Dream Sequence

Of all the books in all the world that have been inspired by dreams, Frankenstein remains the most famous. (Though Twilight did what it could to oust that.)

In the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Shelley goes into detail about the inspiration behind the novel: her nightmare. 

“When I placed my head on my pillow I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possess and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw — with shut eyes but acute mental vision — I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade, that this thing which had received such imperfect animation would subside into dead matter, and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellowy, watery, but speculative eyes.

I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still: the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense that I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps beyond.”

This vivid image — the one Shelley was so eager to erase by looking around her bedroom — became the “powerful engine” driving her story. Everyone who has been exposed to the story of Frankenstein — whether through children’s cartoons (thank you, Scooby-Doo), any of the film versions or — please Heaven — the novel itself — can attest to the visceral nature of Shelley’s initial dream. 

And I think the vivid, visceral nature of dreams is what makes them so enticing to write about and so tricky.

Generally, lucid dreams are emotionally charged too — so not only do you have an image that’s striking (like a stitched-together corpse) but that image is tied to a strong emotion. Like terror, in Shelley’s case. 

The Nightmare

Writers should be highly encouraged to follow their dreams…literally. As a writer, you should see where those sharp imaged and super-emotional emotions take you. 

But — and this is the tricky part which makes Mary Shelley a legend among hundreds of novelists for hundreds of years — the emotion/image combo should somehow feed the engine of narrative. Mary Shelley didn’t only write the scene where Frankenstein’s monster is created. All in all, that would not make a legendary story, as terrifying and visceral as it is. 

Instead, Shelley creates Frankenstein as a man with deep ambitions that drive him to create this creature. So her main character’s want — his objective — is tied to the dream image. 

Then she takes it a step further. She gives the other character in her dream wants — objectives — too. Objectives which are diametrically opposed to her main character. So the scene of student-doing-something-he-shouldn’t turns into a meeting of protagonist and antagonist. (Which is which? Who knows? Another stroke of genius!)

CONFLICT!!

With some divine comparisons thrown in on both sides:

Frankenstein: “I had gazed on him while unfinished, he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became such a thing as even Dante could not have conceived.”

…And Frankenstein’s monster: “Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.” 

Everything in the story spins out from that central image of Shelley’s nightmare — the disgust, the envy.

And that’s the important thing to take away: don’t write only your dream. Because then you’re just writing images and emotions. Use those images and emotions to create conflict and drive the story. 

 

Sleeping With Your Father

Throughout January and February, I’m going to be utilizing Mary Shelley as my writing mentor. You may have heard of her.

Quick Bio:

Mary Shelley is most famous as the creator of Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus — a novel which has undergone endless printings and, since the invention of the movie, several films. You probably know the story. A young, ambitious student figures out the secret of giving life and cobbles together a “man” of corpse parts, which he brings to life. When the student rejects his creation, the “monster” pursues his creator. What follows is a cat-and-mouse series of events that explores who is truly the monster and who is the man.

It’s beautiful.

You should read it.

Mary Godwin Shelley herself was the child of William Godwin, a big-name philosopher of the day, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the somewhat-infamous author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which is still used as a text in many women’s studies courses and well worth the time of reading it.

Mary Shelley Family Tree
Mix Big-Name Philosopher William Godwin with Somewhat-Infamous Author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman Mary Wollstonecraft and you get Badass Author Mary Shelley

Unfortunately, Wollstonecraft died in childbirth, leaving infant Mary to be raised by her father, who was distant. Eventually he remarried and Mary and her half-sister Fanny (the child of Wollstonecraft’s previous love affair) were raised with step-siblings Jane (later Claire) and Charles Clairmont.

Later, young Mary eloped with the already-married up-and-coming poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. They lived “in sin” for a few years until Shelley’s first wife died by suicide, then they married officially. They moved around England and Europe, always struggling financially, until Shelley’s untimely death in a boating accident.

Mary Shelley, while most famous for Frankenstein actually wrote quite a bit, not stopping until her death in 1851.

Pulling From Your Life

Even from that very brief, very glossed over biography, you can tell Mary Shelley lived a very notable life. And critics have noted repeatedly, ad nauseum, that there are, ahem, BIOGRAPHICAL INFLUENCES in her work.

They point to the death of her children influencing the themes of life-and-death-and-resurrection in Frankenstein. And it’s easy to agree with critics’ assessment when she writes in her journal: “Dreamt my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived.”

In general, it is not rocket-science to find links between an author’s work and the author’s life. After all, we write about things that affect us, that inspire us, that bother us, that fascinate us…and all of those things come from living a life. There’s really no escaping that. If you’re going to write something, odds are good that there’s some touch of real life that’ll sneak in.

As a writer, you should embrace that. Use your life.

And don’t worry if they accuse you of sleeping with your father.

Wait.

What?

Yeah, Mary Shelley was such a wild child, such a scandalous creature during her lifetime, that when she wrote the novella Mathilda — a very quick read involving a father’s romantic love interest in his female child —  soon after Frankenstein, it raised some eyebrows.

Mathilda

Mathilda was published in 1820. It’s narrated by Mathilda, a young woman who has suffered quite a bit. For a while, her father ignored her existence because he was devastated by the fact that Mathilda’s mother died in childbirth. (BIOGRAPHICAL INFLUENCE!?) And then, upon Mathilda’s return home after a long time away, she reminds her father so much of her mother that he can’t help but love her — romantically.

Mathilda tells us that this is the reason her father drowned himself. (While Godwin died of natural causes, Fanny — Mary Shelley’s half-sister — and Harriet — Percy Shelley’s first wife — both died by suicide…BIOGRAPHICAL INFLUENCES?! WHAT?!)

With a lot of the plot points tying to pieces of Mary Shelley’s real-life experiences, more than one critic has posited that, perhaps, the main story line has some element of truth too.

Ignore All the Critics

Make Shit Up

Look, Mary Shelley had already written one of the most wildly creative novels ever written by the time she penned Mathilda. She was also no stranger to Romantic literature…of which incest was a key and consistent player. Incest was not a foreign concept to her, artistically speaking.

Now, maybe her daddy issues were more than just regular daddy issues — that’s not outside the realm of possibility.

But, however it played out, she did not care what the critics said. (Much. We could argue about the way her name was attached to said works….)

And neither should you.

As an author, you need to be able to tell stories that are beyond your personal life experiences…and you need to be able to tell those stories without worrying about whether or not your personal life will be dissected.

Shelley wrote about grave digging, dead children, weird science, incest, suicide, and the last men on earth. And that’s not just in Frankenstein. The pieces she wrote later were just as dark as her debut.

You must have Mary-Shelley-Level Don’t-Give-A-Shit. Write what you wanna write, write it convincingly, and let the work stand on its own.