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Dreams in Stories

Dreams in Storytelling
Dreams in Storytelling

In storytelling, dreams function as powerful tools that explore mysteries, characters’ psyches, and blur the lines between reality and imagination. The Test Dream (S5 E11) from The Sopranos masterfully exemplifies this narrative technique, showcasing how dreams can be utilised to deepen the narrative and expose hidden truths. Here are five points elucidating the significance of dreams in storytelling, supported by specific examples from this ambitious episode:

The gist of the episode features Tony’s problems emanating from his affairs, the problems they have wrought on his marriage, and a dream that reveals the assassination of mob members that can lead to a full-scale war. This hints at the prophetic, poetic power of dreams.

Exploring Subconscious Desires and Fears: Dreams provide a stage on which to act out the subconscious desires, premonitions, and the fears of characters. In The Test Dream, Tony’s dream sequences offer glimpses into his deepest anxieties and desires. For instance, his dream interactions with deceased characters like Gloria Trillo and his cousin Tony Blundetto reveal unresolved guilt and trauma. These encounters reflect Tony’s subconscious grappling with the consequences of his actions and the weight of his wrongdoing, adding depth to his character.

Symbolism and Metaphor: Dreams are laden with symbolism and metaphor. Freud and Jung spend their entire lives studying them. Dreams allow writers to convey complex themes sub-textually, in poetic and abstract ways. In the episode, recurring motifs such as the horse symbolise Tony’s problems with his marriage, self-control and self-worth. The surreal imagery of riding a horse through his living room serves as a metaphor for Tony’s attempt to navigate, with grace and authority, an increasingly chaotic life littered with affairs and criminal associations.

Blurring Reality and Fantasy: Dream sequences blur the lines between reality and fantasy, challenging the audience’s perception of what is real. The Test Dream dives into Tony’s subconscious world, creating a sense of disorientation, forcing us to try and make sense of what we are seeing. The blending of subconscious experience drawn from the materials from Tony’s life is juxtaposed against the fluid nature of dreams, where logic and coherence give way to surrealism and randomness, yet still manage to convey significance.

Foreshadowing and Revelation: Dreams can also foreshadow future events or reveal hidden truths that characters may not consciously acknowledge. In this episode Tony’s dream encounters with Annette Bening and deceased Detective Vin Makazian, Finn’s mother and father, and other deceased characters, foreshadow Tony B’s murder of Billy Leotardo and wounding of Phil because they murdered Angelo, Tony B’s former cell mate. These surreal encounters serve as harbingers of the challenges, assignations, and persistent conflicts that await Tony in the waking world.

Narrative Innovation and Artistry: Dream sequences offer opportunities for narrative innovation and artistic expression. The Test Dream is a proof of the creative possibilities of dream storytelling, with its inventive visuals, surreal imagery, unconventional narrative structure, and its inclusion of cultural references such as Chinatown, The Godfather, The Valachi Papers, Scrooge, and many, many more. Matthew Weiner and David Chase’s writing and the cast’s performances elevate the dream sequences from fanciful plot devices to evocative and poetic explorations of symbolism, character and theme. The result is a story that rises above its denotative dimension, lifted by its connotative, multi-layered wings.


Dreams enrich storytelling by dipping into the characters’ subconscious, employing symbols and metaphors, blurring reality and fantasy, foreshadowing future events, and showcasing the poetic dimension inherent in narrative innovation.

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Foreshadowing your way to writing success

Foreshadowing in The Shining

What is foreshadowing and how does it help you write engaging stories? Let’s find out!

Foreshadowing is the skill of preparing readers or audiences to consciously or unconsciously accept the actions and events that will unfold later in a story. There are two main types of foreshadowing: Direct, where clues are openly laid out for all to see, and Indirect or subtle, where the clues are subtly hidden a little deeper into the narrative. In terms of writing skill, foreshadowing often increases the sense unity in a story by tying together seemingly unconnected actions, events, or objects across narrative time.

Let’s say, as in the case of subtle foreshadowing, that the audience has unconsciously noticed something earlier in the story, but not paid much attention to it, only to have it suddenly snap into place a little later as something which makes sense of a current narrative event. This acts as a bridge across time, creating a sense of fullness and unity in the mind of the audience.

In Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, we are presented with a masterclass in the use of foreshadowing. Firstly, let’s examine a couple of examples of direct foreshadowing from the film.

Direct Foreshadowing: There will be blood!

