Opening stories with a character waking up

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Guess what? It’s time for another bad writing rule–with a twist!

I’m not a suspense writer. Here’s the twist: This is going to sound like a bad writing rule–it has that key word never in it–but you really should take note. There is basically one exception to this rule.

Here’s some background

Never open a story with your main character waking up.

I used to think of this as just a suggestion until I started doing critiques on Scribophile. Holy crap, y’all, out of 20 stories I read, about half of them opened with a character waking up. And you know what? It’s boring. It takes forever to get to anything interesting. Nothing that happens in these openings makes me care about the character, their background, or the way they get up and describe their bedroom, get dressed and describe their clothes, eat breakfast and describe their family members, and then look in the mirror and describe themselves. If I never see another story open like this again, I will still have seen more than my fair share of them for this lifetime.

I’ve also seen agents doing #tenqueries on Twitter instantly reject stories that open this way. So that’s another reason to avoid doing it, assuming you want to traditionally publish.

Another version of this is opening your book with a dream sequence, and then moving on to your character waking up and going along the same routine of getting up and describing their bedroom, eating breakfast and describing their family….You get where I’m going with this. It’s just as boring. Agents hate it just as much. You probably shouldn’t do it.

The Exception

There is one–ONE–exception to this. You can open a book with a character waking up if something unusual is happening that disrupts their routine. Whatever it is, it needs to be relevant to the plot.

The Hunger Games opens with Katniss Everdeen waking up and realizing her sister isn’t there. Arguably, you could even consider this foreshadowing what happens to Prim at the end of Mockingjay. A cloud of dread hangs over the whole district as everyone prepares for the reaping. None of that is a routine, normal day.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy opens with Arthur Dent waking up and going about his morning routine while fixating on the color yellow. The yellow thing in question was a bulldozer that was going to knock his house down. A few minutes after that, aliens bulldoze the entire Earth. That’s definitely not the sort of thing that happens as part of a normal morning routine, is it?

Fever 1793 opens with Mattie Cook’s mother angrily waking her. Even though the book starts with the main character waking up, the real draw is conflict.

If you’re thinking of going down this road, you’ve got to give readers something they don’t expect.

There is one other exception

If you’re one of those writers who needs to give yourself a lot of background information about a character’s life, you may need to open your rough draft like this just to get the story started. But you’ll probably need to rewrite your opening when it’s time to edit. An easy way to do that is to find your inciting incident and try to use it as a new starting point. Check out this post about opening stories if you need some guidance.

I hope this has been enlightening for you. I almost didn’t write about it, because I thought it was just one of those things that everybody knows, but I’ve seen so many of these openings lately that I felt like I needed to say something. It happens way too often and there’s almost always a better place to start your story.

And with all of that said, I’m done for today. If you have any questions, or if you just want to tell me how wrong I am about this, please leave a comment below. You’re also welcome to use those social media buttons and share this with your friends. Thanks!

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2 Comments

  1. Holy smokes, this is so true! I don’t know why but I’ve been seeing this a lot recently and I find myself skipping entire paragraphs because I get bored. Starting a story is never easy, so I think a lot of writers automatically begin at the beginning, which is a good way to ease into things, writing-wise. However, readers rarely want to be eased into anything. They want to be grabbed & dragged into the story from the very beginning. It’s just not something any of us consciously think about, so thank you for putting it into words!!

    1. Thank you! I get nervous about these “tough love” type posts because I’m afraid it’s going to hurt somebody’s feelings, but I post them anyway because I want to help writers succeed if I can. You’re right, a lot of us don’t notice when we do this, and I think it’s because we need that insight into our characters’ lives. It’s totally fine for someone to write this opening if they need it, but then when it’s time to revise, they have to take a minute to decide if that’s really where the story starts. It isn’t always easy, but I think dealing with the hard stuff pushes us to become our best selves.

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