Pub Rants

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Q: Why does the opening character awakening scene of the HUNGER GAMES work when 99.9% of slush pile opening pages do not?

Wowza. With over 7000 people reached on Facebook and untold number of Twitter shares, I obviously hit some kind of nerve. We should entitle these last two Pub Rants blog entries: The Perils of Writing About Novel Openings with Characters Awakening.

So let’s talk about this some more.

I spotted a lot of comments where writers mentioned the opening of the HUNGER GAMES. Fair enough. So let’s take a look at that first paragraph and analyze why that waking up character opening works and 99.9% of what agents are seeing in the slush pile doesn’t.

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.  (Copyright: Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games, Scholastic Press 2010)

1) Opening 2 sentences. The importance is not on the character awakening but to alert the reader to what is different from normal.

2) Third sentence. We know Prim is a child and that it’s fairly normal for her to have bad dreams. Right away, in the hands of the master writer, even though we as readers don’t know much else about the characters etc., we know that whatever their life is, easy it is not.

3) The reason for the bad dream. The Reaping. I don’t know about you but I finished the first paragraph with an instant question that I had to know more about. What is the reaping? And why would it cause a child to find comfort with her mother when normally she wouldn’t? It can’t be good. I’m compelled to read on.

So trust me when I tell you that the majority of character waking up novel openings we are seeing in the slush pile do not remotely achieve the narrative momentum achieved in just 5 sentences shown above. The opening scenes we are seeing is literally about a character waking up and not much else. Sometimes they’ll then go to the bathroom to look in the mirror (so as to describe what the character looks like to the reader).

I’m not pointing this out to ridicule beginning writers who may recognize they’ve done this. I’m pointing it out because it’s less about the action (waking up) then about the purpose for starting the novel there. Most slush pile submissions with this construct are not using the awakening character for a compelling purpose.

And thus why agents pass on sample pages with this construct 99.9% of the time.

And here are a couple of other things new writers should keep in mind:

1) Already established authors can get away with an opening that most beginning writers can’t. Why? Because their agent and editor already trust them as writers. Once that trust is earned, you can play with all kinds of constructs or break all kinds of rules and publishing will even embrace you for it.

2) Established authors are not held to the same rules as new writers. Fair? No. But it’s the bald truth. Established authors can dump back story, input too much exposition, or do other lazy writing tactics and their fans will simply forgive them.

If you are first-timer trying to break in, the length of forgiveness is short indeed.

Photo Credit: Vic

17 Responses

  1. C.H. Armstrong said:

    I really love this topic and your explanation. I have a character waking up in my YA novel and just can’t figure out how to change it. Is it strictly necessary to the story? No, but I can’t figure out how else to put that main character in the position of overhearing a conversation between her parents that they would never have if they knew she was awake and in the home. I’m still thinking on this, but this conversation on your blog has given me much to think on. Thank you!

    1. Natasha Watts said:

      Perhaps just begin with the character overhearing the conversation. 🙂 I obviously don’t know much context, but instead of telling us she woke up to hear the conversation, thrust us into the middle of the conversation and tell us through context clues that the parents don’t know she’s awake.

      1. Deb Gallardo said:

        That’s a great suggestion, Natasha! What I find most difficult about situations like this is stepping back far enough to see as clearly as you how to simplify a scene opening. I used to constantly fight my ‘OCD’ tendency to insert minutia, as though the Detail Police were going to point out all the holes. Thankfully, I tried my hand at short fiction, and learned how to streamline things, but always after writing too much at first. I’m definitely a re-writer.

  2. Emily said:

    I think voice and command of language count for a lot, too. A friend and I were discussing Divergent recently, another book with a cliched opening (main character looking at herself in the mirror). Neither one of us cared for the book all that much, but we both agreed it was compulsively readable. As friend put it, “The voice was the hook.”

    It’s great to try and quantify WHY an opening that, in theory, shouldn’t have worked worked, but I’m not sure it’s that simple. My opinion is that sometimes things work and we don’t know why they work, only that they do, not unlike blowing on a classic Nintendo game cartridge to make it work, or banging on a broken device that suddenly decides to work.

    1. Lindsey said:

      Yes, but even that opening was different because you get the sense of disapproval with looking in the mirror given the faction she’s in. When her mother catches her looking in it and she has the moment of shame, or when we are told that she only gets to look in the mirror for a second once every month(?) That sets up the world they’re in. It’s different than just a character looking in the mirror for the sake of telling the reader what they look like.

