, at night, I would be tossing and turning, dreaming about copiers. In the dreams, I would be in a room full of copiers. There were twenty or thirty of them, and they were all whirring and popping and cranking out some sort of important report. One by one, each of them would jam or otherwise fail in some way. Maybe they ran out of paper; maybe the feeder got stuck. It was totally random. One in the front would jam, and then one in the back would stop for some other reason. Then another one would go down. The machines were constantly stopping and breaking, and in the dream it was my responsibility to keep all of them cranking out that report. I’d be running from machine to machine, hurrying to see what was wrong and how to fix it. Right about the time I’d get one working, another one would stop. Or two. And all the while, the stress was building and building. Keep the machines running! Keep them running!
It was the craziest thing. I’d toss and turn for hours until I woke myself up. Then I’d sit there in a cold sweat, and maybe a headache, dreading going back to sleep and hating the thought of staying awake. I’d end up exhausted. And if I went back to sleep, the stress dream would start all over again.
I don’t know what it meant and I don’t care. I got a new boss and miraculously, the stress dreams stopped. The new boss liked me and we got along really well. Same job, different boss, no more crazy dreams.
That’s not to say I never had a bad dream after that; I did. Not more than any other person, I’m sure, but it would happen. But not often. I couldn’t tell you the last time I had a nightmare. Probably less than once a year, if that.
So when the lion dream started happening, it made me take notice.
It didn’t make sense at first. I mean, what nightmare does? But I was just walking down the street by myself somewhere, and I looked up and I was in a forest. Well, I guess it was a jungle if there were lions in it, but the trees looked like the oak trees in my front yard, so I thought it was a forest. I was walking along a sidewalk on a sunny day, and then I looked up and I was in the middle of a forest full of trees.
I looked around, and I couldn’t see my way back out. However I got there, I couldn’t see anything but trees all around me now. When I looked up, I could see that the sun was still out, so I wasn’t worried about being lost in the dark or anything; I was just confused about how I ended up there.
Then I can see there’s an opening in the trees. A big, horseshoe shaped clearing with a tree stump off to one side.
I go and look, and suddenly I can see a lion! They blend in, so I didn’t notice him at first. He was just standing there. I might have walked right into him. But he had my attention now! I looked at him, and he looked right back at me. But he wasn’t coming after me. I stood still, because I thought if I tried to run, it would trigger his chase instinct, and he would run after me and attack me. So I just stood there, very still, watching him.
He doesn’t come after me. He has his foot on something that he wants to keep, and he looks at me as if I would try to come and take it. He is having none of that. That, it is obvious, is something he will attack me over. His big yellow eyes tell me all I need to know: stay back.
Then, noises. Some twigs cracking under foot, as something else walks up behind the big lion. I see something moving through the trees. It is another lion, even bigger than the first one. The second one kind of pushes the first one away and off the package he was keeping. But the second lion starts to sniff and claw at the package. As he does, there is more noise. This time, it’s behind me. Something is coming through the woods, in my direction. I freeze. I don’t want to take my eyes off the lion in front of me, but I need to know what’s behind me so I don’t get attacked. But before I can look, there it is.
A third lion approaches, walking right past me. I am standing so still, his side actually brushes my hand as he walks up, like a house cat would. I feel his fur under my fingers, and hear little flies buzzing on him. I notice his smell. But he ignores me; his focus is all on the package that the second lion has toyed with. It’s like a bundle. A sheet, or something.
The two large beasts grapple for a moment, before the newest arrival scares the other one off. The third lion is now standing over the package. He scratches at it, pawing at whatever’s inside.
I have no idea what to do. I just stand there.
Then, in a sudden leap, a fourth lion appears. He growls loudly and the other lions disappear into the brush. The chattering noise of the woods becomes completely silent as the echo of his roar fades. He stands alone now over his prize. I am frozen with fear. I can’t move my legs. My eyes are glued on this remaining lion. With a quick swipe of massive white paw, he lays open the package. Before I can see what it is, he lowers his enormous head into the package and snaps back up with the contents. It is meat. He easily tears at it with his long teeth and claws, pulling it apart and smearing his mouth red in the process. He growls happily, letting anything within earshot know that he is the victorious one. The next mouthful goes down his throat in an instant.
He pauses for a moment, looking at me with a menacing glare before lowering his head again for another bite. I strain to see what he’s eating.
Meat, of some sort. But what?
It’s small, compared to him, whatever it is. I see some red…
He draws his head up. Something hangs out of his mouth.
It is an arm. There is a string of tendons attached to some torn meat.
Then a piercing cry.
It is a child.
Horrified, I look away because I don’t want to see. I don’t want to know.
But I do know.
It’s my daughter.
I forced myself awake, bolting upright on the couch. I’m panting like I just ran a mile. I am sweating and shaking. My chest is pounding.
I run to my daughter’s room and open the door. It’s quiet. She is right there, sleeping peacefully, not a care in the world. Night light, blankets, pillows, stuffed animals.
In the dream, three lions came to attack her and each one was bigger than the last. The attack got worse each time, but damage was just scratches until the fourth lion showed up. He was certainly the one who would kill her.
Fuck, I am losing it.
