Altered States

[— Karen Myers —]

I had a dream a while ago…

I was standing motionless, and all around me there were crowds of people going about their business. The scenes shifted, but the situation remained the same.

None of them could see me. There was a sense of removal, not as if I were a ghost but as if they could have seen me if they’d wished to, but none of them so chose. So I felt not just ignored, but left out, rejected.

Suddenly, one of the men turned to me, looked me in the eye, and declared “There you are,” welcoming me back to the human race (and waking me up).

The odd emotions stayed with me, and catalyzed into an important bit of fiction, and I wanted to analyze how that worked.

I’m sure none of your dreams are invaded by your characters, right? (Hah!) In my case, I often drop off while ruminating on a bit of writing, and come up with fragments of dialogue or motivations that I scribble down at bedside so as to remember them in the morning, but I don’t get actual full character visits (thank goodness). In this dream, it was my own persona (not a character) who experienced it. Until I turned it to better use…

Right now, I’m in the middle of writing book 3 of a not-yet-released-series (The Affinities of Magic), and book 4’s setting is already known (though not the plot). But book 5 is a mystery. Or used to be. This dream fragment has mutated into the central crisis of book 5.

Each of the books in this series has common plot elements (the discovery/exploitation of a new entry in the industrial revolution of magic that is the series framework). But that’s just the background setting, from a story-telling point of view. The structural story turns on the hero’s journey and a typical mid-point crisis.

The more I thought about the dream fragment, and how it persisted in my own recollection, the more I realized what it represented. It was the bare affect (without the backstory cause or the terror) of the thousand-yard-stare, the psychosis of disassociation. What would it be like to undergo experiences in reality so devastating as to force such a break? If the little fragment of a dream resonated with me, wouldn’t a full-blown version resonate with readers?

To ask that question is to answer it. For this book’s mid-point crisis, the hero will stumble into a situation where the unplanned discovery of a new bit of magic puts him at the mercy of impersonal forces that can’t be reasoned with, only survived. He resists as well as he can, but it marks him, of course, and all of those around him who can neither fully understand nor help. He has to pull himself out of his own personal hell — no one else can do it for him. [And just to forestall you, gentle reader, there is no sexual component to any of this.]

Making this happen in “story” creates an interesting set of technical issues. When the causative accident occurs, we see it from the hero’s POV, but only up to the point where he begins his captivity by circumstances. He is alone at the time, and no one (including the reader) knows what has become of him or where he has vanished. Their alarm and speculation heighten the reader’s tension. After an extended period of suspense, the hero is found as the effect starts to wear off (a version of the dream fragment makes it into the writing), but we still don’t see it from his POV yet. His friends and family are relieved, but (like the reader) don’t understand much of what has happened to him. And he is not the same…

The big technical question becomes… when do we start getting the hero’s POV back? When do we find out what really happened — the psychology of it, as well as the simple facts?

The reveal of the crisis will come in bits… First will be fragments divulged to his wife, some of the bare facts, but not the lingering psychological damage. The hero presents an abbreviated story for public consumption, but everyone suspects this is concealing a great deal. Then there’s the hero’s peculiar behavior demonstrating the damage that resists explanation. The hero will reveal little private thoughts to the reader without going into the original causes. Finally, there will be a scene where the hero is cornered by a male relative and forced to describe most of what actually happened. Not everything — some of that is permanently suppressed by the hero (but revealed to the reader in his thoughts). Only then can he force himself to take effective steps to improve the situation, though some damage will linger.

This means the mid-point crisis starts with big suspense and the hero absent. The events of the mid-point crisis are only seen indirectly from the other character POVs until well through the 3rd Act (of 4).

I’ve never tried to do a mid-point crisis in extended suspense like this before, but it seems to me to be the best way to handle the situation. I’d never have considered it before I had that dream. I’m the sort of person who’s comfortable with a particular novel/story-telling structure that works for me, not one who seeks out experimental challenges just for the hell of it.

