Why Our Characters Can’t Sleep

Photobucket image by JSmoothie

What can’t our characters sleep?

No. They don’t have insomnia.

If our characters slumber, we run the risk of putting our readers to sleep.

Our job as writers is to keep our characters—and our readers—awake.

When I wrote my yawner of a first story, I made more newbie mistakes than I care to admit. For starters, the monstrosity meandered. I’d written 150,000 words guaranteed to bore the living daylights out of anyone brave enough to read my so-called masterpiece.

A scene early in the manuscript ended with my heroine sliding under the covers, sighing with contentment about how well things were going in her life, and drifting off to sleep.

What’s wrong with that picture?

By ignoring the glaring issue known as a total lack of tension and focusing on the scene at hand, another problem becomes apparent. There was no reason for the reader to turn another page.

If the story was so lackluster that it put my character to sleep, how could I expect a reader to stick with it? I needed a more compelling read-on-prompt, or ROP.

Am I saying a character can never sleep? No. But the POV character better not nod off at the end of a scene unless there’s a very good reason.

Here are six possible scenarios for allowing a character to sleep in a scene.

  • When she is about to be rudely awakened.
  • When she isn’t the POV character in that scene.
  • When he is ill or wounded and fighting for his life.
  • When the reader knows what danger awaits the blissfully unaware character.
  • When another POV character watches her sleep and reflects on their relationship.
  • In the middle of a scene when narration is used to show the passage of time.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I’ve read books in which a main character sleeps, but when I encounter a scene that ends with her falling asleep in a state of contentment as my heroine did, I’m prone to stop reading at that point. Since I do much of my reading at night, the author has to fight my desire to answer the call of the pillow. If the character sleeps, in all likelihood, I will, too.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I wanna know . . .

Can you think of other times when it would work for a character to sleep?

Do you tend to stop reading when a character is catching Z’s?

How do you handle sleeping scenes in your stories?

About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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19 Responses to Why Our Characters Can’t Sleep

  1. Sherrinda says:

    Interesting! I can think of 3 scenes where my heroine goes to sleep. One scene the hero is watching her. In another, they are bedding down in the castle, crowded with snoring knights. She is disguised as a boy and has to sleep next to the hero. (to add to the tension, he knows she is a woman by then…hee, hee) In the third scene, they have just been forced into marriage and he is on the floor by the fire and she is in bed, thinking of how she had been forced into the very thing she had been running from. I may have to rethink these scenes and make sure they don’t “sleep” in the reader’s mind.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Sherrinda, it sounds to me like you have scenes in which sleep is used purposefully to create tension. That’s the way to do sleep right, imo. The only caution I would have is to end the third scene you described before she actually falls asleep. In fact, her anxious thoughts (and the noises of him breathing/softly snoring) could make her wonder how she’ll be able to get any sleep. Just an idea. =)

  2. territiffany says:

    I was guilty of this a few times in my current WIP until I read a book saying that exact thing! So I broke the scene up and ended it more at a page turner moment. Thank you for sharing some of your editing needs. It helps!

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Terri, I got this tip from something I read several years back. I’ve learned so much from generous authors who share the wealth of their knowledge. Sounds like you did a good job of dealing with the sleepy scene during your edits.

  3. christicorbett says:

    This is a problem I face all the time in my WIP. Since it takes place along the Oregon Trail, a big part of the story involves their traveling details, which includes sleeping. It gets hard a few months into the story to keep things fresh 🙂

    Great post and your tips at the bottom give me a lot to think about during my last round of revisions.

    Christi Corbett

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Christi, sleeping in such a setting would be fraught with danger. That’s why the travelers took turns keeping watch. I’m guessing your POV character isn’t the one sleeping and that he doesn’t fall asleep in a blissful state of contentment. I foresee nights of interrupted slumber for those who do sleep, which would make for great tension.

      I’m looking forward to reading your book one day. I love historicals.

  4. Good question. My characters endure three days of extreme stress. At the end of each nighttime scene, each character fights off terrible thoughts and anxieties. finally the last line is so-and-so slept. Immediately the next scene, probably the start of the next day, begins with high tension. It’s almost as though those moments of sleep are necessary to give the reader a chance to heave a sigh before the next barrage of trouble hits. There are less tense moments, but those are mostly scenes with the victim, which comforts the reader to know that the child victim is not as bad off as the stressed family members imagine.