I wipe my eyes with my hands and I shake my head. I go back down to the couch and turn on the TV so I can have some sort of distraction, something that will make my mind focus on anything other than the terrible dream. On the 24 hour news channel, the weather man is debating about when they will upgrade the tropical storm to a low-level hurricane. Terrific. I grab the remote. Maybe a late night movie…
It works. It distracts me from the dream, and I calm down. It was only a dream, after all…
After a long while, I drift off. The lions do not return. In a semi-asleep state, bouncing back and forth between conscious and unconscious, I reach over and click the TV remote. The set goes black, and I drift off to sleep.
In the morning, I am awakened on the couch by our dog Buddy jumping on me. He wants to go out; that means Michele is up. He wouldn’t leave her side and come downstairs if she was still sleeping.
I guess I got enough sleep. I let Buddy outside and started straightening up the couch.
“Good morning,” my wife says, wiping the sleep from her eyes. Hopefully she slept better than I did.
“Good morning, honey,” I reply. “I let Buddy out.”
“Okay. Thanks.” She looks over to where I am putting the throw pillows back on the couch. “Did you sleep down here all night?”
“Pretty much. I slept rotten, though.”
“I bet,” she replied. “You look like you didn’t sleep at all.”
She worries when that happens. I don’t think it happens much, but she would disagree. But then, she has always needed a lot more sleep than me, so it’s not a fair comparison.
Michele disappeared into the pantry for her coffee, then started digging through the cupboard for her favorite coffee mug. The one with the Christmas picture of her and Savvy on it.
“I was having some really bad dreams,” I said. “Crazy stuff.”
Pre-coffee, Michele might hear a lot, but it doesn’t all sink in. She idly hugged her green and red mug while staring patiently at the coffee maker, waiting for it to gurgle.
I pushed the couch cushions back into place and started folding the green blanket that someone had generously draped over me in the night. “Yeah, it was some wild stuff. Too much churrasco.”
“You always say that.”
“It’s always true,” I said, looking over at her. “You’re too good of a cook.”
“Anyway, I was tossing and turning, having a stress dream,” I finished folding the blanket and it in the cabinet. “I was in a forest and there were these lions and they kept coming, one after the other. Can you believe it? Lions!”
Still clutching her mug, Michele had turned to look at me, but I my back was to her.
Buddy was taking his time outside, so I sat down and leaned back on the couch. Closing my eyes for a moment felt good. Maybe I needed some more sleep after all. I wanted to finish telling Michele about my dream. I didn’t want her to worry that I was becoming an insomniac for no reason; it was just too much steak.
“It was terrible. I kept seeing these lions coming, one after another, and they were ripping at this package.” Buddy’s face finally reappeared at the back door.
“Anyway, a fourth lion come in and rips open the package,” I continued, getting up to let the dog back in. “And that was the really scary part. He rips it open and it isn’t a package at all. It’s -”
I turned around to see the shattered pieces of the Christmas mug all over the kitchen floor.
Then I looked up at Michele.
She was gripping the counter, white as a sheet with fear. All the blood had drained out of her face.
Aside from what we already said about dream sequences being horrible in general, we did some neat things here.
That’s how I get you. By solving more than one problem at once.
Did you see how in the original version I was telling you a lot of things? I was saying people were scared.
In the second version, the final version, I was physically describing the things that were happening to let the reader conclude the character was scared.
That tends to make for a more enjoyable reading experience.
Your reader doesn’t want to watch from afar as the roller coaster goes up and down, they want to be ON the roller coaster, gripping the bar with both hands and feeling the wind pull at their hair as their stomach drops when the car goes screaming down the hill.
So, you know – do that for them.
Can You Words?
Also, and we touched on this before, word choice matters. In my example here of the roller coaster, say “screaming down the hill” not “going down the hill.” Plunging and racing are good, but if your bold authorness allows you, use screaming. It’s what’s happening and it’s poetic license if you don’t do it too much. Kinda purple prose stuff.
Also also, I took out the swear words, Father Frank is probably the only place this story will use bad words.
Also also also, we did a little bit of, for lack of better phrasing, stagecraft.
Timing Is Everything. Dun Dun Dunnn!
In the original, we had all just gone through the dream with Doug. The only person who didn’t know was Mallory, so if he told his wife, we knew what he was going to say. No need to repeat. BUT.
We wanted to make sure we put a lot of the build up before the revelation.
In other words, we had to set the stage with her getting coffee and waiting for the coffee and getting her mug – all that had happened while he was starting to tell her what had happened.
See, as soon as Mallory hears the word “lion,” she reacts – because she’s been having the same dream. So that word LION has to wait, and her reaction has to it has to be swift and severe.
The punchline, so to speak, in the Final version came after a little bit of the build up and right before her dramatic reaction. In the Original, we buried it in there, but she would have reacted right away. It wasn’t set up for the dramatic reveal.
It’s simple when you see them side-by-side but it’s not obvious when you’re writing it the first time. Obviously, it wasn’t when I did it!
If you thought it was effective, make a note. When you see other authors do things like that, highlight it. Write it down. Take a picture of it.
Emulate what works and then put it in your own words.
Your writing will be better for it
Let me have your comments. The next chapters will post tomorrow but they will ALL come down shortly after February 15, so don’t dawdle!
You are readers, too. Your input will shape the final product. Be honest.
Share and reblog these! Your friends need to know this stuff, too.
Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – $2.99 or FREE on Kindle Unlimited!
Available in paperback and audio book, too!