It’s also surprised me that I could create this chunk of story in a vacuum relative to the rest of the non-existent plot. I’m confident I can shove it into place once that point arrives and have it work, which is a new feeling of competence for me. (Well, it’ll be my 13th book by then–I guess it’s about time…)

30 thoughts on “Altered States

  1. I’ve only had on that got me out of bed at 3AM to write down before I forgot it. Started a whole (short) series. With the dream thing not happening until the second book. I think the Barton Street Gym is still the weirdest thing I’ve written.

    1. I’ve had one dream that appeared in a story. If you read *A Diabolical Bargain*, Nick dreams. It’s a slightly modified dream of mine.

  2. For the first time (and I hope the last *taps wood*) Arthur appeared in one of my dreams earlier this week. He didn’t speak, probably because I was trying to get a computer to behave and he knows what a pain it is when a memory task gets interrupted. But I was aware of his presence, and that it was Arthur. And that he needed into the computer as well. Then the alarm went off just as I finally got the machine to acknowledge the password.

    No idea if there’s any significance to the dream.

    1. Arthur’s struggles with computers (and the point-of-sale terminal) show up in every Familiar book, so if you were having computer issues it makes sense to have a Hunter standing by to deal with whatever gremlins came crawling out.

      1. That could well be. He wasn’t impatient, just determined to use the thing (a laptop, perhaps?) once I could get into it. I’m just the author. My characters don’t explain their goals in advance.

  3. The textbooks say you cannot dream a smell. The textbooks are wrong. I’ve dreamed smells, and very, very vividly, but only as secondary effects, e.g. I see smoke, think I should be smelling it, and the smell comes. It doesn’t happen often, but just once contradicts ‘never’ and ‘can’t’.

    1. Given that sleep seems to be a period when the brain flushes itself out and stuffs stuff into archives, I’d expect anything you can think about you can dream about.

    2. The textbooks also say you can’t read in a dream. I’ve had many dreams about reading books or signs or whatever.

      1. I’ve heard that you can read in dreams (which I’ve done frequently, but if you go back and read the same thing again, it’ll say something different. Which seems to be reasonably true.

        1. I think that dreams are about fabulating simulacra of reality.

          You can read, because you know what that’s like, but the content isn’t really there — it’s just being churned out ahead of your attention as you go down the highway. Thus you can’t recall the content.

          It’s like a dream of being in a town with all sorts of interesting buildings that you notice, but then you can’t recall the details. I think that’s because the details aren’t really in the dream — just the impressions of them, without the content.

    1. Well, yes, that was the reference for my title… πŸ™‚ It launched William Hurt. But my own LSD experience was rather earlier (half a decade or more).

        1. Seriously… it’s a very interesting intellectual experience (an inside look at some aspects of how your brain interprets the reports of the senses to understand reality). But it is not for the faint of heart — there are people who can’t cope with it, and I speak as one who did these things more than once in supportive surroundings with like-minded people. Even so, there were people who didn’t do well with it (it can amplify underlying personality weaknesses and denials). The initial “hit” is completely disorienting, and you rebuild your conscious thought control bit by bit. That can be… scary, especially the first time. Though educational… πŸ™‚ ) The fun part comes after that, when you can exercise conscious control over the reports of the senses to some degree.

          I would NOT recommend it as an experiment alone in your room. It takes a certain sort of stubborn “I can get through this (others have), and meanwhile watchen dem blinkende lichten…” personality. And it goes on for hours, so you have to avoid psyching yourself into a panic at all costs. (I’m talking about the original real-dosage acid trip, not just someone’s micro-dose or “magic mushrooms”.)

          Looking back as a writer, I can see that the culture of doing acid in the (extended) 60s had moral virtues analogous to the courage of the typical male hero facing any sort of ordeal:

          * There was a “value” to being able to “maintain”, that is, the sprezzatura to prevent the disorienting effect from disrupting your behavior.

          * There was a strong disapproval toward attempting to make your “fellow travellers” have bad trips by suggesting distressing topics or behaving badly.

          * There was a standard rap offered to newbies to prepare them for the experience, as best one could (as you can see from the abbreviated version above, but in much more vivid and detailed fashion).

