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When and How to Write a Character Waking Up

creative writing for waking up

Writing about a character waking up can be a challenge, especially since waking up is something we do in a semiconscious state. It can be tough to pinpoint exactly how it feels, and that makes it difficult to write convincingly. In addition to that, writers seem split on when to start a scene with a character waking up, and whether you should do it at all. 

Is It Bad To Start a Scene with a Character Waking Up?

If you’ve ever been in a creative writing or fiction class, then you’ve definitely been told that it is a bad idea to start a story or scene with your main character waking up. Most experienced writers and instructors strongly advise against it. But why? Is it always a bad idea?

And really, the answer is no; you can pull off a good waking up scene that draws readers into the story. By writing a character waking up in a specific way, you can set the tone for the rest of the scene and offer a unique glimpse into the character’s personality.

However, people tend to discourage starting a scene like this, not because it is inherently bad, but because it is a tactic often used lazily. Many beginner writers rely on this technique as an easy way to transition between scenes. If the transition is abrupt, glossed over, or otherwise disregarded by the writer, then it definitely won’t be taken seriously by the reader.

If you’re considering starting a scene, or your entire story, with your main character waking up, take a moment to consider why you want to write it like that. Do you have a good reason to? Is there another way you could start it? If you don’t have a good reason for writing it like that, you probably shouldn’t do it.

When to Write a Character Waking Up

If you’re going to show a character waking up, make sure there’s a good reason for it. If you just don’t know how else to start a story, and you have your character wake up and start making coffee, chances are your readers are going to get bored. 

If you want to keep your readers interested, focus on the implications of waking up. If your character is awake, then they have to do something. What is it they have to do? Are they looking forward to it, or dreading it? Do they struggle to get up, because they are injured, hungover, or groggy? Give the readers something to think about. Instead of just telling them the character is waking up, let them wonder why the character reacts a certain way when they do get up. 

The act of waking up is not inherently interesting, so it is your job to present it in an interesting way. Use it as a way of emphasizing something, like your character’s memories, fears, habits, and plans. Make waking up a point to focus on, instead of just a lazy transition. And, however tempting it may be, do not overuse this technique. If every scene starts with the character waking up, it’s going to feel mundane. 

If your character suffers from insomnia, then you may find yourself writing many scenes with them waking up, often still tired. If you want some guidance for writing about that specifically, I have another article that could help you out: Losing Sleep Over How to Write a Character with Insomnia?

How to Describe Waking Up

Waking up is a fundamental part of being human; we all do it. The next time you wake up in the morning or from a nap, try to focus on how it feels. Don’t reach for your phone or the lights, and instead think about what it feels like to come back to reality. Were you dreaming? Did you wake up slowly or abruptly? Did you set an alarm? How soon after waking up did you get out of bed? If you focus on how it really feels to do something in your life, you’ll be able to write about it more convincingly. 

With that said, obviously not everyone wakes up the same way. And of course, waking up in the middle of the night with a hangover is going to feel different from sleeping in late on a weekend. Writing about different situations is going to require different strategies.

(As a side note, if you want to write about drunk or hungover characters, I recommend taking a peek at my other article: How to Write a Drunk Character. )

How to Describe Someone Waking Up in the Morning

creative writing for waking up

Waking up in the morning is generally pretty mundane, but there are ways to make it interesting. 

If the character wakes up naturally, then try to draw the scene out so it progresses in a slow and sleepy manner. Introduce details one at a time and try to show the process of things coming into focus. In general, try to avoid actually writing the phrase “things came into focus,” since you can show your readers how that feels instead of telling them that it’s happening.

Overload the scene with descriptive language and details. Bring the scene to life as much as possible, and really set the stage for the rest of the story. Describe what the character hears when they wake up, to clue the readers in to where the character lives. Do they hear birds or busy city streets? Do they hear nothing at all? What about how they feel? Is it cold? Bright?

