“Never start a novel with a dream,” the experts say.

Some go even further and caution against including dreams at all—unless you’re writing fantasy or magic realism.


Because, they say, dreams are illogical. They jump from one image to another with no rhyme or reason that anyone but a psychoanalyst might understand. They take readers out of the action of the novel, and they don’t move the plot forward.

Of course, for every critic of novelized dreams, there’s a supporter.

Some argue that dreams, when done right, enhance character development. They add texture and usefully foreshadow future events.

Lauren Acampora, author of The Wonder Garden and other novels, is a proponent of dreams in fiction. She also underscores the fact that it is also through dreams that creative works often find their way into an author’s mind.

For writers, plugging into the unconscious provides a direct line to the human imagination in all its splendor and darkness. Indeed, in the midst of composing, it’s often unclear where the words are coming from. Sentences and imagery sometimes bubble up from a hidden well that surprises the conscious, transcribing mind.

She suggests that readers, too, are induced into a dream state when captured by a good work of fiction. “At its best,” she says, fiction:

places a mirror before us, evoking terror and wonder. It affects us on an emotional level beyond language, and brings a frisson of recognition. . . . There’s the eerie sense that the author has somehow entered and seen into us. The best art carries this sense of inevitability, of allegory, myth, dream—a truth that has always been there, that we already know in some deep part of ourselves.

When I was writing The Kimono Tattoo, dreams often intruded into the story. Being a novice writer, I was not aware that dreamy narratives were problematic, and I followed the story wherever it took me—into dreams and down dark tangents. I used dreams to reveal what was really bothering my protagonist, Ruth Bennett. She may have seemed easygoing in her waking life, but when she drifted off to sleep, her anxieties bubbled to the surface.

A few of these dream sequences found their way onto the cutting floor.

Earlier, I shared a number of the edited out sections. Here’s one more, a superfluous dream.

In the scene below, Ruth has discovered that her younger brother, Matthew, is apparently living in Scotland under the name Benniet. He breeds Mastiffs, a dog with wrinkled faces and big jowls. Ruth was twelve when she last saw Matthew, and he was only six. For years she and her parents assumed he was lost forever, and then Ruth met Mrs. Tokuda and discovered Matthew was still alive.

In true “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” fashion, the sequence below also makes reference to the “floating bridge of dreams” poem by Fujiwara no Teika, mentioned in an earlier post.

big grey dog with tongue lolling

I took my jeans off and lay down on the bed, staring at the phone in my hand. What’s the country code for Scotland, I wondered. What time would it be there now? I think I recalled that Japan was eight hours ahead. So, if it’s two in the morning here, it’d be six in the evening there. How should I start? “Hi, I’m Ruth. I’m your sister . . . The last time I saw you, you weren’t yet seven. You were chasing a puppy.”

The luminescent arc of his slender neck rose up before me in my memory, gliding white over the silver tracks. And then the rush of the train roared passed in a dark metallic blur. I started to scream as the train slowly morphed into a giant galloping beast, flapping jowls, massive black muzzle, wrinkled brow. Brows wrinkled to signal danger, didn’t they? The beast opened its silent maw, wider and wider, and I peered deep inside searching for a glimpse of the tow-headed boy—his face a tiny dazzling moon. Someone pushed me from behind, hard, and I fell into the darkness, reaching out for the moonlike face. Tokuda laughed. I could see her white moon-like face slide under the water. Her dark mouth, opening wider and wider in laughter, pooled with water. I grabbed her sleeve and fell in after her, sinking with her into a long dark tunnel that opened out into a glittery undersea world. Tokuda was gone. In my hand I held a tangle of sea grass. I walked along the sandy sea bottom. Have I grown gills, I wondered and I touched the side of my neck but felt nothing unusual. Somehow, I was breathing. And walking without the sluggish buoyancy of being underwater. In the distance I saw Matthew. Only, it was not the knobby-kneed little boy I remembered. It was Benniet, the man. I reached my hand up to wave and started to call to him. But when I opened my mouth, my throat filled with water and I choked. I squeezed my eyes together and bent over coughing, gasping for breath. When I opened them, I was on my bed in the house behind the zoo, my cell phone still clutched in my hand. It was 6:30 in the morning.

I swung my legs over the mattress and sat on the edge of the bed for a minute. I hadn’t drawn the drapes last night and the morning light streamed across the floor—chasing dust bunnies and bouncing off the assorted books and papers scattered here and there. I could see a slice of blue sky above the zoo and a thin wisp of cloud slowly slipping out of view.

My head felt thick and stuffy, not yet completely awake. I had been dreaming, hadn’t I? I stared off at the trailing tail of the cloud and tried to remember where I had just been and who I was with. It had felt real—just moments ago—and now it was gone. I recalled a poem by the medieval courtier Fujiwara no Teika about the floating bridge of dreams. How did it go?

The bridge of dreams
Afloat in the spring night
And above the mountain peak
A cloud slips into the sky

I remembered my university professor telling me the poem was about the brevity of a spring night, too brief even to complete a dream. When the poet awakened, he could sense the dream still wavering in the sky, like a floating bridge, connecting the world of dream with his present. But when he tried to catch the dream and pull it back, it slipped away like a wispy cloud.
I wasn’t certain if I had awoken from a dream or a nightmare. It had seemed so real. Tokuda had been there, hadn’t she? And she had led me to Matthew. There, on the other side of the world.