Friday, October 19, 2012

Aspiring Advice: The "Waking Up" Conundrum

Have you ever heard of the "Lap Slap?"

Maybe there's another name for it, but this one sounds right (hey - quit laughing ...). It's basically something I do if something happens in a book I'm reading that makes me go "seriously?" resulting in the book falling to my lap, so fast, that it causes a slapping sound. And, as I dove deep into new releases this year, I'm astounded by how many times I've done this with half of the first pages I've read.

Most of them started with something along these lines:

I wake up ...
My eyes open ...
A violent jolt shook Jacob from his sleep ...

A Lap Slap in the first sentence is never a good thing, but really, why am I making such a big deal out of this? I'll take you back in time to my first writer's conference. I didn't know then that starting your story with a dream is taboo (a prologue dream, for that matter). My character woke up at the end of it. Naturally, the character has just woken up in the first chapter. There, at the critique session, the "experts" (who I really appreciate and admire, don't get me wrong) informed me of the "three deadly beginnings:" a dream, waking up, and being naked. I heard this repeated throughout the conference and conferences since, by established and aspiring authors alike.

And yet, so many new books this year, I've noticed, start with characters waking up! Isn't this a mixed message? Isn't this like telling people to not produce apples, only to sell apples later?

Is there anything wrong with starting a story this way? Since I don't believe in hardfast rules in writing (anymore), no. It's a fairly natural way to begin a story. We begin each day by waking up. Each day is a new story. This kind of opening has, however, been overdone, so it really takes a creative approach to make this kind of beginning a fresh one. This week, my CP presented the first chapter of her new work. You guessed it, the character wakes up, but the way she wrote it was funny and true to life, so I let it slide. Then you have a bestselling author who, after much anticipation, releases that book I've been waiting for - and the first line is a character waking up ...


Lap Slap.

"How can *author name here* start a story this way?" I ask.

Guess what answer I heard? "Well ... she's *author name here*!"

So, if you're a bestseller, taboos don't apply? Good to know ...

It's almost as if there's an industry secret, a fiendish ploy to keep writers out of the loop, or prevent them from getting published!

I'm kidding, of course ... so laugh with me!

(And ... that's enough of that ...)

These are things I've heard, btw. I don't believe for a second that industry peeps laugh about authors behind closed doors ... ever ...

I stand by the mixed message, though. I was a reader before I wrote. I read a few books that started with characters waking up. Many learn by example. I figured this was the norm. I wrote my first beginning, doing what established writers have done. I was told this was cliché.

I asked them to throw me a frigg'in bone, and they did. Such great advice. My writing hasn't been the same since, in a good way.

So what's this advice, DPK? Should we or should we not begin our stories with our characters waking up?

I say, if we can avoid it, if we can begin our stories without having our characters wake up, do it, but I'm not going to tell you, "don't start your story like that!" If our take on it is fresh, it will work, but take into consideration that there are better ways to start a story.

This is not the rule, just my thoughts on the matter. If we decide to start our stories with one of the three deadly beginnings (or The Triad of Death - I heard a novel did all of these at once, deliberately, but I can't find the title of it ...), keep in mind, many, many stories have already started this way. Doing whatever we can to stand out and give a great first impression is what matters in the end.

What's your say on this topic? Do you or do you not have a problem with stories beginning with characters waking up? Why is that?

I'm David, and *hits the snooze* just five more minutes ...


  1. I'd say as a new writer avoid it, just in case. But someone somewhere might dig it if you did. Catch-22.

  2. Sure the way it works is once you're in the big time you get carte blanche to do whatever you want. The bottom line is always more important than any artistic "rules".

  3. It's interesting - mine doesn't start with this, but it is in the second scene and I didn't hear anything about it at pitch primer or in my 1st chapter critiques from storymakers. Maybe it was far enough in no one thought about it.

  4. Hey! I do that lap slap thing too! I don't have a problem with a story opening with a dream or a waking scene. The Hunger Games opens with a waking scene. And an MG book that I loved, 8th Grade Superzero, opened with a dream, and I thought it was great. A couple of years ago, I queried a story that opened with a dream, and I got full requests on it. So I really think it just depends on the agent/editor. Great post. :)

  5. This is my biggest fault as a writer, I think--starting chapters with waking up. Why do my characters fall asleep in the most inconvenient of places?

    And I wanted to start my Nano with a prologue (the shame!) that is a dream (oh no) and then chapter one is she's waking up (seriously?). I cried to my CP's because I know I'm a better writer than that but I couldn't figure out a better way to start it.

    Then one of them said, "I say as long as you KNOW the rules and KNOW you're breaking them, but your gut tells you to do so, then break them. BREAK THEM! BREAK THEM! BREAK THEM!"

