I've written a scene in a short story where the character and her party are suddenly attacked in the night. It's written in first-person and the character had just been shaken awake from a nightmare; so I had purposefully written it to be disorienting. One of my beta readers and my editor have commented on how it reads confusing and seems like some details have been missed in my excitement. At first, I was very excited to hear this from them, because that's exactly how I had wanted the scene to feel. But I started to wonder if, perhaps it was too much and hard to follow.

I would think that some details would be missed and even with some combat training, the character would have been out of it having just been woken up suddenly.

So I guess I wondering how a scene can be written from a disoriented character's perspective, and not alienate readers?

6 Answers 6


If you want the scene to initially be confusing, go ahead! Since it's written in first person, that's just realistic.

However, keep it brief. It would probably be rather annoying to try to read through more than a paragraph of stuff that makes no sense, and readers might just want to skip it.

Also, to make sure they don't continue to feel confused after the scene is over, try to find a time for your character to realize what's been happening and what details she initially missed so the readers can have it explained and get a sense of closure about it.

Good luck!


This seems like a great idea, and possibly the best way to approach this would be to have the time of disorientation be relatively brief.

I've not written dream sequences ever, so I don't have any suggestions beyond making it obvious that it's a dream sequence. Possibly making what is occurring straightforward for the reader, but with signals that it isn't real. Then as the protagonist begins to wake up, the dream starts to morph into what is happening in reality, and both the character and the reader still believe they are asleep.

Follow this up with something that jolts the character awake, and they will be disoriented as they will realize this isn't part of the dream, and be unsure as to how much of what they had just experienced was real and how much wasn't.

However, the way to clarify what is going on would be the natural reaction of the protagonist anyway, which is trying to find out what is happening.

The character would not stay in a disoriented state. Particularly if battle-trained, they would first attempt to assess the situation, then try to find out as much information as possible to understand the danger they face, and how they can try to combat it.

The vividness and horror of the nightmare might keep popping back into their head and causing them to be confused (for example if the nightmare involved being chased by werewolves, they might think they are currently being attacked by werewolves in reality, even if they don't exist), which would add to continuing the confusion of earlier, whilst keeping the true "what the hell is going on?" thoughts of the reader to a minimum.

Then the protagonist and reader can be brought up to speed, either by Basil Exposition or their own assessment of the situation. This way no important information is lost, but you still get the feeling of skewed perception for a brief period.


I personally think you shouldn't shy from conveying the experience of the disorientation as long as the narrator clearly conveys their confusion so we get into their experience of it, rather than our own.

I spun, then was face down on the floor, without even the memory of falling. Or had I never gotten up? I couldn't make any sense of it. Had I been found by the werewolves?"

Because the experience is filtered through the narrator's expressed confusion, we don't care if it doesn't make any sense because we have faith that we'll understand when the narrator does.

Furthermore, I must disagree with the statement that "You cannot reproduce the effect of dullness and garrulity without being dull and garrulous."

Consider the following example:

Frank's life was deeply, unremittingly ordered. The sameness of every day leached the colors from his world until he found himself fantasizing about horrible, terrible things happening to him. The promise of seeing the vivid red of his own blood, the exquisite pain of a shattered hand or foot called to him to break the gray sameness of his life.

But still he did nothing.

Until the morning when he woke up with the sure knowledge that he had to die if he wanted to truly live.

Do we not feel Frank's boredom and desperation without being bored or feeling our own desperation while reading it?


A disoriented character does not have a perspective. A perspective is what you have when the world makes sense to you. When you are disoriented, you don't have a perspective. You have a whirl of sensations the refuse to resolve into a perspective.

I seem to remember that it was Dr. Johnson who said something to the effect that you cannot reproduce the effect of being dullness and garrulity without being dull and garrulous. The same seems to apply here: you cannot reproduce the effect of disorientation without being disorienting.

But I don't think there is any good story reason to try to reproduce the sensation of disorientation. It is a mere physical symptom. It may be a plot point, but reproducing the sensation is never essential to the plot, or to the reader's attachment to the character's story. It is always the character's moral arc, the decisions they have to make, what they want and what they are willing to do to get it, that are the crux of the story.

After all, the enjoyment of adventure without its physical discomforts is much of the pleasure of literature. The reader who reads about a character being hit on the head does not want to actually experience their headache. At most they want to sympathize with their headache.

So it should be enough to tell your reader that the character is disoriented, without trying to reproduce that disorientation.

  • 2
    How would you suggest telling the reader the character is disoriented when the story is written in 1st person from that character's point of view, as is the case here? Wouldn't it be better to show the disorientation (to a degree) rather than say something like "I was disoriented"?
    – Summer
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 6:28
  • 2
    A first person narrator is not in any condition to do any narrating while disoriented. First person narration is a kind of fiction in its own right. It is not really the characters's stream of consciousness. It is an organized narrative related as if they are written it at some point. So they relate having been disoriented exactly as anyone would relate it. "I was disoriented when I awoke ..." Almost every first-person detective story has such a passage after the narrator inevitably gets clonked on the head at some point.
    – user16226
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 10:24

The short answer to your question is yes.

