The Art of Writing Sleep Stories
Chris Advansun is the talented writer behind many of the most popular Sleep Stories in the Calm app. We sat down with him to chat about this unconventional but very valuable new literary medium.
Michael Acton Smith (MAS): So Chris, how have you tackled the Sleep Stories you’ve written? Walk us through your approach.
Chris Advansun (CA): Well, the original idea was a fictional story that relaxes and soothes the listener off to sleep. My first thinking was to tell a very simple story that centers on lush visual description. A simple character visits a magical place, and through rich sensory description of the character’s experience, the listener is transported.
Then, working with Tamara (Tamara Levitt), we added mindfulness elements in a very deliberate way, giving the stories a grounding, calming quality.
Instead of an elaborate buildup, Sleep Stories are a gradual unwind.
As the character explores beautiful settings, the experience relaxes our bodies, quiets our minds, and soothes us to sleep.
MAS: You mentioned the mindfulness elements. Tell us more about that.
CA: Tamara has been an incredible resource in helping to integrate mindfulness concepts and techniques into the stories. There are a few ways we do this.
The first is helping the listener focus their attention on an anchor, usually the breath. This quiets the mind and helps shift the listener away from their overactive thoughts.
As the character travels along her journey, she is fully immersed in the present moment. The thinking is that the listener experiences this immersion along with the character.
The second mindfulness element is body awareness and relaxation techniques. When a story opens, the narrator walks the listener through a brief body scan exercise to help quiet the mind and relax the body. We also integrate body scans into the actual story. As the character scans though her sensations, the hope is that the listener does the same.
The final element has to do with the way settings and scenes are described. As Tamara talks about in her meditation programs, mindfulness involves perceiving ordinary moments with curiosity, a beginner’s mind, and a sense of wonder. One way to experience this is by coming into contact with nature, perhaps in a park or forest. The idea is to observe the beauty of nature in all its exquisite detail: the colors of a flower, the movements of a bird, the sounds of a river, the smells of a forest. This attentive observation keeps us in present moment awareness.
This is the spirit of how I’ve written my Sleep Stories.
The narrator soothingly describes the character’s sensory experience, moment by moment, as she observes and marvels at the wonder of nature - sights, sounds, smells, sensations.
MAS: Part of what works about the stories is the language. How do you approach the writing, from a craft perspective?
CA: I just try to be a student and practitioner of the tricks of good writing. Sometimes I play with sentence structure, using long cumulative sentences that widen to a descriptive culmination, or narrow to a descriptive conclusion. Other situations call for a parallel structure, which can take on a repetitive quality almost like poetry.
And then there are things like clever noun phrases and interesting verb choices. I’m always thinking about how I could describe an object or action using noun phrases and verbs that are a little unexpected, not the obvious way of describing things.
I also use a lot of simile and metaphor, which of course are timeless writing devices.
MAS: It seems your stories have certain elements of traditional storytelling, but not others. How do you decide what stays and what goes?
CA: I’ve learned much of what I know about storytelling by studying the craft of screenwriting. In film, stories must contain certain elements to hook audience attention and deliver an emotionally satisfying experience: things like desire, obstacles, conflict, tension, and complications.
Sleep Stories are different. They are narrative, but instead of building up tension and stakes, the idea is to unwind.
The character’s experience becomes more lovely, more beautiful, more calm as the story unfolds. There’s no conflict to speak of, and there are really no obstacles.
There may be a desire, but it’s a simple one, like the wish to have a question answered.
The final part of this has to do with character. In novels and movies, characters must be “multi-dimensional,” as the saying goes. This means they have desires, flaws, and contradictions. In Sleep Stories, we’re stripping most of that away. The character we follow is relatively simple. We don’t need to know too much about her, just enough to like her and want to join her on the journey. In a sense, we inhabit her perspective. Her senses and emotions are a vehicle through which the listener experiences the beauty of the world.
MAS: It also feels like, on an emotional level, the character’s experience is relaxing and soothing, not fraught with turbulence.
CA: Exactly. The joy of watching ‘Die Hard’ lies in experiencing tension and fear and pain along with the character.
In a Sleep Story, the character goes through a totally positive emotional experience.
In fact, it is increasingly positive as the story unfolds, so that by the end she is in a state of deep relaxation. She feels content, safe, grateful, and at peace.
MAS: The story is the starting point, but then the performance is also quite important.
CA: The performance is hugely important. It’s been such an honor to hear the stories delivered by such talented performers, like Tamara Levitt and Clarke Peters. The delivery is crucial.
It needs to be slow, melodic, and soothing, almost like a literary lullaby.
My hope with the writing is that it creates a blueprint for a soothing delivery, giving the performer passages that can be brought to life in a rhythmic, poetic way.
MAS: Which is your favorite story?
CA: Good question. It’s been a process to hone in on what works best, so I find the more recent stories are tighter, in terms of writing. I’d probably say ‘The Waterfall,’ because it has a cool structure to it, an interesting character desire we want to see resolved. I also love ‘The Butterfly Sanctuary,’ narrated by Clarke Peters. In that story, I used some settings that one wouldn’t normally associate with relaxation, like a busy urban setting and a loud subway. But the story finds the peace and tranquility in those places, which is not just a challenge in storytelling, but a challenge in life.
As Tamara talks about in her sessions, when we can gain awareness and find beauty in mundane moments, we are practicing mindfulness.
Clarke does an amazing job bringing the story to life and soothing the listener off to sleep.
MAS: Well Chris, on behalf of Calm users, thank you for this conversation and I look forward to your upcoming stories.
CA: Thank you for the opportunity, Michael. It’s been wonderful to work on this, and it’s been rewarding to see how Calm users have responded to the stories.
Chris Advansun is a writer and editor at Calm. He is the author of several of the company's Sleep Stories, including The Waterfall, The Butterfly Sanctuary, and several forthcoming stories. Prior to joining Calm, Chris worked as a marketing executive for tech and advertising companies.