Don’t just let readers know that the character is awake, let them experience what the character feels as they are waking up. In addition to the physical details, include little hints about the character’s personality based on how they feel about waking up. Instead of just mentioning the sounds of the city, you could describe it with negative language, to suggest that the character hates living in the city. Or, focus on the serene calmness of the sounds of nature and the coziness of the bed, to create a comfortable feeling right off the bat.

Alternatively, if the character wakes up to an alarm, they are probably going to wake up abruptly, and with less time to absorb their surroundings. Alarm clocks represent structure and routine, and your readers will immediately associate the character with being more systematic and less carefree. You should still set the scene with some descriptions to orient your audience, but in general, you should strive to cut back on the flowery language. The character needed to wake up to do something, so they can’t waste time listening to birds. 

How to Describe Someone Waking Up from a Nightmare

Like with an alarm clock, a person waking up from a nightmare is going to wake up rather suddenly. They probably won’t be paying attention to the details of the room, and instead, are going to be disoriented and frantic. A nightmare triggers the body’s fight-or-flight reflex, so the character’s heart will be beating fast, and they will be alert and ready to act to defend themself from whatever they were dreaming about.

After waking up, the character will need to calm down before they can get on with the story. This is a great opportunity to explore the impact of the nightmare and the sentiment of the character. Are bad dreams commonplace, or is the character unused to waking up like this? Is the nightmare an echo of a bad memory, or the result of some supernatural influence? 

Have the character think about the details of the dream after the fact, but do not explain the entire dream for the readers. Give little hints about what it could mean to give readers something to think about. If the dream is foreshadowing a future event or an ongoing struggle, don’t give everything away right from the beginning!

Your character may have a difficult time coming back to reality after a nightmare. When this happens, they could experience sleep paralysis upon waking up. This is when a person is unable to speak or move for several minutes after waking up, and may hallucinate seeing or feeling an evil presence like a demon, a figure from their past, or something they fear. You could use this as a tactic to extend the nightmare into the character’s waking life, to emphasize the impact the nightmares have on them.

If you want to read more about how to incorporate dreams and nightmares into your story, check out my article: Writing About Dreams and Nightmares .

How to Describe Someone Waking Up from Being Unconscious

creative writing for waking up

If your character “fell asleep” as a result of getting knocked on the head then they aren’t going to wake up the same way as they would any other time. The first thing they’re going to notice as they wake up is how bad their head hurts. A person has to be hit really hard to lose consciousness, so your character is in for a pretty bad headache when they come to, and they’re going to notice the pain before they can register any other sensation. Make sure that is the first thing you mention unless the character is woken up forcefully by another character, a loud sound, or something else. 

Once the character has had time to overcome the pain, they’re probably going to be pretty disoriented. Show the character trying to work through exactly what happened before they fell unconscious, and have them try to sort through what they know and don’t know. Was it a bad fall? A fight? How much do they even remember? Help the readers along by having the character search for context, like what time it is, where they are, and how they managed to get hurt. 

Keep in mind that a character who is struck in the head hard enough to knock them out will endure a concussion. The article How to Write About Brain Damage (Accurately!) can walk you through the specifics of including that detail in your story.

How to Describe Someone Waking Up in an Unfamiliar Place

The perfect time to execute a scene that begins with the character waking up is with a kidnapping. Your character will be just as confused as the readers, and you can use that as your hook to keep readers engaged. 

If your character wakes up in an unfamiliar place, chances are, the first thing they’re going to do is start to panic. They may start to wake up groggily, but as soon as they realize they may be in danger, adrenaline is going to kick in and they’ll be fully awake in less than a second. 

They’re going to look around at everything to try to figure out where they are, so make sure you describe the scene in as much detail as possible. However, avoid the flowery language. If your character is terrified, they’re going to look at things and not really think about them much, so describe things quickly and visually—and move on. 

In this case, waking up isn’t the focus. Have the character realize the situation quickly, so they can progress the story. If they can’t move because they’re tied up, then they might start trying to think of how they got there, and who could be behind it. But in general, the character isn’t going to waste a whole lot of time before they start trying to do something to get out of the situation.

