Health

Canada's top 'sleep writer' reveals how he puts you under (can you stay awake?)

Chris Advansun is a full-time 'sleep writer' in Toronto who writes with one goal in mind — to lull people off to la-la land.

'I don't think it is about being boring, specifically. I think it is about not being too exciting.'

Chris Advansun was trained as a screenwriter. To put people to sleep he's had to learn new ways of storytelling that focus less on drama and tension and more on creating a relaxing experience for his listeners. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Writer Chris Advansun doesn't want you to reach the end of his stories.

For him, that's success.

Advansun, 39, is a full-time "sleep writer" in Toronto. He writes with one goal in mind — to lull people off to la-la land.

Advansun publishes his bedtime stories for adults on the popular app Calm.com, where they are voiced by famous actors like Matthew McConaughey.

Calm.com says its roster of 120 sleep stories has been listened to more than 100 million times.

We are giving grownups permission to drift off to sleep to a story, and that's not something a lot of people have thought about before.- Chris Advansun

"I think we are putting a modern take to something that's pretty timeless," he says. "We are giving grownups permission to drift off to sleep to a story, and that's not something a lot of people have thought about before."

Advansun says the key is to get the attention of the listener and then "hold it gently" without ever jostling them awake. He maintains this is a tough balance to achieve … especially since Advansun is trained as a screenwriter (think plot twists, car chases and explosions).

"I certainly didn't set out to write stories that put people to sleep," he jokes. "I have sort of fallen into it, and I adore it. It's not only quite rewarding, it is a great challenge as a writer."

The National's Nick Purdon sat down with Advansun in Toronto to talk about the rise of "slow lit" — stories designed to make you nod off.

But first, to get you in the mood, here's a taste of Advansun's latest story, The Cloud Mountain (not a lot happens — and that's the point):

Toronto "sleep writer" Chris Advansun, 39, hopes his new story The Cloud Mountain will really put people to sleep. In this video, he has enlisted actor Pardeep Bassi to read it back to him so he can see if his relaxing bedtime story for grownups works. 0:32

Nick Purdon: How does a sleep story work?

Chris Advansun:  We all remember being told a bedtime story when we were kids, to fall asleep — that idea is ancient. We picked up on the idea a few years ago to write stories specifically for a grown-up audience.

Think of them as bedtime stories for grownups. When we put our heads against the pillows at night, many of us are dealing with anxiety, a racing mind, and with the turbulent world we live in. With how much anxiety is becoming a problem for folks, sleep is really difficult.

So the idea is that with the power of storytelling, we can kind of guide folks off to sleep … to really soothe and lull them off to a peaceful sleep.

What's the key to a good sleep story?

Advansun:  I would say we avoid anything that is going to jar the attention of the listener and jostle them awake.

So it's a balance. You want to hook the attention of the listener, but I think of it as holding it really gently, as opposed to something like a movie or a TV show that needs to kind of grab the viewer's attention.

And we are setting up a story that doesn't really have a lot of deep, heavy conflict, or anything that is too jarring for the listener. So we avoid things, or events, or even words really, that might cause that.

So should it be boring?

Advansun:  I don't think it is about being boring, specifically. I think it is about not being too exciting.

When Advansun crafts one of his stories it's a tricky balancing act. He needs to hold the reader's attention, while not making the story so exciting that it keeps them from drifting off to sleep. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Is there a protagonist? Is there a character in the story?

Advansun:  My stories are mainly fictional stories that do have a character who goes on a journey.

The way I think about it is that it's not a riveting, gripping journey with wrenching twists and turns. It is not that kind of story.

I am taking traditional storytelling — where you are building things up, you are building up tension and stakes and conflict  and inverting that.

So we start with a bit of a character problem, but it is not terribly dramatic. And I unwind the whole story, so by the end we have soothed the listener off to sleep.

What kind of writer did you want to be?  

Advansun:  I originally studied screenwriting. I have written some screenplays and I still plan on doing work in that domain.

I really had no expectation of writing sleep stories. I certainly didn't set out to write stories that put people to sleep. I have sort of fallen into it and I adore it.

Advansun listens as actor Pardeep Bassi reads back one of the stories he's working on. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

What is the biggest thing you had to unlearn to write sleep stories versus screenplays?

Advansun:  I would say the biggest difference is just the lack of conflict.

In fact, it is imperative that there really isn't any conflict in my stories, and in sleep stories in general.

In traditional storytelling that is a story — a story is drama. And drama is the pursuit of a goal in the face of obstacles. And those obstacles need to be bigger and more crazy as you go along.

So I had to really unlearn that feature of storytelling.

Advansun has written 14 'sleep stories' for Calm.com. His story 'Wonder' was the most popular release of 2018. He says his stories have been listened to 27 million times (he's not sure how many people fell asleep). (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Do people get to the end of your stories?

Advansun:  The goal is for the listener to not get to the end.

Which, as a writer of stories, is a little strange. You want people to get to the end of the story if you are writing a novel or a screenplay — that is pretty important.

But I have started to really appreciate what our stories do for people. I get letters from people who tell me, 'I adore your stories, I never get to the end.'

It's wonderful to hear that, because the story is doing its job and we are doing something so important in the world, I feel.

So then what happens to the characters in your stories?  

Advansun:  In many of the stories, the resolution of the story is that in the end the character falls asleep. That is the ending.


More from CBC

Watch the story about Chris Advansun from The National:

If you're listening to one of his stories, writer Chris Advansun hopes you never reach the end. For him, that's success. Advansun is a full-time "sleep writer" with one goal in mind — to lull you off to la-la land. 4:30
Canadians aren't getting as much sleep as we want, this much we know. In fact, almost 60 per cent of us say we aren't getting the recommended eight hours a night. The National’s health panel talks about the impact of our daily habits on the quality of sleep we get, and answers some of your questions about sleep struggles and what can be done to get a more meaningful rest. 11:55