Writing the novel #3: Structure by dreamstorming

writing the novel#3dreamstorming

I’m not the kind of writer that can just begin a 50,000 word draft after I’ve got my story idea and cast of characters in mind. I tried that approach once in a screenwriting class I took through UCLA online. I structured my screenplay with an outline, called a beat sheet, in one afternoon and using that, I wrote the first half easily, but after that my story fell apart. I struggled so much to rewrite, revise, and redo my screenplay that I needed up not recognizing my story at the end and ended up hating it. The plot had become meandering. The sequence felt all wrong. I was caught in a writer’s web.

Looking back on that experience I now see that I needed a different approach to preparing to write my story. For me, outlining (or completing a beat sheet in the case of a screenplay) gives me the structure I need, but it also intellectualized my story and therefore stole away opportunity for the magic of inspiration to compile my story, scene by scene.

I am a writer that believes that the best stories are told though the magic of inspiration; when I am allowing the story to be told through me. Even in structuring the story you wish to tell, the muse must be allowed to work her magic. 

When I sit and channel my story at my computer, I’m in a dream state; poking around in my character’s heads or invisibly observing beside them. That’s when the elegant words come and my writing seems to flow. I can see, feel, or touch a fragmentary sense of the scene.  This is organic writing, and in my opinion, anything I write in this state has depth and is the heart of who I am as a writer. It’s my true voice. So, it follows from that reasoning, that if I’m trying to avoid writing sentence by sentence from my logical mind, then I should also try to avoid planning, structuring, or outlining my story from my logical mind as well.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler teaches how to approach structuring your novel organically. In his book, From Where You Dream, The Process of Writing Fiction, he calls this process dreamstorming. Here’s how to dreamstorm your story into shape; according to Mr. Butler:


When I dreamstorm, I sit down, close my eyes, and imagine myself as an invisible spirit figure, moving about among some place in my story; or even inserting myself completely into the minds of my characters. In order to dreamstorm tat the scene level, I’ve got to pull myself up and out the moment by moment, and float up above trying to see, hear, or feel what this might be as a scene. It’s a place where I can hear fragments of conversation or some thoughts of my characters, or see some action. Dreamstorming at the scene level I might observe things that are just out of earshot or the view of some characters.


Each scene that is dreamstormed is written down on a list by noting a sentence or descriptive phrase that identifies the scene. Things like, Larry rides his bicycle to the barn, or The dog dies. Butler cautions, “Do not trust a scene that presents itself to you as a complete idea.” This is the logical mind trying to rush in and chase your muse away. Do not take note of these ideas because the logical mind is a shitty writer. The scenes you want have sensory details; seeing, hearing, touching, or feeling something. Some scenes will come in fast and tug on your sleeve, with all kinds of juicy details just begging to be written out. Butler warns to resist the temptation. Just float on looking for the next scene.


Do not force the order or try to arrange the scenes in your list in any way; even if the scenes that you dreamstorm seems contradictory or puzzling. This is the work of channeling the story. Your job is to allow, not direct. Just put it all down on your list with a sentence or words to identify it. Eventually the scenes will stop coming. Mr. Butler says you may have anywhere from 150-300 in the process of 4-6 weeks of dreamstorming your novel.


Get yourself a stack of 3×5 index cards and write each scene description in the middle of an index card.


Clear a tabletop and begin floating around in your scenes by flipping through them, reading the descriptions. You are looking for the first scene in your novel; which may or may not be chronologically the first scene. When you’ve found it, place the card in the upper left corner of your tabletop. now ask yourself what scene would follow the first? Flip through the cards, reading the descriptions. After a while you’ll have a group of cards together. Bind them together with an elastic.

The next day, come back and go through your first group of cards by going into each scene in your mind. Lay them out again in the top left hand corner of your tabletop.

You are reading your book. 

Start going through your scenes and ordering them paying no attention to the hows of transition between them. In the process of ordering you might notice a gap in your sequence. You’ll want to dream up a new scenes, put them on index cards, and insert them in the gap in your sequence. If some scene cards feel like that don’t belong, take them out. As you order, remove, fill in, and shuffle your scenes you’ll find that contradictions eventually become reconciled because you are allowing the order to unfold organically. The process is flexible and unforced. There will be some randomness, but don’t try to make sense of it. Remember that this is a daily process that takes 4-6 weeks (!) according to Butler.

In Dreamstorming the sequence of your novel, Butler also points out that you can insert points of research to your cards with a notation. When you’ve got all your index cards ordered, you are ready to write your first scene. :)

I’ll be dreamstorming my first novel all next month, for NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. If you are a writer who feels most comfortable just getting your words down, then your goal is to write an imperfect, unedited 50,000 word first draft of your novel in the month of November. Me? I’ll be dreamstorming the sequence of my novel, following Mr. Butler’s Guidelines. Updates throughout the coming month will include (very short) posts about my experience.

If you’ve got a story begging to be written, why don’t you dreamstorm with me in November? Reach out to me on social media or leave a comment right here and check in with me about how it’s going. And thank-you, Mr. Butler for helping me to find a method to stay structured and write organically at the same time!

Happy dreamstorming!  ox Heather 



All original content on these pages is fingerprinted and certified by Digiprove