    I can see how tucking the main character into bed at the end of the chapter would subliminally suggest to the reader to close the book and sleep, too. Ha! Thank you for sharing. I am taking time to question everything in the pages of my manuscript. Blessings to you…

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Carol Ann, having your characters under extreme stress sounds intriguing. That’s the way to create a page-turner.

      I’m wondering if you could hint at the upcoming trouble at the end of the scene you mentioned when the character falls asleep after three grueling days, something along the lines of “Awesome Heroine drifted off the moment her head hit the pillow, only to be awakened all too soon by . . .” The next scene could pick up with the action. Just a thought. =)

  5. After reading Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction and a post by Tess Gerritsen I am careful about; first how I end a chapter, and second how I handle dreams or sleep sequences.

    Both Maass and Gerritsen warn to never, never end a chapter with a person going to bed. Then your reader will go to bed and might not pick you up in the morning. To keep a reader turning to the next chapter, put their sleeping, dreaming and other slumber relative activities (if the story needs them) in the middle of a chapter.

    Let one day end and another begin half-way to the end of the chapter, so the end carries them to the last half of the action and keeps them engaged. It is a very commonly known method in mystery writing and since I began with mysteries, I read a great deal about this. However, it works in every genre.

    You not only hint of trouble, you actually put them in trouble at the end. Once the reader cares about your character, they will want to know how they resolved the problem and go to the next chapter. Also, you can use the pivitol moment in a conversation … someone drops a bomb … end the chapter.

    While Maass and many other writing experts don’t suggest you begin a book with dialogue, starting new chapters with a person talking is often fun.

    Or using it at the end of a chapter … “What do you mean you slept with Tom?”

    Don’t you want to know her answer?

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Great advice, Florence! It’s so important to leave things hanging at the end of a chapter so the reader convinces herself she has time for “just one more.”

  6. Mary says:

    Hmmm. I am going to make a point of noticing how authors handle sleeping scenes from now on. I have to admit it’s not something I’ve given a great deal of thought to myself. Usually if I talk about sleep in a story, it’s either referred to because the character has just woken up or the character has insomnia. I don’t usually just let them sleep.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Mary, the reason this topic came to mind is that I came across a scene in a published book recently in which the heroine falls asleep at the end. I was surprised to see it. And yes, I did put the book down for the day at that point and get some sleep myself. I enjoyed the story. It’s just that I found that chapter ending a convenient place to take a break.

  7. Hmmm. My main character is in the middle of a nighmare and is awoken by loud banging on her door. She faints and other characters argue around her in another scene. I’m afraid I might have her fall into a peaceful sleep after an intense scene. Yikes. Might have to check that out.

    Great thoughts, Keli!

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Nightmares, loud banging, and fainting? You’ve got my attention, Heather. It sounds like your story has plenty of action. I’m already wondering why she had the nightmare, what it was about, who’s at the door, what the person wants, and what caused your heroine to faint. Nice job!

  8. Susan Mason says:

    Thanks for the tips, Keli et al!

    I’ll have to go back and check my work. One time I know of the heroine is very ill and keeps coming in and out of wakefulness/sleep. Sometimes it’s in her POV but mostly in the hero’s POV. And that’s when he realizes he’s in love with her. So I think it works in that situation.

    But yes, a contented sleep would definitely encourage me to sleep as well!



    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Sue, the scene with your hero watching over the very ill heroine and discovering he’s in love with her sounds dreamy–in a good, sigh-worthy way. Nice!

  9. Martina Bedregal Calderón says:

    I let my characters sleep, but then I don´t write a detailled text about their slumber, I only use phrases like “and they drifted off into sleep” or “and the night spread its silent wings and carried them to the halls of dreams…”, and then in the next part it’s a new day…..lol.

    I have written one story (partially translated from German to English now) where my characters don`t fall asleep but get their rest drifting into the Other World (irish: Sidhe) when they most need it. The story is mainly settled in Ireland and Scotland, and in the Other World.

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