Some Parting Thoughts

No one should be able to tell you what you definitively should or should not write. There isn’t a wrong way to tell a story. If you think starting a scene with a character waking up is the best way to do that, then don’t let anyone stop you. It’s your story after all, and if you write it with care and passion, it’s going to be interesting.

If someone tells you not to write something, don’t take that advice at face value. Try to think about why they’re giving you that advice, and why they think it would help you. It’s not that starting a scene with a character waking up is bad, it’s just that most people don’t do it well. When people tell you not to do it, they’re actually telling you not to use cheap tricks to avoid writing difficult transitions. If you know how to handle a character waking up, then there’s no reason to shy away from putting it in your story.

creative writing for waking up

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waking up suddenly - quotes and descriptions to inspire creative writing

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Waking up suddenly can be as a great epiphany, a eureka moment, when the friendly ghosts of the soul have set you upon a new path.
I wake up suddenly, not because of any noise or interruption, yet because my dream had come to its conclusion. The night movie had ended, credits had rolled. Now it was time to engage in the real world once more.
From the land of dreams to the land that needs them. From asleep to awake in one heartbeat.
I dreamed of a friendly poltergeist. We were in the attic, sorting out old clothes and shoes for charity. She zoomed to a large pile and aparently was making a mess instead of doing what I'd asked her to do. I laughed and explained to another person who was there, that this was just her being her, the ghost was actually trying to help. The ghost returned. She had been on her own mission of course. She had found a pretty dress, green with sparkles. Then I was awake and feeling happy. Even at the deepest level I was a well intentioned distracted person on a mission to help others, even if they didn't quite see the method in the chaos. That's a good thing to be. I'm a good person.
I wake suddenly, every thought in high definition. My eyes take in every ray of light and without a doubt I know I've slept too long. The noises are of a day in full swing, traffic heavy. I'm dressed and fed in a fraction of the time it usually takes and leave without thought of taking a woollen hat or gloves.
Though my eyes are open I can't think of why; my heart is pounding, mind empty. It's as if a hypodermic of adrenaline has been emptied into my carotid. I strain into the utter darkness, breathing rate beginning to steady.
My eyes open like two flashlight beams, the new temporal inserts providing enough light to illuminate whatever I look at. It's like being shown the woods one tree at a time in some crazy memory game, but it's better than blackness.
I wake up as if my "on" button has been pushed, as if new electricity is circulating in parts it didn't before.

