Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

The Perils of Waking Characters

Status:

I’ve crossed off 2 things on my TO DO list today. That might be a record.

Listening To:

BAND ON THE RUN by Paul McCartney and Wings

OBSERVATION: Beginning your novel with the main protagonist waking up in bed will have agents passing on the material 99.9% of the time.

Here’s why:

It’s an opening we see way too often (not sure why) and 99% of the time, this opening simply is not the best place to launch your story.

1) In general, this action in an opening scene is static (read: uninteresting). It’s a struggle to make it interesting enough to merit beginning your novel here.

2) I’m going to venture a guess that a lot of newer writers don’t know where to begin their story so starting here seems like a safe place.

3) Just trust me on this, there is a better place to begin your awesome story. My suggestion? Connect back to what made you excited to write this novel in the first place and see if you can’t tap into that energy and channel it into your opening scene. Chances are good, you won’t then choose to begin your story with your main character waking up.

And LOL, wouldn’t this make a fun writing challenge? Have already successful, established authors participate and make it a requirement that their story has to begin with character awakening. Could be hilarious. Could be the first time we see a kick-ass opening with this construct.

Photo Credit: James Theophane, Creative Commons


13 Responses

  1. Styna said:

    “I awoke to a screeching directly in my right ear. Jumping from my tangle of sheets, I lunged at the throat of the monster that was surely planning to kill me, bashing it against the wall as hard as I possibly could. As I watched the pieces of its innards fall to the lush white carpet around my feet, I realized there were no droplets of warm blood, no pieces of bruised flesh. Confusion quickly turned to embarrassment as I stared down at the cord hanging from my hands, the beaten alarm clock dangling defenselessly a foot above the floor.”

    Maybe a different first paragraph would have led to a bite from an agent. :/ It simply felt like that was where the story began.
    At least I know what not to do in the future, now 🙂

  2. Erica said:

    I’ve certainly is something I’ve certainly seen many people doing with first drafts in critting groups. The starting with a dream thing too (with a big hug to previous poster–I was excited by the idea of a story starting with the MC killing a real monster as she wakes up).

    I can think of a handful of successful novels from recent years that did start with the character awakening, but it’s not to the same old same old, and something always happens right away–not the person brushing their teeth, making coffee, and having breakfast before something exciting happens.

  3. Becca said:

    Are there exceptions to this rule? My first chapter starts when my main character is woken up in the middle of then night by an attack on her home led by her sister. I don’t know that there’s another way to start the chapter.

  4. Elizabeth Conte Torphy said:

    Is this why you passed on mine????

    I never knew this, but unfortunately my first novel starts out this way…but I have to say that it hasn’t hindered my querying…..I have been asked four times for Full MS and two are still out being reviewed. Maybe there is an exception????

    But will remember this for future reference! (My second novel does NOT start out this way…..whew!!!)

  5. Erin said:

    “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”
    Hunger Games did it, but it was kind of the exception that proved the rule. The opening sentence is powerful in the fear, sadness, and loneliness it manages to create. You want to know what emotion you’re supposed to feel and why.

  6. Elias McClellan said:

    Truth, truth, truth, truth. This is right there with opening on the protag staring out the window, looking in a mirror, or having a dream. Worse, page one, line one, dialogue without any idea who’s talking, about what or why we should care.

  7. yvona said:

    Ring! Ring! Boy was that alarm loud. I rolled over, held (toy) close and pulled the soft, warm covers over my head.
    “Rise and shine! Time to get up!” Mom’s cheerful voice called. “Do you remember what today is?”
    I rubbed my eyes and poked my head out from under the covers. Yeah. Today is the first day of first grade… the first day of school. I did not like school. Last year Kindergarten was not fun at all, and I did not want to go back to Mountainside Elementary.
    “Do I have to go? I already know how to read.”
    “Of course you have to go.”

    Ugh… maybe i need to think of a better beginning.

    1. Erin said:

      It’s hard to tell where you are going, but thinking this is a chapter book. Just from what you posted, I would start with “I already know how to read.” You can tack on that school is therefore stupid or useless or that you don’t know why mom is making you go either before or after that. Make your mc think that while waiting for the bus or walking into the class, wherever your first plot conflict begins. We can infer how miserable he’s been since he woke up.

  8. Dunx said:

    I did this once as a way of establishing the MC’s synaesthesia – blocks of orange triggered by the alarm sound – but that whole opening was wrong so I have a different start to that scene.

  9. Fred said:

    Can’t resist. Here goes.

    I awoke with the wind in my hair, cold and blowing faster by the second. Above me, I saw blue sky, and I felt nothing below. Nothing. No bed. Nothing. I realized I was falling. This was no dream. I must’ve passed out when Grucko the Warlord had me dumped out of his interstellar cruiser just below space.

    Flailing against the air, I got myself turned around and saw that Earth was closing in on me. Fast. No, not Earth. It was foreign planet I didn’t recognize from 30,000 feet.

    Having no parachute, I opened up my jacket, but that only slowed me a bit. My stomach was doing flips and I felt myself passing out again.

    A screech behind me startled me. Before I even had a change to look, a warm, moist mouth enveloped me and closed. Only one thing on wings could swallow a man whole, a space drac of Rankin. I didn’t need any light to know that it was just a yearling. He didn’t have any teeth on his tongue yet. But even a yearling is powerful. I felt the muscles of his mouth contracting and squeezing me down toward his throat. I had to avowing getting sucked into his gizzard. If he sucked me down there, it was all over. I’d be ground into bloody slop in no time.

    Forcing my hands down to my pants, I took off my belt and wrapped it around the drac’s tongue then wrapped my forearm with the loose end and pulled myself back up his throat. Boy, he didn’t like that. I knew I was cutting off the circulation in his tongue.

    I felt him swerve, and the jaws opened. We were mere feet above the rocks. He tried to spit me out, but now I was strapped to his tongue.

    etc..

  10. Trevor M Davison said:

    I read a novella recently that really made this opening work: “The Following Story” by Cees Nooteboom. But he did so by turning the cliche on its head, and doing it masterfully.

    Because in the same breath as we find out that he’s waking up, he also tells us that he can’t shake the feeling that he’s dead.
    He’s also not in his own room, even though that’s where he went to bed last night. He recognizes the room he’s in — he’d spent many nights in it — but not for many years. In fact, he hadn’t even visited this city in years. So how is he here now?
    And remember, he’s pretty darn sure that he’s dead.
    The novella was fantastic. If you can track it down, it’s worth a read. It really shows how a master can take one of the big no-nos and make it work.
    That being said, until you’ve earned a certain gravitas, stick to the rules. They’re there to protect you! 🙂

  11. Lynn said:

    Fred, good job. I would turn the page and continue reading yours and it’s not the genre I usually read.

  12. Stephen L France said:

    Hi Kristin – I did wonder how far you took this rule as I see and quote you saying it will have “agents passing on the material 99.9% of the time.” I’m currently reading one of your most recent client’s works ‘A Wicked Thing’ and saw that the first line– all in uppercase–was indeed: “SHE WOKE UP WITH A KISS.” I hope you can reply as although your perception on this is understandable, I’m questioning the degree of its validity and why ‘A Wicked Thing’ escaped the rejection pile with an opening line that is frowned upon by most agents. Please respond if you are able – much appreciated.

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