Carl Jung on the structure of dreams

March 14th, 2013 by

Carl Jung was a big fan of movies. He said:

“The cinema, like the detective story, makes it possible to experience without danger all the excitement, passion, and desirousness, which must be repressed in the humanitarian working of life.”

Check out his articulation of the structure of dreams from his book “On the Nature of Dreams”:

“The dream begins with a statement of place, next comes a statement about the protagonist. I call this phase of the dream the exposition. It indicates the scene of action, the people involved, and also often the initial situation of the dream way.

The second phase comes the development of the plot.

The third phase brings the culmination of peripeteia, a sudden change of events, a reversal of circumstances, used by Aristotle. Here something decisive happens if something changes completely.

The fourth and last phase is alysis, the solution or result produced by the dream work.

This division into four phases can be applied without much difficulty to a majority of dreams met with in practice, an indication that dreams generally have a dramatic structure.”

Question: Do we dream with a narrative structure because of our exposure to stories or do we write stories with a narrative structure because of how we dream?

Another thing to consider about the relationship of dreams to story, an excerpt from something I posted in 2009 about noted editor Walter Murch:

In fact, one of the best screenwriting books I’ve read is about editing. It’s called “In the Blink of an Eye”, written by one of the great movie editors and sound men in contemporary filmmaking Walter Murch. While it’s interesting and informative to read about Murch’s experiences editing such movies as Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, Part II, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, what I found most engaging was how Murch grappled with the very concept of an editorial cut, asking why viewers are willing to make the hundreds of ‘jumps’ from one shot to the next when watching a movie. The question baffled him for a long while until he finally zeroed in on a mechanism in the human experience that essentially ‘trains’ people to be comfortable with editorial cuts: Dreams. When we dream, what we often experience is not one dream, but a series of dreams or layers of dreams that we cut together in our mind, give them coherence (or at least try to). Making those jumps from one dream sequence to another prepares us for movies and their myriad of editorial cuts [emphasis added]. As screenwriters, we can apply that understanding to our writing as we ‘cut together’ the movie we see in our head and translate that onto the printed page.

That’s a fascinating idea: The very possibility of people being able to follow an editorial cut in a movie deriving from what naturally occurs when we dream.

How about you? Do you think there is a connection between a writer’s dreams and our ability to craft stories?

14 thoughts on “Carl Jung on the structure of dreams

  1. JohnSandel says:

    In my Script Kitchen class, I teach that this is a simple, beautiful function of our perception. Cause and effect exist in nature, of course, but human perception projects meaning onto them.

    If humans didn’t exist, natural events would still have causes, of course, but “story”—in the sense of Jung’s comments—would also not exist … or, rather, be perceived as such.

    (Thus, dreams—arising from the boundary between consciousness and the unconscious—may have structure; whether or not they have meaning is debatable.)

    This is what Aristotle was reacting to in his Poetics: when you have cause and effect, you have beginning and end. Our inquisitive, projective minds, wired for social bonding, naturally ask: “Gee, how’d that go?”

    I.e., “what happened between beginning and end?” And from that question springs the immemorial tradition of storytelling—’round the crackling Pleistocene fire or our glowing Holocene screens …

    This invention and shaping of meaning-in-events is one of the primally defining characteristics of humans. The universe may be a dumb, hostile void, but—as Kubrick said—we must make our own light.

    1. Scott says:

      Thanks for that, John. I have heard it said that one of the qualities / abilities separating humans from other mammals is our ability to tell a story. Not sure monkeys, dolphins or whales DON’T tell stories, but the larger point is likely true: Story holds a high spot in what makes us human.

      Interesting you should bring up Aristotle’s “Poetics”. After I get done with a long-running series I’ve been doing on Sundays, analyzing a book on screenwriting written in 1920, I was thinking about going through “Poetics” again, week by week. It’s been awhile since I studied it, so for my own personal edification. Plus it would be something worthwhile for readers I believe.

      A final thing: As I was reading your comments, the words “making sense” came to mind. As in we naturally veer toward story to make sense of reality. And I think that works on at least two levels: By providing structure [Beginning, Middle, End], we manage to corral events into a meaningful whole. Plus the nature of what the characters in our stories experience, everything from the events in the physical world and the impact of those events in their psychological world, also help us to make sense of things.

      Love that Kubrick line: “We must make our own light.”

      Thanks again!

      1. JohnSandel says:

        Here’s where I should tell you “No, I meant Aristotle ONASSIS and his classic volume ‘O Jackie” …”

        The Kubrick line, BTW, is from his 1968 Playboy interview:

        “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man may be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfilment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”


        I’m one of those people who loved studying Jung until I found how comically off-the-rails he went, in his old age; serious talk of aliens in fling saucers &c. He was always credulous to a fault—saw significance in every coincidence—even denied that random coincidence was possible …

        But Jung was the son of a church minister, after all; he grew up in a house which believed in invisible people. The irony is that, by the end of his life, he started to make Freud (that old phrenologist!) sound halfway empiric, at least in tone.