          * It was a rite-of-passage in druggie circles. Doing it proved you had the spine to do it, by definition, and conveyed a certain amount of “cred”.

    2. In my experience, dreaming about something is a sign I’m stressed out and doing too much of it.

  4. I got this for my poem from a couple of weeks ago, “Into the Break.” I don’t remember a dream, but I woke up with the first two lines and the title:

    Mother, grab the orphan babe.
    Brother, friend the widow.

    Other than that, can’t remember anything more recent than decades ago.

      1. Into the break!

        Mother, grab the orphan babe.
        Brother, friend the widow.
        Father, to arms, sister to bread.
        Put the yoke on your back,
        Steady the cripple,
        Sleep where you can, work till you fall.

        Who owed us have fled.
        Who hate us have wreaked through
        And now we remain.
        Into the break!

        Tomorrow little brother will play.
        Today he gathers rocks.
        Big brother, stack’em one on top the other —
        Shelter for the night, the hour.
        Little sister, cry softly, tears for us who can’t spare’em now.
        Big sister, sing loud, to courage us.

        Cousins, weave, sew, clothe.
        Cousins, build, hunt, feed.
        Into the break!
        Into the break!
        Into the break!

  5. I’m having a little trouble with my current WIP, writing wise, because i want the main character to be a POV character and would like it to be.. well, its a comic, so it would be ‘third person limited’ or ‘first person’ because I want her to be telling the story to her great grandneices/nephews about 50 years afterward…

    1. You can always do “had I only known then” with that framing device, even if it’s not explicitly stated. If she’s telling it so long after she could have later learned any extras you want to include.

      1. i was going to save the particular reveal of that point for later, but that’s a perfectly valid way to use a different pov for a scene or two

  6. I get “candybar” scenes (the fun memorable moments in stories, the ones you’re supposedly writing towards) when drifting off to sleep or waking up. Often stuff that’s kind of fanfic adjacent, part of the process of evolving whatever my source material is into whatever in that vein I’m actually going to write. I’ve gotten some semi-interesting ideas out of actual dreams, and written them down as concept outlines, but never used them.

  7. I’m also not the sort to go out of my writing comfort zone to learn a new style or method, but I always find that I develop a need for a skill or style I don’t yet have as I try to work new plots and points. The one I’m currently wrestling, ironically, is a dream scene chapter, where two characters are trapped in one’s memories, with hints of dream creeping into the corners of their consciousness. Writing such a scene so that it feels dreamy but is also not so unclear as to confuse the heck out of the reader is something I haven’t quite got down yet.

    As to your own plot mid-crisis thing you’re doing, I’ve actually seen it done once, over a decade ago. No idea how I still remember, but in some of the later seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she dies, goes to heaven, and is then revived by her friends who are joyous to have her back. They note that she is not so joyous, and struggle to figure out what’s wrong with her. I believe many episodes passed by where neither the show watchers or the other characters knew what was going on with her, then, in dramatic fashion, she reveals that she thinks she was in heaven, at peace, and she was not in fact happy at all to have been revived into the demon-infested town of Sunnydale. I remember this reveal because it was in an episode where a singing dancing demon came to town and forced the characters to sing about their woes. Anyway, could be some fun homework to watch.

    1. I remember that whole Buffy sequence well, though I’d forgotten about it anent this. πŸ™‚

      My hero will end up explaining analytically why he needs help changing his coping behavior after the crisis (not, of course, in those terms), but he’s never going to come fully clean about the terror and humiliation of the actual event — feels too shameful. (The reader will know, however…) His friends & family will know some (enough for a resumption of ordinary life), but the readers will know more.

  8. Long ago and long before I knew what the term was, I dissociated twice. As a matter of anecdote I mention that I have no memory of what took place while I was “elsewhere”. In one case I can reconstruct what must have happened during part of it. During the other I was simply sitting in a class and not taking notes. I have no idea what the professor said. My notebook was blank. If I read your book and the hero actually fully remembered I wouldn’t believe it. But as I say, just anecdote.

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