I’ve been having insomnia again. I don’t know if it’s an integral part of a creative life, or the consequence of too much stress, but I know that this is a problem shared by many writers.
With me, it’s not just a matter of not being able to sleep, it’s a matter of not being able to direct my mind away from specific worries, whether immediate or distant, specific or abstract. Those thoughts become loops, spinning around the same problem, without resolution.
One night recently, I got sick of worrying about the state of the world, and managed to refocus the thought loop onto analyzing the problem of insomnia itself. Why wasn’t I sleeping? What was I thinking about? What was it that kept my mind churning when it needed to rest? Were they things beyond or within my control? Were they all the same? Were they about the past? The present? The future?
Then, of course, I did what writers who are stuck in a manuscript that has flat and bare spots do with everything—I turned it into a question about my story problems.
I asked myself what would keep my characters awake at night? What would their 3 am thought loops be? That line of questioning proved to be a novel and fruitful strategy for resolving the flat and bare spots in my story.
For me, the insomnia-fueled thought loops start with a focus on specific problems for which there is no clear or immediate solution (leaking pipes; tensions with the teenager; job insecurity). Those specific problems tend to fall into a few, emotionally resonant categories: things I wish I had or hadn’t done or things I wish weren’t happening in the larger world or in my small portion of it. There is obviously regret involved in these thought loops. There is also frustration, a feeling of helplessness in my own lack of action on or ability to influence problems.
The insomniac in me, however, turns those problems into small kernels at the center of spiraling worry loops which progressively churn in memories of related past traumas or fears of future catastrophes. This incorporation of traumatic backstory and future fears encapsulates a current (and initially soluble) difficulty in layers and layers of insoluble worry.
That layering of thought was also a gold mine of understanding who I was–not just in the moment, but in my past, and in the future. The layers of worry laid bare the things from my past that still bothered me; unwanted behaviors that I still had not purged; events that I had still not accepted; fears and weaknesses that I had not conquered. It showed the worst of me, not just the parts that I liked to shine up and present in the light of day.
What if my characters had insomnia? What current moment would be the one that woke them up and occupied their thoughts? What kind of regrets and frustrations would tinge that current moment? What could I learn from them about how they thought about themselves? How would that impact their actions in the daytime?
This line of questioning proved revelatory for my writing. I’d been struggling with a work in progress that was full of acts and action, dialogue and external conflict, but lacked emotional resonance. The character’s inner turmoil and conflicts remained obscure. And that meant that even though the characters were always doing things, why they were doing them was not always clear.
When I started giving my characters’ insomnia, I started to see the connections between what was happening in the story, and the deeper reasons for each specific characters’ decisions.
I’ll give two examples:
- My heroine was on the run from pursuers. Of course when she woke up, she obsessed over what to do next to stay one step ahead of them. There was the kernel. But if she had insomnia, she would immediately loop in her greatest fear—that if she got caught someone would discover who she really was. And if she got caught and they knew who she was, then her future was going to be out of her control. Every action she took to avoid being caught was avoiding the present pursuit, but also colored by memory and past experience, and fueled by her desire for a different future. This turned her flight and the pursuit from a chase scene into something with larger meaning. And it explained why she chose to keep running at moments when it made more sense for her to stay and try to resolve the pursuit.
- My hero had already been captured by those same pursuers. Naturally, he would wake up and think about how to escape. He could see an escape option, but it required enlisting another character’s help. His insomniac thought loops roiled around whether to accept his captivity or to ask for that help. Because in his past, when he had asked for help, the results had been catastrophically bad. Since then, he’d relied on no one but himself. And if he asked for help and owed someone, would he be willing to pay them the price they asked for help? This explained why in the story he did not take the one chance he had to escape. (A detail that had puzzled a beta reader.)
I am in the process of taking the deeper understandings I gained from giving my characters insomnia and writing them into the scenes—incorporating it into their reactions, actions, and thoughts. The flat and bare spots are slowly becoming more than action; they are becoming a story.
Whether or not you have (or ever have had) insomnia yourself, try the writer’s exercise of giving your characters a couple sleepless nights. I don’t mean you should literally write a scene into your story of them tossing and turning and fretting all night. I mean think about what keeps your characters up at night, analyze their thought loops, and then use what you discover about them, their past, their future to make your story better.
If you are editing an existing manuscript, the insights you gain can help you tighten and strengthen the story.
If you are in the first draft, the insights you gain can help you understand how to finetune the action and ensure their choices resonate with their past, present and future.
Am I sleeping better now? Of course not. Life is hectic and chaotic. And while I’m working to resolve the stress factors, that will take some time. But my newest 3am strategy is clear. I give myself 15 minutes to try to fall back asleep. When that doesn’t work, I get up and write. Surprisingly, after an hour or two of writing, the worries have gone and I am able to sleep.
What about you? Can you think of places where this insomnia analysis might get your characters to reveal what they are trying to keep hidden? Even from you?
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