Direct foreshadowing places the audience in a heightened state of anticipation: The tsunami of blood in the elevator serves as a visceral example of direct foreshadowing. It leaves no room for misinterpretation, foretelling the horror and violence that will soon consume the Torrence family. This sequence represents the evil that Danny has foreseen—rooted in the hotel’s cruel history. (Tony, Danny’s alter ego, reveals to Danny that he doesn’t want to go to the hotel). The obvious suggestion is that more blood will be shed.

Here’s another example of direct foreshadowing: The hotel manager tells Jack that a previous caretaker, Charles Grady, killed his wife, two young daughters and himself at the hotel a decade prior, but it his duty to tell Jack about the event. The not-so-subtle hint to the audience is that Jack will do the same to his own family.

Subtle foreshadowing: Watch now, understand later

But it is subtle foreshadowing that truly helps to distinguish The Shining. While it works together with direct foreshadowing, subtle foreshadowing acts under the surface, building up a sense of unease that we can’t put our finger on. It trades the predictability of direct foreshadowing for a creeping anxiety that is only released in moments of revelation when the audience puts things together.

As the Torrance family arrives at the Overlook Hotel, for example, we catch a brief glimpse of the hedge maze from an aerial shot. This seemingly innocuous detail plants the seed of the maze’s significance as a symbol of the psychological labyrinth that will ensnare Jack Torrance and his family. But whereas Jack will become lost in the maze,, Danny will escape it. This is hinted at through the ease with which Danny navigates the labyrinth-like spaces of the hotel on his tricycle. The motif is re-iterated through the maze pattern on the carpets of the corridors.

Another example of subtle foreshadowing occurs when Danny’s mother takes the boy on a tour of the ground’s hedge maze, while inside the Overlook Hotel, Jack stoops over a model of the labyrinth, watching wickedly from above. Ironically the walk-through helps Danny to find his way out later when he is stalked by his axe-wielding father.

Jack himself is also the vehicle for plenty of foreshadowing: His slow descend into madness, for example, is hinted at by his repetitive typing of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” This mindless activity provides a snapshot of his unraveling psyche.

Additionally, during a conversation between Jack and Lloyd the bartender, Jack’s preference for bourbon on the rocks seems innocuous at first. However, it subtly hints at Jack’s impending lapse into alcoholism which had once caused him to break Danny’s arm while drunk. This vulnerability will later be exploited by the malevolent forces within the hotel.

Mirror mirror on the wall

The use of mirrors in cinema often points to fractured psyches and altered realities. Mirrors hint at the existence of worlds within worlds, worlds where horrors lurk beneath the normal and the ordinary. But what they reveal may also serve as a warning to those who are able to interpret them correctly through their ability to shine.

The eerie appearance of the twins to Danny at the start, serves to foreshadow the growing emergence of the supernatural forces at play within the hotel—setting the stage for the chilling events that will unfold.

Examples such as these, then, demonstrate the ability of foreshadowing, whether direct or subtle, to prepare audiences for forthcoming events.


Foreshadowing can be direct or indirect. Both add to story unity. Direct foreshadowing creates immediate anticipation, while indirect or subtle foreshadowing creates ah-ha moments later in the story where actions, objects or events suddenly snap into place.

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Foreshadowing in The Shining

What is meant by Save the Cat moment?

The Save the Cat Moment in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
The Save the Cat Moment in Spider-Man: No Way Home.

One of the best storytelling concepts in movies and novels, can be found in Blake Snyder’s book, Save the Cat. This concept highlights the importance of crafting a likable and relatable protagonist by featuring his or her humanity through selfless acts of kindness, and the like.

In other words, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat moment is predicated on the idea that we are more likely to root for a protagonist who performs a selfless and/or heroic act, and does so early on in the story. The moment humanises the character and establishes a connection between readers or audiences, and the protagonist, from the get-go. To illustrate this, let’s explore the recent blockbuster, Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Peter Parker’s Character Arc

In the movie, Peter Parker, played by Tom Holland, grapples with the consequences of revealing his true identity to the world. As a result, his life and the lives of his aunt and friends become imperiled. Peter’s initial solution is to erase the world’s memory of his alter ego, Spider-Man, through a spell conjured up by Doctor Strange.

Save the Cat Moment through Action

But, it’s not just Peter’s dazzling powers and his endurance of the conflicts that beset him which endear us to him; it’s his humanity: Peter realises from the start that his actions have far-reaching consequences for those who know him as Spider-Man. In a moment of selflessness and empathy, he asks Doctor Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, to cast a spell that will erase not only people’s memory of his identity but also their memory of their relationships with him. He wants his loved ones to be safe, even if it means they have to forget about him entirely.

This decision is Peter’s Save the Cat moment in the film. It’s an act of great sacrifice, a willingness to shoulder the emotional burden of being forgotten by those he holds most dear. It is a moment that foregrounds his responsibility, empathy, and the moral content of his character.