However, you've got decide who you're writing for. You can't satisfy 'all readers'. If you clarify the story for Mills and Boon readers, lovers of Tolstoy will have no interest in your work.

What you are doing is going from dream state to being aware, with a confused state in between. Eventually your character will understand (or not) what was really happening and the narrative will explain it the reader.

You're going to suffer the age-old problem . . . When things get a bit weird how long will they put up with your shenanigans?

I have used similar scenarios many times and I disagree that the confusion should be short.


Carlene has been arguing with her footballer boyfriend, Stuart. Stuart goes off the play in a football match.

Carlene goes home, cries, then takes a shower. After her shower Carlene looks her body in the mirror and briefly wonders why Stuart doesn't want this. She decides that she's 'hot' and 'sexy as fk' and if he doesn't want her - fk him. She plays herself some sexy Motown music and jumps into bed.

[The story switches scene to spend time with Stuart in his football match. When we return Carlene is bed with Stuart's arch rival, Danny].

Carlene felt the weight of Danny's hand on her shoulder, encouraging her to roll onto her back. She complied without hesitation. His touch was much gentler than Stuart’s, but still, she felt his strength. By comparison, his soft caress felt smooth on her skin. Each stroke left a trail of goose-bumps in its wake. He didn’t have Stuart’s rough builder’s hands. His gentle kisses on her neck caused her to shudder. She felt fingers trace her breasts until her nipples hardened. This man was so gentle. He knew how to make a girl feel good. His lips pleasured her neck whilst all the time his hand patiently made its way south. She gasped as his finger expertly found the spot – he knew what he was doing. He could read her mind; slow and gentle when she wanted it that way, other times quick and lively. Her body responded. She arched her back and released a muted moan. She felt to explode as nimble fingers excited and teased her, all the time the gentle caress of lips on her neck. She braced herself, held her breath, and responded to the internal stimulation by thrusting her hips forward. "Please, be careful. Don’t . . . Please, I can’t afford to get pregnant," she whispered. "I’m not on the . . ." At the end of the journey to the edge of her world she extended her arms fully and her body tensed as she clung to a moment of time. The bubble burst. The moment was lost. Two breaths later, realisation slapped her, and panic set in. "I said don’t!" she screamed, and tried to push him off. Her hand met no resistance. There was nobody there. Carlene awoke, sweating, alone with her hand between her legs. She sat up in bed. "What the? . . ." She brushed her hand across her neck. A moth took flight. Carlene sat perfectly still listening to the sound of her own breathing.


Since you have already accepted an answer, I tried to put my musings on the matter in a comment, but they did not fit--surprize, surprize... Well, anyway:

What is happening in your story and what any of your characters thinks is happening in their reality are not necessarily the same thing. Quite the opposite--the concept is called "unreliable narration" and it is a great tool when used properly.

In short--it is perfectly normal for a character to be disoriented to some degree; it is not going to stop your readers to understand what is going on because you let them see the bigger picture than the characters see due to the limitation of the time-space continuum they inhabit--no one is able to be at several places and at the same time at once, no one, but you, the author, and it is your choice to take your reader with you or let them wonder a bit.

It is hard to evaluate the effect of one scene without reading the whole manuscript, but what I immediately imagine (alliteration not intended) when I hear "first-person" and "suddenly awoken from a nightmare" is a short and emotionally charged piece, perhaps written in present tense to relate the immediacy of what is happening, describing scattered fragments of what is thrown at her and her desperate attempt to separate the nightmare from reality, and so on...

And guess what:

Even in that torrent of seemingly unfiltered and random things, she is suddenly exposed to, which require her immediate reaction, you, as the master of her Universe, can easily embed bits and pieces meant to be spotted by the readers and lead them along your story even if the delivery mechanism of this particular scene is deliberately out of tune.

It can be anything--since I did not read your story, I will just throw in some random poorly thought-through examples (SELFLESSLY AVOIDING PLUGGING IN A PIECE OF MY OWN GENIOUS WRITING):

The attackers might wear black or what seems to be black in the poorly lit setting, but when the fight is over there is a torn piece of red fabric left behind, which mean that they belong to a totally different faction, of which she is unaware, but the readers already know.


The speak different language, the one she doesn't recognize and keep repeating some word which sounds like "@#$%^&", which means nothing to her, but your readers just learned what "&^%$#@" (correct version of the word) means, and it indicates great immediate danger to your protagonist, who might escape this for now without realizing it, but your readers will know better and worry and feel sympathetic to her.

And so on. I hope I am making my point clear: you are free to use a disoriented character to the extent where it becomes annoying (you be the judge where to stop), just do not forget to advance the whole story forward.

Best of luck!

  • Darn, just realized that the question is a year old. Would never post an answer otherwise, and another thing: if you downvote my answer, have the decency to live a comment, saying why, don't just troll.
    – Lew
    Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 14:49

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