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Creative Writing: Waking Up

creative writing for waking up

Show More Sleeping peacefully in her bed, Laura was cradling a pillow to her chest. The sun was beaming through her blinds causing the woman to stir. Usually, waking up was a simple task for Laura; she was a morning person after all. She groaned when the first beam of sunlight hit her face. Picking up her alarm clock on her nightstand, Laura looked at the time. “Ugh, why is it so early?” She placed her clock back on the surface and slowly began to sit up. She put her hand to her head which was throbbing. “Nothing a little Excedrin can’t handle.” Crawling out of her warm bed, she walked to her bathroom and took out two pills to take, pouring tap water into her rinse cup. Once she took her medicine, she jumped into a warm shower, washing away any residue …show more content… I want you to find a woman who will treat you how you deserve to be treated. Find a girl who is worth your time.” “I will, just now isn’t the right time.” “You’ll know when you’re ready. Anyway, I just wanted to see how you are. I have to get to work. Laura, please keep in touch.” “I will dad, I love you.” “I love you too. Talk to you later.” Laura hung up her phone and took a sip of her coffee. “Dad not happy about the split, huh?” Laura jumped in her seat. “Shit…you nearly gave me a heart attack.” Carmilla laughed as Laura calmed down. “Did I wake you?” “No. Mr. Henderson next door was doing his daily ‘I’m going to watch television at full volume’ thing.” Laura laughed, “That’s pretty annoying. I’m sorry.” “It’s okay. There is nothing worse than waking up to Alisyn Camerota’s voice. That man blasts CNN more than Fox News does.” Laura snorted, causing Carmilla to smile. Laura took another sip of her coffee before responding, “Anyway, my dad is perfectly fine with it. He knows I’m happy and I’ll find someone worth my time.” “That’s good. You deserve better than that.” Laura nodded in agreement while drinking her coffee. “So, since I’m up…wanna get some breakfast? There’s a good diner not far from …show more content… She never would have guessed that Carmilla was a lawyer. Once they got to the diner, they talked over coffee and pancakes. Laura learned that Carmilla was 27 years old, her parents own Karnstein Inc., a very big company that owns various companies, she lived in the Upper East Side before going to boarding school, and that she only smokes when she’s stressed. What is also learned is that Carmilla is a middle child. Her older sister Mattie was adopted 3 years before she was born and her younger brother William was 4 years younger. Carmilla learned that Laura was 26 years old, her mother had passed away when she was 8 years old, her father, Sherman Hollis, is a lieutenant in the NYPD, she lived in Dyker Heights when she was growing up, and that she was an only child. She also mentioned that her mother was a writer for the New York Times before she died, so Laura originally wanted to major in that before ultimately deciding her heart wasn’t in it. When they finished eating, they quietly walked back to their apartment building. When they got to their floor, Carmilla stopped in front of Laura’s door. “Thanks for breakfast, creampuff.” “No problem. Thanks for inviting

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Waking up in the first person narrative (1 Viewer)

  • Thread starter DavidR
  • Start date Nov 2, 2012
  • Nov 2, 2012

Hello, my name is David. I came across an idea for a story that stumped me, and it has lead me here. I'm trying to begin a first person narrative with my protagonist groggily waking up in an unfamiliar location. Now I understand to place myself into the character's POV and describe the story through their thoughts and feelings. Yet this is an unique case where they aren't fully conscious and I'm wondering how I can show that in a first person narrative meant to be told in the present tense. I don't want to briefly assume a third person narrative to describe their surroundings, I want both them, the protagonist AND reader to be groggy and unaware as they slowly come to visualize their situation. Such that the reader feels "they" just groggily woke up in an unfamiliar location. Thank you,  


I guess you'll have to use your imagination. I've awakened a number of times groggily and in an unknown location. It's just like any other time when you wake up, only it takes longer and at some point you say, holy cow, where am I? Then you have to figure out how you got there and where you parked your car. If there's someone next to you, that can sometimes be a help -- but not if you can't remember her name. And it's a good idea to check your wallet and see if you have any money left.  

Terry D

​Here's a small sample of how I might try to do what you describe. I awake with a dull pain underlying the numbness in my right arm, and am enveloped by the stench of rotting leaves. Even before I open my eyes I know I'm not at home. The air is heavy and damp, pressing against my skin like a clammy shroud. Where am I? When I do decide to open my eyes my vision is sleep-blurred and untrustworthy. All I see are moving shapes of light and dark, of color and shadow--an indistinct, alien, jig-saw puzzle. I try to rub away the sleep fogging my vision with the fingers of my left hand (the right still feels dead and will not obey my directions), and while I do, one of the jig-saw shadows speaks.  


JosephB said: I guess you'll have to use your imagination. I've awakened a number of times groggily and in an unknown location.....And it's a good idea to check your wallet and see if you have any money left. Click to expand...


Just a thought. If you want to emphasis the groggyness of the MC, why not have him slur his thoughts. I'm thinking of the way writers write the dialogue of drunks.  

Jon M

Just whatever you do, try not to make it read like a play-by-play. Experiment with surreal imagery, and story structure. "My mouth tastes like the underside of someone's boot. Somehow, between last night at the bar with -- what was her name? -- and this moment now, it appears I've stumbled into a world of giant, singing men. This man beside me, who I know only by the rolling, thundering sound of his voice, has no head, or if he has a head it is fuzzy and lost in the clouds. He keeps talking, on and on and on keeps talking, and his voice has this weird way of lifting into a crescendo before every pause. I don't know. My head hurts."  


