Thursday, December 4, 2008

The character wakes up

And the agent reaches for a rejection slip. I’ve often read that it’s not a good idea to start with a character waking up – this is advice both from other writers and from agents – and after realizing that one of my own stories was much stronger without such an opening, I was scrupulously careful to follow this guideline.

But then I began to wonder. How many openings in published fiction include a character waking up?

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis.

A thread asking this question on the Absolute Write discussion board resulted in a surprisingly large number of examples, but these are taken from published work, which will be better than much of the slushpile. Too often, such a character-wakes-up opening goes on to describe the character having breakfast and taking the subway to work. Maybe there, he’ll be fired, but the readers aren’t going to stick around that long, especially if they have twenty other manuscripts to deal with before the end of the day.

Another pitfall of this opening is that the character may be waking up from a nightmare. The nightmare can be very tense, but when the character wakes up, it will be a letdown to the reader – oh, it was all just a dream. Even if something very exciting and gripping will happen on page 2, the reader may be too annoyed to get there.

Lessa woke, cold.
Anne McCaffrey, Dragonflight

Writers are usually advised to start the story with conflict, and there’s rarely any conflict to a character waking up, unless it’s occupied England in an alternate reality and the Gestapo is shaking her awake. With my story The Mark of Vurth, the character originally woke up from a nightmare about an attack that had nearly killed him a few days ago. He soon realized that the people who had rescued him were much worse, but I didn’t want to risk readers being turned off by the opening. I revised it to begin with the attack, and that was a much stronger start.

The best character-wakes-up openings are ones where the character (or the reader) immediately realizes that something is wrong, that there’s something out of the ordinary in their world.

At eight o'clock on Thursday morning Arthur didn't feel very good. He woke up blearily, got up, wandered blearily round his room, opened a window, saw a bulldozer, found his slippers, and stomped off to the bathroom to wash.
Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

All the examples I’ve quoted are from books published before 1980, but there are still manuscripts which do well with this kind of opening. They hook the readers right away and reel them in. This kind of opening isn’t something I’d like to do, but it’s a good example of a rule that can be broken if you know exactly what you’re doing and are willing to take the risk.


writtenwyrdd said...

I think that while it's generally true you are better off starting with action or conflict, the waking up scene for an opening has been used too frequently and so now is considered trite because of that, not necessarily because it's bad.

Many things that used to be done are now out of fashion, basically.

There are so many waking up openings that it's almost like "once upon a time" which would get rocks thrown at you in this day and age.

What strikes me about an awakening or a dream opening is that it is inherently going to feel natural as a starting point, even if it isn't as hooky or interesting an opener. Because we all start every day that way!

Marian Perera said...

I don't even want to think of what I'm like in the morning after I've just woken up.

Bleary-eyed, tousle-haired, uncoordinated and bumping into things, still half asleep since it's usually well before five a.m. when I wake up... it sounds like a horror novel. :)

Good point about the opening being used too often in the past (when readers had more time and patience for that kind of leisurely start).

In general, modern writing shouldn't emulate what was done fifty or a hundred years ago, unless this is deliberate, like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I'd much rather have a character waking up at the beginning of a story instead of at the ending.

writtenwyrdd said...

I just started reading Charles Stross' The Family Trade and it opens with his character waking up, brushing her teeth, etc. The book was published in 2004, so it's newish. This read made me immediately think of your post here!

Stross is doing alright for himself, lol, so I would venture to trot out that old line that all writing rules are made to be broken--so long as you do it well.

Marian Perera said...

I'd much rather have a character waking up at the beginning of a story instead of at the ending.

Hi, JR's Thumbprints,

True. Unless the book is something like Alice in Wonderland, where the dream is so whimsical that it's obvious the character is dreaming, but also so well-written that the reader doesn't mind.

And even then, it's not clear what if anything is at stake, unless the sleeping character can be harmed by what happens in a dream (the Nightmare on Elm Street effect). I know Graham Masterton had a couple of horror novels where the action takes place in dreams, but I haven't been able to find them yet.

Thanks for commenting!

Marian Perera said...

I just started reading Charles Stross' The Family Trade and it opens with his character waking up, brushing her teeth, etc. The book was published in 2004, so it's newish.

Wow, that's good to know. Thanks for mentioning it - I'll keep an eye out for this book.

I think that's one thing I like about publishing - what will or won't work is often very subjective, and a good enough story will transcend guidelines. That can be unnerving or frustrating, but it also gives hope to those of us who like to push other envelopes - like anachronism in fantasy novels. :)