    Thanks, Katie! And I figure I can always change it later. Sigh. :)

  6. I think it's important to be original and creative. We are writers with imaginations. I don't mind if the story picks up and turns out to be fantastic, but I have been rolling my eyes a lot lately when starting a new book.

  7. There is so much lately about 'rules' and what I've seen and learned -- rules are pretty much a way to write a blog. Give the curious something to think about, and maybe 'rules' do work for some.
    The rules for the 'first page' were blown out of the water for me when I picked up 10 best sellers and found all the 'rules' broken!
    At my first conference I heard the mystery was dead, the paranormal / ghosts, vampires, etc. were out! Agents and publishers were looking for something else. Yeah! that proved true -- NOT!

  8. My very first fantasy novel started with the character in a dream sequence. My CP's, at that time, read it and gave me the same repeated speech, that it's taboo and new authors should avoid it. But yeah, I guess once you get your foot into the door of the Secret Society of Published Authors, the rules go out the window. Hmmm...

  9. I never heard the rule 'don't start a story with the character waking up.' I say, do whatever your story calls for.

  10. I'm with you, David. We were readers first and we learn from example. I read a blog post when I was first started blogging a couple of years ago where an aspiring author mentioned this rule to her teen daughter (who was also an aspiring author). To back up her point, Mom pulled out three books that were popular at the time (I think Hunger Games was one of them). Guess what? All three of them started with the main character waking up.

    I think the issue is that a lot of agents out there don't like this. When something becomes a pet peeves of agents, writers everywhere tremble. But the reality is, it's just a pet peeve. There's nothing inherently wrong with doing it. But if all books start this way, it's going to get old pretty fast. So, just make sure it's really the best place to begin and, like your CP, do it creatively.

  11. Maybe it depends how the character is waking up. It's probably not the most interesting way to start a book (unless they are being dragged out of bed by something/someone horrible, or something else out of the ordinary) but I suppose it depends on the book.

  12. Such a touchy subject. Writers, me included and on the top of the list, protect their stories with fierceness. Telling me NOT to do something win my story is like telling me I can't write. and I CAN write, so the solution may not be an easy one...

    I say, if a character is forced to tell us his or her dream or wants us to know he or she just woke up, who are we to judge????

    Nice post!

  13. I also find it cliche unless it's done in an original way--which is hard to do. I say avoid it if at all possible, if you are a new author :)

    Allison (Geek Banter)

  14. Ha! AT first I thought this post was going to be dirty. Uh, yeah, I'll get my mind out of the gutter. I love the Lap Slap and yeah, I do that too.

  15. I do the slap thing, too -- that or my hand ends up slapping my leg in the same "what the heck?" manner. Nice to know I'm not the only one.

    I definitely believe that the "industry peeps" laugh at authors. I believe it fully -- sad, yes, but more than likely the truth.

    I personally think that whatever the story calls for is what should be done. I personally am not a huge fan of waking up in the first chapter, or prologue, (or epilogue, though I've done that in writing before), because it washes away whatever has just happened (that or there's some "message" in the dream, which is usually overly obvious to the reader, making it dreary). There are only so many ways to start a story, though, so I don't think it should be as much of a cliche as it's portrayed to be. Like when I was in Musical Theatre, and they didn't want you to sing any Annie or Wicked songs, because they were sooooo overdone. But, what if the singer had a great voice, and the song fit their voice? Likewise, if a dream can be done well, thought-provokingly, then why should it be excluded from the story?

    As far as how many published novels included scenarios like this this year...well, look at how many novels that were published this year were actually *good* (a bit harsh, I know, but I didn't find many that I liked, sadly enough). The standard for literary art is becoming like the standard for cinematography -- blah, and all about making cash. I hate to say it, but it's true. Of course, that just means that the good books like ours will have their room to shine, and that the other really good published novels will get their due. :)

    Thanks for the post. I really enjoyed it.



  16. Too true!

    Get this. I once had an R on a query because the agent said she didn't like stories that started out with a dream... Er... My story did NOT start out with a dream... it's something I'm aware of, so... yeah... that was pretty funny!

  17. Rules, rules, rules. What about the plethora of books released lately that don't break paragraphs for different speaker quotes, or heck, don't use quotes at all, just italics, talk in the first person plural for the entire book or use every POV that was ever created by the people who made the rules?

    I say, heed the advice then be a rebel with boldness.

  18. I just woke up and read this, so is that bad?

    Should I have stayed in bed and dreamt writing this comment.

    Would it have made more sense... (no!)

    I, too, have heard those "rules" and while I would be wary, I am sooooo dying to start a story with "It was a dark, stormy night..."

