Wednesday, November 02, 2005


I have a habit of recording particularly vivid dreams in my writing notebook. While most dreams really aren't coherent enough to be a story in their own right, you never know when some of the elements in those dreams might provide a germ that can grow into a finished story. Last night I had rather disturbing dream, a nightmare, I suppose, though it wasn't the irrational terror that accompanies most nightmares -- I certainly didn't wake up screaming.

But the dream involved terror, nonetheless. Like many dreams, the plot didn't totally make sense, but the important part was that my son and daughter were lost in a national park similar to the Grand Canyon (in the dream it was a huge dam with Grand Canyon-like walking paths built along either side. My family and I had gotten lost as well and somehowwe became separated. My daughter is 2, and though my son is actually 16, in the dream he was about 5, so now you have two small children lost and wandering around this national park (that includes a thousand-foot drop just off the path). As search and rescue teams were deployed, I began to feel the terror that only a parent, I think, can feel. As a writer, though, emotions like this (especially in the "safe" environment of a dream) are better than gold. We need to pay close attention to what we are feeling so that we can later convey that to our readers. I woke up shortly after the kids were recovered (safe and sound), but I lay there for a bit trying to hold on to the feeling of terror. It went something like this:

The feeling starts as an electric-ice tingle just below your solar plexus. It's uncomfortable. It's as though it were the source of the adrenelin that you can already feel beginning to spread through your veins. The feeling begins to spread, straight up your breastbone. Just below the top of the breastbone, you begin to feel that icy sensation in your lungs. You breathe out with force, but breathe in only shallowly. Your heartrate begins to increase. Faster, harder. You can feel your heart pounding under the breastbone, directly under that icy feeling, amplifying it. The icy feeling gets stronger, spreading acrossyour collarbone, making your heart pound even harder. You try to tell yourself to stay calm. You aren't panicked -- but you are in deep terror now. (What will happen to my kids? Are they suffering? Are they hurt? Are they scared? Where are my kids?!) You ache to hold them, you try to keep control, but you can feel it slipping. You're breathing much faster now, starting to hyperventilate. You're getting light-headed, and that just adds to the feeling of terror. The electric-ice feeling has spread through your arms, your whole torso. You can't think -- you're scared. Someone please help!

You wouldn't want to include this description in your story, as that would be pretty pointless. But if you can capture the details of the senstation of strong emotion, you can use elements from it to bring your characters' emotion alive, to make it real for the reader. By the way, the feeling of joyous, sobbing relief when I pulled both toddlers into my arms was just as strong and just as powerful.

But I think I'll treasure that one myself for a while.

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