“The Save the Cat moment occurs early in the story and reveals the hero as someone who is compassionate and kind, and willing to sacrifice his or her desires and ambitions for the benefit of others.”

Audience Impact

As viewers, we are not only witnessing a superhero with incredible powers, but a young man who genuinely cares about others. This creates a powerful connection between him and the audience. We root for him not just because he can spring from skyscrapers or defeat terrifying foes, but also because we appreciate the moral quality of his choices, and empathise with his human struggles.


Spider-Man: No Way Home, then, exemplifies the power of the Save the Cat moment, a concept popularised by Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat! It reminds us that in storytelling, it’s the moments of our shared humanity that truly captivate us, that truly resonates with us.

What is the save the cat moment in your screenplay or novel? Don’t have one? Revise your work to include one in your story—it is the key to creating a memorable and beloved protagonist.


The Save the Cat moment encapsulates Blake Synder’s advice of how to write a story protagonist who is likable and relatable.


The Confrontation Scene

The confrontation scene in American Beauty.
The confrontation scene in American Beauty.

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger explains that the confrontation scene is one which uncorks the pressure that has been building up in the story between characters.

It is typically about one character’ s anger or dissatisfaction directed at the wrongs, real or imagined, perpetrated by another against him or her. The time for hints and innuendos has passed. This scene allows a buried truth to be uncovered. Here the subtext finally explodes to the surface. In the words of Seger, this is the scene where a character ‘tells it like it is.’

In the film American Beauty Lester confronts the lies in his life. He desperately needs more from his job, his sexuality. And he needs something deeper from his wife who elevates her job and the couch above the meaningful things in life. Here is Lester’s confrontation with her about the gulf between them stemming from her shallowness and confused values.

LESTER: Carolyn, when did you become so joyless?…This isn’t life. It’s just stuff. And it’s become more important to you than living. Well, honey, that’s just nuts.

Lester’s words are not overly angry or numerous, but their import is devastating.

“The confrontation scene is where the subtext explodes to the surface.”

Sometimes the confrontation scene is anticipated, which builds tension. At other times it is unexpected although the reader or audience has sensed that it is coming.

In the film Tootsie, Michael confronts his agent for not informing him about an audition for a play. The agent suggests that Michael’s problems have made him essentially unemployable. The scene exposes Michael as being in need of therapy.


The confrontation scene is typically one where the subtext bursts to the surface, where one character confronts another about a wrong perpetrated against him, whether real or imagined.

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Your story in a single sentence

The idea behind It Chapter Two can be contained in a single sentence, as discussed below.

If you had to undertake the almost impossible task of condensing the existing wisdom for writing a good story into a single sentence, what would that sentence be?

Today’s writers have an advantage over those who have gone before them—access to a body of knowledge that has been extracted from the great exemplars of the past—Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Proust, Dickens, William Golding and John Steinbeck, to name some of the few great writers I admire.

Then of course, in more recent times, we have the impressive list of screenwriters and filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Aaron Sorkin,  David Mamet, and many more.

The single sentence: What does your protagonist want and why can’t she or he have it?

An argument can be made that familiarity with great works has a trickle down effect; that we grow through osmosis, as it were. But is there one bit of wisdom, gleaned from the ‘encyopedia of writing’, one single instruction to keep on top of mind?

I would venture yes: What does your protagonist want, and why can’t he have it? This one sentence not only demands an answer for the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal; it also hints at the obstacle(s) that stand in his or her way.

Here are two examples of this at work.

A Roman general seeks to revenge his family’s slaughter but is imprisoned by Rome’s brutal emperor, Commodus, and forced to become a gladiator: Gladiator.

A group of friends reassemble in the small town where they first encountered and defeated an unspeakable evil to fight it off once again, but are weakened by the suicide of their friend and rising doubts of their mission: It Chapter Two.

You get the idea.


As a first step to writing a new story, try to conceive of the tale as a single sentence that states the goal and obstacles facing your protagonist. This will give you the spine of your tale.

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Persevere – if you want to succeed as a writer.

Steven Spielberg had to persevere with the script of E.T. for years before he persuaded financiers to let him make it.
Steven Spielberg had to persevere with the script of E.T. for years before he persuaded bankers to let him make it.

Why persevere? Well, if it’s lonely at the top it’s even lonelier at the bottom.

Unfortunately, the bottom is where many writers spend their most formative years.

Getting published or having a script made into a movie has always been hard for a writer.

Steven Spielberg brandished the script of E.T. for several years before he convinced financiers to let him make it. Writer Stephen King’s rejection slips could fill an entire wall before he became one of the world’s most popular writers.

