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.