You have to put yourself into the point of view of the character. Consider what his senses (the five senses, plus there is one more: sense of the unknown) are telling him and write ONLY that. You are on the right track with not wanting the reader to know more than the character does, it'll help make them curious which is good! I'll mention one more thing after I write you a short example text so stay tuned! Here's how I might write this groggy awakening. I'm going to imagine a random location so this won't even resemble what you'll write other than the tense and structure. Here we go, first person, present tense. There is the smell of rubbing alcohol, sharp and distinct. My eyelids feel weighted shut, light glowing through them in a reddish-yellow assurance that at least I haven't been dumped in a dark alley. My brain is awake now, with a primal surge of adrenaline that should carry me up to standing but cold, heavy limbs disobey. A background noise, a soft intermittenet electronic chirp, comes to the forefront now as it gathers speed, the chirps closer together. The shuffle of footsteps bring warm fingers that press my arm lightly. "Ah, you're awake." A pleasant voice. I'm grateful until I smell a rush of alcohol and feel it wet my inner arm. It must be a needle that bites deep as the soothing voice speaks again. "We'll soon take care of that." Now for the additional note: The "Waking up in a strange place" approach is done a lot but still can be very effective. Put yourself in the character's place. Edit your wording down so that it is economical, that will help to convey some of the anxiety that you want. Good luck!  

I'm not sure that some of these examples would portray groggy to me. Some of them are written in such precise language about clearly observed stimuli that I am getting the idea that the person has decided to lie down for a moment with his eyes closed. David it might be worth editing your post and emphasising the word groggy.  

Okay, if I screwed that up write it more groggily. *sigh* Maybe fragment the thoughts (sentences) but don't do it so much that it's annoying. *wonders why I do this*  

Foxee You do this because you are a kind soul who wants to help others. There aren't enough kind souls who give carefully considered comments on this site. Foxee I loved what you wrote. It was detailed, descriptive and flowed. If this came off the top of your head please never, ever tell me, cos if you do I will set fire to my computer and never write another word.  


I once started a story with the protagonist waking up hungover and in a Russian prison. His first impressions came from the various sources of pain and worked down the list. A pounding headache, then a creaking dry mouth, then a tight sore belly, and so on. (Not that I have much experience with hangovers.) Only after he had taken stock of his internal state did he open his eyes. Darkness. He couldn't be sure of what he was looking at. He had to verify his surroundings by touch--a scratchy blanket, a stone wall, a steel door. He heard faint voices ... Use your imagination. That's what writers do. Put yourself in the character's place and try to think the way he would in that situation. Then put it all into words that will communicate that state of mind to the reader. Writing is simple and diabolically complex all at the same time.  

dolphinlee said: Foxee You do this because you are a kind soul who wants to help others. There aren't enough kind souls who give carefully considered comments on this site. Foxee I loved what you wrote. It was detailed, descriptive and flowed. If this came off the top of your head please never, ever tell me, cos if you do I will set fire to my computer and never write another word. Click to expand...

Fir start d b for I r ad th full ost. Monitor is OK but the k yboard is missing som im ortant k ys.  

Staff Deployment

Staff Deployment

If you're writing with pen and paper, use a leaky pen. Then when you're done, just smear ink everywhere now everything's all groggy and incomprehensible  


  • Nov 3, 2012

My advice is don't start with a person awakening. It's not quite as bad as somebody waking with a hangover/amnesia or even worse, a dream sequence (wince). Never, in your first paragraph, mention the phrases 'vortex of despair' or 'blurred outline of...' Start with the MC an hour after he awoke and refer back to it. # The waitress brought the coffee. It was hot and that was all that mattered. I emptied my pockets on to the formica table top. My keys were gone. I already knew it wasn't my lucky day. I knew it an hour ago when I'd been woken by a rat washing it's face on my chest...  