These sorts of accounts are legion.

But then, in 2007, something changed, for novelists anyway. Amazon’s kindle came along and the sun broke through the clouds.

The idea of reading stories on tablets proved contagious. Other companies followed suit with their own brand of e-readers. New writers flooded the market. Some were really good, launching sustainable careers. Others, not so much.

“The truth is that writing screenplays and novels, and attempting to get them read, is as difficult as winning a medal in a long-distance marathon. You have to persevere.”

Still, writers could publish their work on these platforms and get feedback from their readers in the form of reviews. Sales, some sky high, some more down to earth, followed.

Then, something changed again. Amazon began to tighten the screws. Algorithms were altered, making it harder to get noticed. Reviews became subject to all sorts of restrictions – some justified, some not. Sales plummeted.

Some writers lost steam. Others gave up on their dream of becoming writers altogether. It was too hard, too lonely, at the bottom.

Sound familiar?

There are many moments during a race where it seems easier to give up than to press on. These moments become even more tempting as the race drags on and you find yourself alone on the road and gasping for breath. You need something special to keep you going.

But perhaps the solution is all around you.

Do you fear not finishing? Simply giving up? Then use that fear to drive you on.

Concerned that you are not good enough to produce high quality work? Then read the blogs and articles on how to improve your craft and put the advice into practice.

But even more importantly, try to remember that magical moment that first got you writing. There is something timeless and powerful in that moment — an antidote to doubt.

Become familiar with it. Learn to conjure it up at will. Use it to inspire you when you need it most.

That moment, together with a sense of what life might be without your dream, might just help keep you in the race.


To persevere means to keep writing, reading books and watching movies – to keep learning. And to never give up.

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Plot from character

William Golding is a master at forging plot from character
William Golding is a master at forging plot from character.

The longer I think about stories, both as a writer and as a teacher, the more convinced I become that it all hinges on character.

It wasn’t always the case. When I was first starting out, I tended to emphasise the outer journey – the series of tangible events that exist at the level of plot. Back then I focused on the originality of the idea, the high concept, the attempt to grab one’s attention through a new and unique premise.

Certainly, these are important tools for developing a story. The success of my first novel, Scarab, is proof of that. 

But as I went along, my focus shifted to character. I began to conceive of a story from the inside out. I obsessed over the following questions. Does the character lack self-awareness at the beginning of the story? Moral and ethical values? What is her wound, couched in a secret? What must she learn/heal before she can accomplish her goal? Is there is tension between her want and her need? In short, how what is her character arc?

“Plot from character is an insurance policy against shallow and inauthentic character action.”

I began to see that the outer journey, the plot, needs, somehow, to be molded from the materials of the inner journey. And that the events occurring at the level of plot need to be synchronised to the flows that occur along the character arc. 

I recognised that understanding the character arc, therefore, is the true precursor of the story. It is reason the hero reacts to events or initiates action in the way that she does.

This realisation has made it easier to write action and plot as manifestation of character. It’s an insurance policy against writing shallow, inauthentic characters.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I write about a man obsessed with fixing a dreadful mistake that resulted in the death of his wife many years previously. Every action, every thought he experiences stems from this obsession. Whatever else the story is about, it is also a tale about a driven man relentlessly attempting to do the impossible. A man who refuses to give up. In many respects his outer life is nothing more than a reflection of his inner life. 

One of the greatest examples in literature of how character shapes the story is found in William Golding’s great novel, The Spire. The novel describes the Dean of the Cathedral’s, (Jocelin’s) determination to build a spire on top of a structure that may not support the additional weight. The effort to convince the master builder to built it is a study in the consequences of mistaking pride and stubbornness for faith and strength. 


Plot from character is a methodology that many of the world‘s greatest writers have perfected.

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To be or not to be a writer?

This story explores the torments faced by a writer.
This story explores the torments faced by a writer whose talent has seemingly dried up.

So, you want to be a writer, you say? Really? In this age of shrinking readership? A time when video games, a thrill-a-second movies and digital media are stealing the public’s attention away from reading? There’s no money in it, you’re told – except for a fortunate few. Go get a real job. 

The truth, however, is that the world needs writers. Without well told stories the world would lack conscience. It could not fully articulate its dreams. It could not vividly weigh one possible future against another and articulate a moral message.

Writing is, by its very nature, exposes, explores, evaluates. But it also entertains. 

Films do indeed relate meaningful stories, but they need screenwriters to do so. Games, too, need writers to create the game worlds their characters inhabit. Art and music can indeed critique and inspire society, but its appreciation and significance is often communicated through words, after the fact.

