Describing a character falling asleep can be frustrating for many writers. How does one go about writing a process that happens so suddenly yet so gradually?

To add fuel to the fire, the act of sleeping is still something that is extremely misunderstood in the research community. Although there are several theories underway, we still don’t know exactly why humans need sleep or what is really going on when we are asleep.

However challenging it is to describe sleep, it can be done. But in order to do so, you must first understand the mechanisms behind falling asleep.

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Understanding how we fall asleep

Studies have shown that sleep is not a smooth, continuous process. Falling asleep is a process that is discontinuous and disordered.  

When you are in the very first stages of “falling asleep”, researchers have found that the brain displays alpha activity. This activity is an indicator of the brain slowly entering a stage of sleepiness whilst still being awake.

During this “alpha activity” stage, an individual slowly dissociates from their environment and starts to tune in to their internal thoughts. Their mind will start to wander off and they will usually unintentionally start to think about self-centered details (such as their life, their friends, etc.).

As you further dose off into a state of sleepiness, you enter what sleep researchers call stage 1.  In this stage, your brain starts to display slower wave patterns that are known as theta-band activity. However, in stage 1, there are still the occasional “brief bursts of alpha activity”.

These short outbursts correspond to the brief moments you suddenly wake up from dosing off and attend to your surroundings. Hence, although in phase 1, you are well on your way to slumber, you still feel as though you are awake.

After a while, you enter stage 2 of sleep which is not punctuated by the traces of alpha activity that are in stage 1. This phase can be considered the “light sleep” phase where you are indeed sleeping but can be easily awoken or startled by exterior stimuli.

In stage 2, your mind is really starting to drift more towards your internal world, but you can still attend to external stimuli. So, you might still be able to hear bits and pieces of a conversation that is going on next to you.

As you advance towards the deeper stages of sleep (stage 3 & REM sleep), you completely stop attending to external stimuli and are now immersed in your internal world.

Once you reach the deepest stages of sleep, you will continue to cycle through all the sleep stages throughout the night.

How to decribe a character falling asleep

Now that you understand the stages of falling asleep, writing a character falling asleep becomes much simpler. Note that the process of falling asleep takes, on average, 15 minutes. Of course, if your character is really tired, falling asleep might happen much faster.

The most important thing to remember when writing about a character falling asleep is to avoid describing sleep as though you were flipping a switch (Ex: one moment your character is fully awake, and the next they’re snoring loudly in the corner). Portraying sleep in this way just isn’t realistic.

If you want to make your readers feel and understand that your character is dosing off, then you want to show, not tell. You want to make your readers feel like they are dosing off with your character.

In order to do this, you should focus on writing stages 1 and  2 of sleep. In the very first instances of falling asleep, your character should enter a calm/serene state of mind.

Their inner dialogue becomes slower and more sluggish, and they might take more breaks in between thought processes. Their body will slowly start to release any tension which will cause their body posture to change.

You can show this physical release of tension in a number of ways. For example, If your character is holding a pen, you might write about them slowly releasing pressure until the pen falls out of their hand.

So, in the very beginning stages, two important things happen, your character’s thoughts will become slower, and their body posture will change to a more relaxed state. However, in this phase, your character is still attending to external stimuli (although they might be processing information at a slower pace).

Then your character will slowly enter phase 1 of sleep. In this stage, your character’s mind will start to drift to their internal world. Research has revealed that when we are slowly falling asleep, we tend to think about self-referential memories.

Hence, your character might start thinking about what they had for lunch, or the gift they gave to their grandmother. You should write these thoughts in a way that seems vague and fuzzy.

In this phase, your character will still occasionally attend to their external environment. So, when they are drifting off into their internal world, they might occasionally listen to their professor’s lecture or suddenly open their eyes to watch a couple of seconds of a TV show.

After some time, your character will enter phase two.  Phase 2 is considered “light sleep”. In this phase, although your character is basically asleep and immersed into their internal world, if an external stimulus is loud or prominent enough, they can be easily startled or woken up.

What happens when your character doesn’t get enough sleep?

Now that you know how to describe a character falling asleep, you might wonder what symptoms occur if your character does not get enough sleep.

Sleep deprivation can cause many symptoms and if your character rarely gets any sleep, they may be diagnosed with insomnia. If you want to know more about writing characters with insomnia, you can check out the following article: How to write characters with insomnia.

The following are the main symptoms caused by sleep deprivation:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiousness
  • Experiencing Microsleeps
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mood changes
  • Headaches
  • Changes in appetite

It is common for people to have difficulty initiating sleep. The reason is that the more you think and obsess over wanting to sleep, the less likely you’ll be successful at it. In fact, obsessing and overthinking about anything will cause you to have difficulty initiating sleep.

Hence, if your character is obsessing too much about sleep, they will most likely end up not sleeping.

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