Analyze Your Novel Like a Dream
“Help, I can’t find my theme!” We talked about this a couple of weeks ago.
What if you discover yourself in this situation:
You’re three-quarters of the way through your novel (or maybe you finished it three weeks ago) and somebody asks you, “What’s it about? What’s the theme?” — and you find yourself staring blankly.
How do you identify your theme if you still don’t know it even after you’ve finished the book?
(Trust me, I’ve been there too. More than once.)
Here’s one way: think of your book as a dream.
I mean really. Imagine it’s a dream that you had last night and now you’re trying to interpret it, to find out what it means.
This is not as crazy as it sounds.
Consider: Stories seize us. They pour out of us. We’re writing them but we don’t really know where all this stuff is coming from. We can’t even articulate why this particular tale has taken hold of us so powerfully.
In other words, just like a dream.
Stories structure themselves. Characters appear. They speak, they clash, they love. Events take place. Somehow a cohesive narrative unfolds.
Just like a dream.
Where is our story coming from? Our unconscious, our Muse, the unplumbed depths of our secret heart.
Just like a dream.
So let’s analyze it like a dream.
[Key resource if you don’t have it already: Inner Work by Robert Johnson. Indispensable for interpretation of dreams.]
Okay, our intention in analyzing our book/dream is to identify the theme. We’re going to work backwards. We’re going to start with the characters and let them lead us back to the theme.
We’re going to use the following storytelling principle:
Every character must represent an aspect of the theme.
Are you skeptical? Do you think this idea is a little too wonky? Will our story, which has spilled out of our guts entirely on instinct, really cohere around a theme even though we have no idea what that theme is? Will the characters really reflect aspects of the theme, even though we’ve never given this concept a moment’s thought—and certainly never wrote a word with this idea in mind?
Yes and yes.
Again our story is coming from the same source as our dreams. Why wouldn’t it follow the same rules?
How do we analyze a dream?
1) The language of dreams is symbolism. When our dog or our spouse appears to us in a dream, they are not them specifically. Rather, they represent something. They are symbols of something.
To find out what they represent we ask ourselves, “What associations do I have to my dog? My spouse?” We may write out a list of fifty. One will ring a bell. “Ah, Rover in the dream stands for loyalty!”
2) Everything in the dream is an aspect of ourselves. Including Rover. Including our spouse.
Ready? Let’s do a Freud number on the novel we’ve just finished.
Our novel is about Queen Boudica. the warrior monarch of ancient Britannia. In our story the brilliant but vulnerable Boudica fights one war against France and three more against Norman invaders, she takes two lovers (twin brothers, both Vikings), she is overthrown in a rebellion, imprisoned, almost beheaded, she escapes, etc.
Colorful characters surround her. Her Merlin-like mentor Aylward, her bastard son Ethelbert, her rival sister Gwyneth the Proud, her Irish wolfhound Byblos, blah blah etc. [I’m making all this up by the way, except Boudica.]
Let’s start with Aylward.
What does he represent? What is he a symbol of? (Remember, this doughty sage and wizard will infallibly represent an aspect of the theme.)
What about Ethelbert? Gwyneth? The noble wolfhound Byblos?
I know it sounds crazy but this exercise works.
It’s pretty amazing that it does work, actually. Think about what it means: that our unconscious, our Muse is producing spontaneously through us and without our conscious participation not just a story, but a story that has critical meaning for the evolution of our soul — and a story that, in fact, may be saving our own life and our sanity without us even realizing it.
But back to Queen Boudica.
We’re interpreting our book as if it were a dream and suddenly we realize, “OMG, the story is about self-belief! Every character, including Byblos the Irish wolfhound, is either pro or con to Boudica’s belief in herself as sovereign of the kingdom. And even Byblos’ name [which means “book”] is central to that theme, though we had no clue whatsoever as were creating this animal and naming him.”
The last character we’ll analyze is our protagonist, Boudica herself. (Remember the protagonist embodies the theme.) Why, we ask ourselves, did we pick Boudica as our hero? What aspect of ourselves does she represent? “Holy catfish, it is self-belief! Why her? Because, being a woman, she had two strikes against her in the roles of warrior and ruler. And she overcame them by conquering not just her external foes, but her internal doubts.”
We’ve got it now.
Suddenly we see the whole book through a new and brilliant lens. “Ah,” we say, “we need to cut that passage about the Viking raid. Great as it is, it’s not on-theme. And Boudica’s term of imprisonment needs to be much more about her internal struggle. Maybe she should even have a breakthrough dream while she’s there in the dungeon!”
When Shawn reads this post, he’s going to say, “Hey! This is exactly what I do as an editor! This is precisely how I break down a story to figure out its theme.”