DavidR said: Hello, my name is David. I came across an idea for a story that stumped me, and it has lead me here. I'm trying to begin a first person narrative with my protagonist groggily waking up in an unfamiliar location. Now I understand to place myself into the character's POV and describe the story through their thoughts and feelings. Yet this is an unique case where they aren't fully conscious and I'm wondering how I can show that in a first person narrative meant to be told in the present tense. I don't want to briefly assume a third person narrative to describe their surroundings, I want both them, the protagonist AND reader to be groggy and unaware as they slowly come to visualize their situation. Such that the reader feels "they" just groggily woke up in an unfamiliar location. Thank you, Click to expand...


Read Lord Loss, first of Darren Shan's Demonata series (if you already have, read it again). After the first 'act' of the story, there's a section where the mind of the character is pretty messed up. He experiences things in a hazy, groggy fashion. It's written in first person, present tense. I think it's just the kind of storytelling you're looking for, that section of the story.  


The best way to approach this is write it out, post 9 more times on the forum so you get posting privileges, and then post your excerpt for hands-on feedback. If you google Motley Press Extraordinary Rains, you find a story where I did this in third person. On the off chance that your main character is waking up after a knock-out drug, throwing up is likely to be high on the list of first things he or she does.  

Honoured/Sadly Missed

qwertyman said: My advice is don't start with a person awakening. It's not quite as bad as somebody waking with a hangover/amnesia or even worse, a dream sequence (wince). Never, in your first paragraph, mention the phrases 'vortex of despair' or 'blurred outline of...' Start with the MC an hour after he awoke and refer back to it. # The waitress brought the coffee. It was hot and that was all that mattered. I emptied my pockets on to the formica table top. My keys were gone. I already knew it wasn't my lucky day. I knew it an hour ago when I'd been woken by a rat washing it's face on my chest... Click to expand...

I like cliches. If we avoided cliches all the time, they'd stop being cliches and we'd have other, new cliches to worry about. Don't worry about them. Write the story how you want to write it - then you're telling the truth. Worry about making it likeable once its all written, and all how you want it to be.  

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How to Describe Waking Up From a Nightmare in a Story

By Rebecca Parpworth-Reynolds

how to describe waking up from a nightmare in a story

Are you writing a thriller in which a character is haunted by a reoccurring nightmare? Would some descriptive words help you with your writing? Check out this post on how to describe waking up from a nightmare in a story!

Worried and nervous.

“He awoke to the anxious thudding of his heart and cold sweat upon his brow.”

“The nightmare had left him anxious and unable to sleep. Yet, at the same time, he could not bring himself to get out of bed.”

How it Adds Description

Waking up from a nightmare can often leave someone feeling on edge even after being awake for a little while. They may be very wary and nervous about things in the waking world, so you may wish to describe them as “anxious”.

2. Breathless

  • Unable to breathe easily.
  • Breathing too fast.

“He jolted awake in the middle of the night, feeling suffocated and breathless from the vivid nightmare that had just plagued his sleep.”

“Gasping for air, she woke up breathless from a nightmare that felt all too real.”

Sometimes people can wake up from nightmares gasping for air, either out of sheer panic or from the content of the bad dream. Describing their “breathless” reaction can help to spread this panic to your reader so that they understand just how scary the nightmare was for your character.

3. Disoriented

Confused and not knowing what to do or where to go.

“As she woke up disoriented from the nightmare, it took her a moment to realize that she was in her own bed, safe from the terrifying creatures of her dreams.”

“Drenched in sweat and with a racing heart, he woke up disoriented from the nightmare, unsure of where he was or what was real.”

When someone wakes up from a nightmare, they can often feel “disoriented” and confused, as their brain struggles to make sense of the sudden shift from the dream world to reality. The intense emotions and sensations experienced during a nightmare can make it difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is not, not only confounding your character but your reader, too!

