Electric Dreams

Breaking the Rules

David Jenkins, PhD

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Jenkins, David, PhD (2006 June). DreamRePlay: Breaking the Rules. Electric Dreams 13(6).

The Dream and the Story

Why Understanding "Story" is a Great Way to Work with Dreams

The dream is one of the very few forms of “story” that is allowed to break the basic rules of story telling. When you think of the dream as a badly told story and “improve” that story, your dream life changes. This knowledge is key to working with dreams.

About Story

There are rules about how you tell stories. Nobody needs to actually spell them out; by the time you are reading books or watching TV, you have an instinctive sense of when a story is badly told or is missing some key elements.

To understand the importance of story telling to dream analysis, we need to take a crash course in narrative studies. Here are the core rules and key elements of a story:
  • a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end
  • the story has a subject
  • the story comes to a climax and then passes to a resolution
When you watch a movie, you intuitively expect these things to happen. You know that characters get introduced at the beginning, things happen to them in the middle and everything is explained and sorted out in the end. Every episode of the Sopranos follows those rules. Every item on the national news follows these rules too.

There is a subject the story. Someone or something is the center of attention. It is usually the hero, as in "Terminator 2," but it might be the villain, as in "Terminator 1."

You know that at some point in a thriller, it will look as though the bad guys are going to win and the good guys are down and out. That's the climax.

That's pretty much everything. From Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, to your local newspaper's description of a town hall meeting, to your neighbor's description of her day at the beach, these are the basic elements.

Dreams and Story

When you tell a dream, you are telling a story. “My dream about going to my sister's wedding” is just as much a story as "My visit to the East Coast to attend my sister's wedding."

Remember that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has drama, climax, and tension. But the dream usually ignores these rules.
  • No ending: "Someone had stolen my keys. I shouted “Stop Thief' but no one heard me."
  • No tension: "My mother and I are on a shopping trip. Nothing is happening."
  • No resolution: "The maniac was in the house, he came at me with an ax. I knew I couldn't get away and I woke up screaming."
Script Doctors

There are people in Hollywood known as “script doctors.” They specialize in adding pizzazz to lackluster stories.

Robert Towne ("Chinatown", "The Two Jakes", and "The Last Detail") is famous for fixing scripts. Francis Ford Coppola called him in to work on the Godfather when the studio was considering canning it. Towne took the garden scene between Vito (Marlon Brando) and Michael (Al Pacino) where Brando tells Pacino that, after Brando dies, the other mobs will try to assassinate him. Towne weaved into this Brando telling Pacino how much he loved him: "I never meant this life for you." It transformed a necessary scene into a great scene, and at the Oscars, Coppola thanked Towne.

"Fixing" Your Dream Story

Your dream is the initial script. It is almost always raw and rarely complete. You are the script doctor. You may not be thanked at the Oscars but, your dream work will have a profound effect on later dreams.

The Method

Use your story telling abilities to improve the story, especially see if you can continue the story and bring it to completion.

I dream that someone has stolen my keys. I shouted "Stop Thief" but no one heard me.
There's tension here but no resolution. What would you do next? How would you deal with the loss of the keys? Would you report this to the police? Should you change the locks on your doors?

I dream there is a maniac in the house. He is coming at me with an ax.
That's a nightmare that needs resolution. How would you be the hero of the story? Perhaps you would call in a friend and together the two of you would outwit the maniac. Remember, you are the hero/heroine of your dreams.

I dream that my mother and I are on a shopping trip. Nothing is happening.
We might uncover plenty of tension if we asked, "What do you really want to say to your mother in this dream situation? Where would you rather be?"

By reworking the dream into a better story, you have a profound effect on the next dream. Thieves will stop preying on you, maniacs will calm down, your mother and you will deal with your problems. It's a big claim but try it and see for yourself. It's also a lot of fun.


A dream is like a badly told story. Forget psychology, just make a better story and your dreams will change accordingly. That's a big claim, it defies 100 years of psychoanalysis, so let me repeat it:

You will have more fun, be more resourceful and create better outcomes when you "fix" the story in your dreams.

Learning to Think Like a Script Doctor

If you would like to know more about dreams and story, read Chapter 2 of my book, Dream RePlay (autographed copies available from me for $20, or you can buy via Amazon.com).

Dream Analysis By Telephone

David is available for dream consultations by phone. The current cost is $50 per hour. A typical dream analysis might last 30-45 minutes with a follow up conversation after the next dream.

David's office hours are Monday through Friday, 10 am to 7 pm, Pacific Time. To make an appointment, please email him with two or three times when you are available and your phone number. He will e-mail you back with an appointment time, payment information and request a confirmation. David's e-mail address is david@dreamreplay.com

This is a great way to begin your exploration of dream work. It is also perfect for periodically connecting with dream work when you don't have the time to attend a regular class.

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