        All this has a direct bearing on our work as storytellers. I’m winding my screenwriting class down now—getting into producing—but I’ve tried hard to impress on students that storytellers’ role is to step behind the curtains of consciousness, the better to pull the levers & push the buttons of the audience’s unconscious desires & expectations. It’s what they pay us for—it’s our job!

        So writers, more than anyone else in Hollywood—as originators of material; deliverers of treasure from the unconscious—must know the difference between (as George Stanley put it) “the true and the real.”

        The magic of knowledge will always trump the gimcrackery of belief.

  2. John Aten says:

    I don’t think that dreams are the basis of story structure or editing, mainly because for the most part dreams don’t have either.

    Dreams tend to have no continuity or stability at all. The characters, settings and events in dreams shift randomly and suddenly, and even the dreamer doesn’t always know what is even happening. Any story structure that dreams have is imposed on them after we wake up and try to remember or understand the experience.

    The current view of dreams in the cognitive sciences is that dreaming is pretty much the same as thinking during the day, except that parts of the brain (such as the part that decides what’s real or not) are turned off. So during the day, you might think of a lion out of the blue, but you recognize that it’s just a passing thought. At night, you think of a lion and you might confusedly think one is chasing you, or that you are riding one.

    As for editing and continuity, all respect to Walter Murch, but I think Sergei Eisenstein had a much better understanding of the psychology of continuity in his writings on montage. He believes that montage is the basis of all perception, and that editing works because what happens on the screen is similar to what our brains are doing all the time, that is, filtering out unimportant details and stringing together important ones into a coherent, meaningful whole.

    Dreams are fascinating, and often result in interesting ideas, vivid inspiration, and even real-life problem solving. Many great artists and writers were obsessed with their own dreams and mined them for material, but none of them simply transcribed them as is.

    1. JohnSandel says:

      John, I’ve described the jumble of dreams as “junk information”—the byproduct of your brain cooling, like a car engine, having driven across the landscape of your day.

      But your lion example explains so much more about why dreams seem so absurd on waking. I’m going with that from now on …

  3. pgronk says:

    Jung wrote that dreams can take a wide variety of forms: “We find everything from lightning impressions to endlessly spun out dream-narrative. Nevertheless there are a great many ‘average’ dreams in which a definite structure can be perceived, not unlike that of a drama”. “A great many” does not mean all.

    Some of my dreams are quite random; there is no obvious plot, no apparent linear structure. However, all of them are meaningful. If nowhere else, the meaning is revealed in the affect; IOW: the dream always has an emotional truth. And it is my experience that there is an emotional truth that connects the seemingly unrelated images and events of the dream. It is the clothesline on which the laundry of the dream is hung.

    Also, while I’m no fan of Fraud, er, Freud, I do agree with his notion that all dreams [well, mine anyway] are the fulfillment of a wish; they are driven by desire.

    Correlations between the emotional truth and desires in dreams and those in the waking dreams of cinema are obvious.

  4. fergicide says:

    Some corrections, Scott:

    (1) “Here something decisive happens if something changes completely.” -> “Here something decisive happens or something changes completely.”

    (2) “The fourth and last phase is alysis, the solution…” -> “The fourth and last phase is the lysis, the solution…”

    (3) “The second phase comes the development of the plot.” -> “In the second phase comes the development of the plot.”

    See the source text here:

  5. Gil_S says:

    I’ve always believed that whether or not dreams have a defined narrative structure, their most important component is the metaphor. We can look at dreams as a way the subconscious mind deals with a real-life problem, anxiety, repressed emotion, etc…While we do see elements from our waking life represented in dreams, such as the aforementioned lion, I’d argue that our mind simply lifts those elements and grafts them on to the bigger truth of the dream. So being chased by the lion, for example, doesn’t represent a fear of lions, it represents being chased by a real emotion or a real issue you’re grappling with in your life.

    Regardless, it’s still a testament to the power of storytelling. If you look at all stories as extended metaphors, then it’s fascinating that our primal selves naturally gravitate towards dealing with our problems that way. We’re hardwired to deal with our reality through extended metaphors. We’re hardwired to tell and absorb stories. It’s how we’ve persevered and it’s why we’re the only storytelling species (dolphin bards notwithstanding).

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  9. annaponscarrera says:

    Thank you for this very interesting post.
    Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness between sleep and awake, a place from where we can experience something similar to dreaming while awake. This could be a very interesting resource for writers who want to explore their imagination from their subconscious mind and make a conscious creation from it. Please find more about hypnosis and hypnotherapy on:

  10. […] Carl Jung on the structure of dreams ( […]

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