4. Distressed

Upset or worried.

“Tears streaming down her face, she woke up distressed from a nightmare that had stirred up painful memories and emotions she thought she had buried long ago.”

“He woke up distressed and shaking, the vivid nightmare leaving him with an overwhelming sense of dread and an urgent need to escape the darkness that had enveloped him in his sleep.”

When someone wakes up “distressed” from a nightmare, they are usually experiencing incredibly strong emotions brought on by the bad dream. These emotions can be so intense that they may continue to linger long after the person has woken up, helping you to display the lasting impact of the nightmare to your reader.

5. Emotional

Having strong feelings .

“Overwhelmed, she woke up emotional from the nightmare, struggling to calm her racing heart and ease the knot in her stomach that refused to go away.”

“He woke up emotional from the nightmare as he tried to come to terms with the intense feelings of grief and loss that had left him reeling.”

“Nightmares can be emotionally intense experiences that can leave a person feeling overwhelmed. When someone wakes up “emotional” from a nightmare, this may be because it has tapped into fears and worries that the person has tried to suppress from their waking life. As a result, the emotions your character feels when they wake up can help give your reader an insight into their innermost thoughts and feelings.

  • Out of control thanks to extreme emotion.
  • Extremely upset.
  • Hurried due to anxiety or worry.

“Waking from the nightmare, she frantically threw back the covers to try to escape the monsters haunting her dreams.”

“She woke up frantic due to the nightmare, her heart and her thoughts racing as she struggled to differentiate between the nightmare and reality.”

Nightmares can be very distressing, and when someone wakes up from a particularly vivid or terrifying nightmare, they may experience a sense of panic or urgency that is difficult to shake off. This can lead to them feeling out of control, or lead to hurried movements and bodily sensations such as their heart beating or rapidly sitting up in bed. If this indicates how the character in your story wakes up, try describing them as “frantic”.

7. Panicked

Experiencing a sudden feeling of fear that makes it hard to compose oneself and think and act rationally.

“She woke up panicked from the nightmare, her body trembling with fear as she clung to her blankets.”

“He woke up with a panicked yelp from the nightmare, which many of the other boys relentlessly teased him about at breakfast the next morning.”

Sometimes nightmares make us lose our composure, meaning that we react in unexpected ways when we wake up from them out of sheer fear. This “panicked” response might even catch your reader off-guard!

8. Relieved

Happy that something bad had not happened or that something bad has ended.

“He woke up relieved , the feeling of dread and despair that had consumed him in his sleep fading away as he realized that the worst was over and that he had made it through the night.”

“She flicked her eyes open rapidly, expecting to still be in the hellscape of her nightmare, but was relieved to see the four walls of her bedroom.”

Waking up from a nightmare can sometimes be a pleasant experience, especially when the person realizes it is not real. Create a feeling of safety for them and your reader by describing them as being “relieved” that it is all over.

9. (With a) Start

Moving suddenly when something has surprised or scared someone.

“She awoke with a start , her heart threatening to beat out of her chest.”

“He awoke with such a start from the nightmare that he had to act quickly to stop himself from falling out of the bed.”

Sometimes waking up can trigger sudden movements, such as a gasp, reflexes such as a kick, or even the shock of feeling like you have fallen from a great height onto your bed! If your character wakes up “with a start” then it is clear to your reader that there was something scary in their dream they needed to get away from!

10. Terrified

Very frightened.

“Shrieking in fear, she woke up terrified from the nightmare, her body drenched in sweat.”

“He woke up terrified from the nightmare, his heart racing and his hands trembling as he tried to catch his breath, the memory of the terrifying images still fresh in his mind.”

Rather than just describing someone as scared, “terrified” gives a greater depth of emotion when it comes to waking up from a nightmare. For example, they may be incredibly confident in their daily life, but suddenly they are reduced to a quivering wreck thanks to their bad dreams.

How to describe a character waking up: A Complete Guide

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?  

Table of Contents

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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