“A writer is someone who keeps on writing despite the odds.”

In their purest form, stories that first exist as novels, novellas and the like, being able to directly explore a character’s mind from the inside out, uniquely capture the debate around a theme, a moral system. They trace the consequences of character action in a way that is difficult to achieve elsewhere. So much so, that they often inspire other forms.

We could sit here all day debating the strengths and weaknesses of our craft in our contemporary world, but it wouldn’t really matter. Because ultimately, true writers are stubborn, willful, and imbued with a sense of purpose that can’t be shaken off. 

Writers keep on writing because they can’t imagine doing anything else.


Writers consider their labours more as as a calling than a mere job.

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The story start – how to find it.

The Grudge involves a story start which sucks us in from the get-go.
The Grudge involves a story start which sucks us in from the get-go.

How do you choose your story start? What sort of incident do you use? Is it a cymbal crash to grab the reader’s or audience’s attention? Or a gradual build-up to draw them deeper into the world of the characters? 

There are many successful examples of both sorts of starts – Lord of the Rings is one. Speed is another. In his book Film Scriptwriting, A Practical Manual, Dwight V Swain calls finding the right moment to begin the storythe point of attack.

Swain suggests that in order to determine this optimal point in our tale we should ask ourselves the questions: What is the genre? Are you writing for impact, characterisation, or atmosphere? Only when you know the answer to those questions can you know what note to strike in your opening.

“A great story start is one which most affectively establishes mood while maintaining the reader’s or audiences attention.”

In The Grudge, a horror film, we are presented with a man standing with his back to us on the balcony of an apartment block several stories up. A woman, whom we presume to be his wife or lover, lies in bed, regarding him placidly. The man seems somber, pained, but calm. Suddenly, we see him tip himself over the railings and fall to the ground, killing himself.

The effect is one of shock, followed by intrigue and a series of questions: Why did the man commit suicide? What did the dark expression on his face mean? Why did the woman not see it coming? These questions demand answers and pull us into the story.

While the rest of the movie provides, a little at a time, the answers, the start poses the questions in an abrupt way. The screenwriter and director could have chosen to present events in chronological order, but that would have robbed the story of its mystery and dark intrigue. 

The same can be said of Memento, a neo-noir psychological thriller. Here the protagonist, who suffers from short term memory loss, can only remember events that have occurred no more than a few minutes back. 

In order to solve a life threatening problem, he leaves himself clues through a series of tattoos on his back. To make matters worse, the film relates the story about-face – from end to start. The note struck by the opening scenes, therefore, is one of extreme confusion and obfuscation.

Both openings in these examples are ideally suited to their specific stories. They provide maximum audience engagement.


Determine the tone you want to strike in your tale to help you determine your story start.

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A matter of Style

A matter of style - Hemingway va Faulkner
A matter of style – Faulkner and Hemingway could not be more different in style, yet both are literary geniuses who mastered their craft.

ONE of the first things we notice about writers is their style – the way they arrange words on paper or the screen, the way they choose specific words over a myriad of others. 

In the slim volume, Elements of Style, Strunk and White point out that style reveals not only the spirit of the writer but very often his or her identity too. Style contributes to the writer’s ‘voice’ – his attitude towards his characters, the world and its ideology.

To illustrate, here are two passages by two great writers on the subject of languor. The first is quintessential Faulkner:

“He did not still feel weak, he was merely luxuriating in the supremely gutful lassitude of convalescence in which time, hurry, doing, did not exist, the accumulating seconds and minutes and hours to which in its well state the body is slave both waking and sleeping, now reversed and time now the lip-server and mendicant to the body’s pleasure instead of the body thrall to time’s headlong course.” 

“Style is the fingerprint of the creator. We recognise the writer by its palpable presence.”

Now Hemingway:

“Manuel drank his brandy. He felt sleepy himself. It was too hot to go into the town. Besides there was nothing to do. He wanted to see Zurich. He would go to sleep while he waited.”

The difference in style is striking, yet both passages are equally effective. The first is loquacious, almost verbose. It underpins the subject matter through its slowness, its inactivity.

The second is brief, laconic, yet its very brevity communicates Manuel’s languor through the truncated, sluggish drift of his thoughts.

Two very contrasting styles! Two powerful pieces of writing.

But how do the new writers set about developing their own style? 

Discovering what sort of writing appeals to you is a first step. Giving yourself time to find and develop your individual voice through trail and error is the second. The journey is long and hard, as the saying goes, but the rewards are worthwhile – because at the end of it you you will create work that is memorable and unique.


Find your writing style by identifying and immersing yourself in stories you admire, then work to develop your own voice through trail and error. And never, ever give up.

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