  19. If you can avoid it, do. There are a lot of books that start out with waking up. Most of them worked. Think of how many more would start that way if there wasn't a "rule" against it.

  20. Working with middle schoolers has given me a new take on this and why you just shouldn't do it: it comes of as very "kid." Or, if you like, amateurish. Seriously. Half of the kids want to start their stories this way.

    Here's the thing, unless it has to do with the story, just don't.

    The only book I can think of where this was really used effectively was Metamorphosis by Kafka. It -has- to be the opening for that story.

    I do have one kid in my class, though, who has a good opening of a kid waking up from a dream, but that's because the kid in the story had fallen asleep during class. Drool and everything.

  21. The only reason it is a "rule" (in my humble opinion) is because it's generic. Over done. Uninteresting. So if one was able to start a book with someone waking up that turned all that its head...then okay. But generally speaking, it's just that...overdone!

  22. As someone else here mentioned, The Hunger Games starts off with Katniss waking up... and I loved the book. I think that there will always be exceptions to the writing "don'ts" rules as long as the writer can hold the reader's interest.

  23. I don't mind reading a wake up scene. If done right it can work. I feel if you self-pub do what you want and don't let anyone tell you what to do... BUT if you are trying to traditionally publish you might want to rethink just because it's not widely accepted. But for me I don't mind at all :)

  24. There are way too many "rules" out there, and they aren't really rules anyway. I think they are just conclusions reached by writers after getting feedback from agents about things that don't work. Starting with a dream or waking up might be one of those things agents mention, but that's because they didn't work in the novel the agent is taking a pass on. And yes, if an agent or editor has seen too many manuscripts that start the same way, there's a chance that boredom might prevent them from reading further.

    So go cautiously with overdone gimmicks, but write your story the way it needs to be told. If that includes beginning with a wake up, then do it.

  25. I don't mind it when a character is waking up, but there are so many other ways of beginning a book I wonder why it's so prevalent.

  26. I can't say I love it for chapter one. I don't really know why... Maybe because people are boring when they wake up? Or maybe because it feels like we are jolted into the story?

  27. I'm with you David; I think sometimes it can work, and sometimes not. Same with prologues, although mostly prologues don't work for me.

    My thoughts are more to ensure that first line, first paragraph, first page give a sense of the overall story, and not just a gimmick to start the book. Good writing trumps the rules, no matter how famous the author :)


  28. I also wrote a few alarm clocks buzzing or phone calls interrupting sleep in beginnings when I started out, it's not that it's wrong, it's just overdone. If you can think of a new angle, something out of the ordinary... then go for it!

  29. I don't start a story or book with a character waking up, but I have started a chapter that way. I do think it's been done to death, which is probably why the advice not to do it. But with me, as a reader, if anything is done well, then I enjoy it and forget the "shoulds". I just don't take a chance when writing, since I'm not a famous author.

    I also have noticed a lot of books that contain the "no-nos", and some of them really do work for me. For instance, "show don't tell". I've read and enjoyed quite a few books that are replete with narrative and more narrative. Again, as a reader, if it's done well and the story carries me along, I go with it. But also (again), I try not to do it in my writing for the reason listed above.

  30. Yes, I've noticed the waking up scene in some books before. I like introduces you to the story, setting, etc.

    But yeah, there are always rules that we can decide to follow or not. I like prologues though.

    Great post!

  31. Personally, I don't mind if the book begins with someone waking up. What bothers me is when the book starts with one story and then you come to find out in the second chapter that the story is actually about that person's kids, 20 years later, or chapter one was a dream and the book you thought you were reading is actually completely different. I find that very deceptive and annoying. But if you want to START with someone waking up, fine, go for it. Just don't spend the first chapter lying to me about the story. :(

  32. Great perspective. There are several taboos that, when well done, work very nicely. At the same time, some of the best books I know definitely break the stereotypes and start where you'd never think they should. But the key is, the authors make it work.

  33. I can't think of a book I've read with the mc waking up. Now I'm going to be on the look out for it.

  34. That kind of thing doesn't bother me, but I wonder too why some authors can get away with it, but others can't. Maybe it is the debut author thing.

    I would try avoid it if possible though. But there are so many cliches we're supposed to avoid. It's hard sometimes.

  35. I started Under the Hill with my MC waking up, because it's the middle of the night and he's just heard a noise and he thinks there's an intruder in the house. It struck me as a quick way to hit the ground with some peril that most people can identify with. (It turns out to be elves, which makes his phone call to the police rather awkward and is less identifiable, but hey, up until that point, I expect everyone's been there and know how he feels.)

    It's not an opening I use as a rule, but where it works I don't see why you should refuse it.