And he’ll be absolutely right.
Analyze your story as if it were a dream. The exercise will lead you back to the theme. And the theme will be the key to tweaking, reconfiguring, and really empowering the story.
[And for sure get Robert Johnson’s book, Inner Work. Way worth it.]
I love this perspective! Never thought of it even though I play a lot on the idea of symbolism in my writings. It never struck me to use the dreamlike adventure I apply into my writings (or it applies itself to better put it) to disentangle the whole ‘why’ and ‘what about’ of a novel.
This is a great idea — though Carl Jung is really the helpful figure for this kind of dream analysis.. For both Freud and Jung everything in the dream is a symbol, but only for Jung can the symbol lead to whatever your associations might be.
For Freud the symbol system is inevitably sexual. For Jung that train trip through a tunnel to visit the Washington Monument could really be anything those images mean to you symbolically. Johnson is a Jungian. Jung called this kind of work on a piece of waking fiction “active imagination.”
Thanks for opening yet another potential window into theme. The challenge for me with this one is remembering my dreams. I need to put a notebook next to the bed so I can capture them.
Just reading thru the post gave me new insights about my theme (there seem to be a lot of layers involved) and especially about the characters. I also love how you describe the evolution of a story, the way it shows up out of the blue and grows out in all directions. Makes me think what astonishing creatures writers are to go along for this kind of ride. Thank you, Steven.
Please keep reminding us: Every character must represent an aspect of the theme.
What a marvelous exercise this is.
This is so brilliant it makes my head spin… humm, I wonder what that means in a dream… Everything you and Shawn share (I’m addicted to his podcast) is setting a bunch of us writing captives free. You know that, right? Thanks so, so, ever so much, Steve and Shawn. I feel so fortunate to have your voices in my writing life!
This was exactly what I needed to read this morning. Thank you!
After reading this I tried (and I’m still trying) to come to grips with the complexity/difficulty of seeing/recognizing theme.
I just finished Red Dragon a couple nights ago (I read it twice in a week, the second time to record simile/metaphor use/changes between this and SOTL).
I think the theme is something along the lines of:
Protecting innocent life is more important than self preservation.
Will Graham not only risks his life (again) as Hannibal Lector had nearly killed him, he risks the life of his wife and step-son (as well as risking his marriage and sanity).
And the Red Dragon, himself a sociopathic killer, risks his own life in order to save the one (and only woman) that he’s ever had an intimate relationship with.
Molly, Graham’s wife, risks her life in the finale of the novel, attacking the killer instead of running for safety.
Crawford (who would later put Starling at risk in SOTL) plays a God-like position in that he is willing to sacrifice his pawns for the greater good, apparently operating in the theme, rather than acting out the theme.
Lounds, the reporter who puts self gain above protecting innocent life, pays the ultimate price: he’s not only murdered, he’s murdered brutally.
Lector, I suppose, plays the Devil: He’s willing to use God’s demands on the vitreous to bring suffering and death into their lives, while at the same time he doesn’t hesitate to enjoy the punishment handed out to the guilty.
He plays the opposite theme: Sacrificing innocent life is important to self preservation (and it’s fun, too).
Maybe the underlining theme is this:
God and Satan are the same guy and they both enjoy the show.
Sounds good to me, Michael!
What does it mean? The theme? The dream? figuring it out maketh me scream.
This goes along with my theory that the act of writing books is simply an act to answer a question that troubles you, or one you are currently learning. You are really an invisible character in the book. The magical reader. Kindof like in the campy 1980’s film “The Neverending Story.”
I have a reoccurring dream that I make the biggest find of my antiquing career in one location. A monumental score. Yet, I can never buy the items or take them home. Either they are stolen, lost, the place closes or I am ushered away. My adorable British therapist thinks it means I am frustrated by external forces holding back my successes. Weird how that is the theme of my current work of fiction.
Before anyone rushes out to write that historical novel, I feel compelled to point out that Boudica was around more than 1,000 years before the Vikings and the Normans.
I had a vision, an honest-to-goodness vision about 30 years ago. I’ve since written about it a dozen times or more. I can’t change this “story” because it really happened the way it happened. And yet I’m never satisfied with the renditions I commit to paper–it’s never “right” although always true. I’ve often imaged that if I were a real writer I’d know just what to do. Today spending a few hours reading around Shawn and you Steve, and applying advice given, I’ve improved the vision-story without changing the events of what happened. I don’t think I was ever looking for neurotic perfection and I’ve since learned that even the truth needs a content, theme and point. Thank you for your generous help. I should publish this vision-story one day on my site under a tab heading called “Vision Bored” because after 30 odd years from time-to-time) grapplying I have to admit to boring myself.