The process of waking up is a difficult thing to describe. For the most part, it is an unconscious process that your brain undertakes. Hence, when it comes time to describe a character waking up, it can be frustrating to try to write out something that happens so effortlessly.

As a writer, you must wonder what are the “steps” to waking up? Is it something that happens gradually or abruptly? Most importantly, how does one go about describing a character that is waking up in a way that shows and doesn’t tell?  

Is the waking up scene so bad?

First things first when deciding to write a character waking up, you need to know exactly why this is a description that is needed in your story.

It is a common belief in the writing community that “waking up” scenes are to be avoided. You might wonder why exactly these types of scenes are frowned upon. There are many valid reasons as to why this is the case.

Here are a couple of examples of why the “waking up” scene is not very liked:

  • The waking up scenes as an opening may paint your character in a bad light. When a character first gets out of bed, there is not much going on around them. There are no real events that capture the attention of the reader and pushes the story forward. Hence, the only thing the reader can focus on is the ‘personality’ of your character. However, first thing in the morning, there is not much ‘personality’ that can be shown. Your character is sleepy, dazed and probably cranky as well.
  • The waking up scene is seen as filler in most stories. Oftentimes there isn’t much going on in a waking up scene and it doesn’t add any value to your plot.
  • Writing a waking up scene as an opener in your story is mostly a bad idea. In such cases, your character is either going about their daily routine or anticipating an event that will be happening in their day. Yet, your readers are neither familiar with your character or the event that they are anticipating. It is difficult to have your readers care about a character’s morning routine, especially one they have not properly been introduced to.

So, considering all of the reasons not to write a waking up scene, should you still include it in your story? Well, yes and no.

You should include it in your story if your scene meets the following criteria:

  • Your scene is compelling in some way to your readers.
  • There is some type of conflict happening either during the waking up scene (ex: waking up after having been kidnapped), right before the scene (ex: your character got hit on the head and fell unconscious) or right after.
  • Most importantly, there is a clear purpose to your waking up scene. It is not just a filler scene to get to your ideal word count.

If your scene does not meet these criteria, then you should maybe reconsider writing it.

The science behind waking up

In order to understand how to describe waking up in your writing, you need to understand the science behind waking up.

The most important brain system in charge of the process of waking up is the reticular activating system (RAS for short). This system is involved in helping filter the information that reaches your brain.

Hence, it can dampen certain signals, if they are deemed invaluable but it can also strengthen signals that are deemed more urgent. For example, when you are asleep and your body’s RAS receives the signal that something is tickling your foot, it will send the signals necessary to wake up certain parts of your brain.

Many other external stimuli (ex: an alarm) may result in your RAS waking you up from slumber. However, although your RAS can abruptly wake you, it does take time before the entirety of your brain is awake.

As you probably already know, during sleep, you go through several cycles or stages. The main stages you go through include stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, stage 4 & REM sleep. Stage 1 and 2 are considered “light sleep” whilst the other 3 stages are “deep sleep”.

If you’re woken up during a deep sleep stage, your brain will take longer to wake up and you will feel more groggy/tired in the morning.

If you’re woken up from a light sleep stage, you might feel energized in the morning.

This difference is present mainly because it takes your RAS less time and effort to wake you from light sleep than it does from deep sleep.

How to describe a character waking up

Actually getting into the nitty-gritty of writing any scene can be daunting. However, describing a character waking up doesn’t have to be intimidating.

From what you now understand of the science behind waking up, you know that the RAS is what switches the flip of the brain and causes you to wake up.

This waking up process happens quite gradually because it takes time for your RAS to wake up all the parts of your brain.

Hence, when describing a character waking up, you want to take the time to describe the process of going from a groggy state to one where your character is fully awake.

You can do this by describing your character’s initial slowness in their movement and thought processes. You might also want to describe the room your character is in in a vague way. As your character becomes more awake and aware of their surroundings, your descriptions can start to become clearer and more specific. You want to slowly build an image of your character’s surroundings in your reader’s mind and make the scene come alive.

Other than the description of the room your character wakes up in, you also want to focus on how they feel during this scene. Did they wake up refreshed and ready to start the day? Did they wake up with a feeling of dread or perhaps they woke up hungover and with a horrible headache.

Basically, you want your readers to feel what your character feels as they are waking up.

Of course, you will need to adjust your descriptions depending on the situation you are dealing with. For example, a character waking up and realizing they are late for work will be much quicker to jump out of bed than one that is waking up on a weekend.

Another good tip for writing a waking-up scene is to demonstrate aspects of your character’s personality or lifestyle in your descriptions. For example, if your character lives in a busy city, you might want to describe the noise from the traffic or the loud neighbors upstairs. You can also showcase whether or not your character hates or loves living in the city through their reactions and inner dialogue.

In terms of describing dreams in your writing, you must remember that there are different stages of sleep (stage 1 to REM sleep), and depending on which stage your character wakes up from, their experience will be different.

If your character wakes up whilst they were in a lighter sleep stage (say stage 1 or stage 2), they will have an easier time getting out of bed and will feel more refreshed. They might also not remember their dreams very well.

However, if your character wakes up from a deeper sleep stage (stage 3, 4, or REM), they will feel more groggy and tired in the morning. This is because it takes more time and effort for your brain to wake up when you are in a deeper sleep stage.

If your character is woken up from REM sleep, they might be able to better remember their dreams.

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