  3. jane said:

    One of my favourite novels is The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie. It starts with Mrs Bantry slowing waking up from a hilarious dream to… well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.
    Agatha. The supreme breaker-of-all-rules.

  4. Jaligard said:

    It’s pretty much like every writing rule: if it’s riveting, the rule doesn’t matter.

  5. Nessa Armelle said:

    While I agreed with you the first time, I can honestly say that I agree even more this time around. All of your points are spot-on, and I think I finally understand a quote by W. Somerset Maugham:
    “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
    There are tips, but no rules, which is why this topic was so controversial for so many people (plus there’s the whole “fandom” thing that had their toes stepped on). Personally, I found bother versions very helpful. Thanks!

  6. Erica said:

    Nice discussion of this issue. In my opinion, the other exceptions I can think of do something similar–the character wakes up to something interesting that gets the reader wanting to know what’s going on and what will happen next. Most often, the waking-up scenes I’ve seen in critting groups don’t do this.

    And you make an interesting point about having to earn an agent or editor’s trust before they’ll let you do some of the things established writers do. This is head scratcher for me, as many agents say they want books that take tired and familiar tropes and twist them in unexpected, new ways. Yet how will an agent or editor know (when they see a familiar trope presented initially) that the first-time author is going in a different direction with it as the story unfolds and not merely presenting the trope in a way that will follow predictable paths?

  7. Brien Sz said:

    Also, Suzanne Collins had a track record going into Hunger Games. It wasn’t her first foray into publishing and one has to think that helps a great deal. And, as Jaligard pointed out, riveting trumps rules.

    Most slush pile query’s are folks looking to get into the business of writing where Ms. Collins already was in the business. I wonder if she had an in and her query went to the front of the line, so to speak. I think what Ms. Nelson is referring to is that a ‘waking character’, is not something a newbie should try and introduce their work with. Agents are trying to find something more imaginative when looking for new clients. I can only imagine an agent, late at night, tired, tea going cold, sifting through e-mail query 88, reading, “I awoke to find…”, rolling her eyes yet again and saying to herself, “Next.”

  8. Shannon said:

    Thanks for this tip! I find myself ending scenes a lot with my characters going to sleep or being knocked out, etc. And then waking up in the next scene. I’ve already started working on correcting this in my book. I wonder if the rule/tip above could also be said for later chapters. If publishers don’t like it?

    1. Dave said:

      I’m pretty sure that one started with the MC doing cocaine in a club.

      Come to think of it, that also describes the rest of the book.

  9. Hank M. Darling said:

    Absolutely great advice, all of your articles are ful of gems and techniques that are valuable tools for writers and authors. I particularly enjoyed your query tips, most agents aren’t willing to give us that kind of advice. (trust me I have asked a lot of agents what they look for in a query, i love research.) Most of the agents that I have had the opportunity to connect with responded with a vague, unstructured, pile of multifaceted guidelines that wouldn’t particularly work for every agent queried. I’ve implemented a lot of your advice and I am super excited about the results. Thank you so much for your posts, you are indeed a genuine representative of the literary arts.

  10. Corey Tate said:

    What if the opening scene of the book is not the waking up part that is important, but the dream itself? I started my first book off with a dream the reoccurs throughout the book, and in every dream you get more and more details until you eventually realize what is really going on. Sure, I executed the common principle of my character looking into a mirror later on, but that served a purpose other than describing the look of the person. Please tell me what you think.

  11. 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” (your previous blog post). I’m currently reading one of your most recent client’s works ‘A Wicked Thing’ (a new writer) 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.

  12. Kate said:

    “Already established authors can get away with [things] that most beginning writers can’t. Why? Because their agent and editor already trust them as writers. ”

    From a writer’s perspective, honestly this just makes agents seem like they identify too strongly with their personal preferences. You all hate prologues, yet look how many prologues are being published. You all hate adverbs, but open anything from ASOIAF (or any successful debut book, really) and look at all the adverbs. You hate characters looking in the mirror, but no reader cares, and it’s used a lot in deep POV writing because POV characters thinking about their appearance doesn’t make sense. You all want beginning-middle-end structures with a single protagonist, but look at the popularity of multi-POV novels and episodic pacing. All of these things come across as hoops you want us to jump through to prove that we care about what you want, yet any non-writer I’ve asked about these things does not care at all. To readers, it seems, what you want has very little relevance in the real world of what is being published.

    Jump through the hoops first, become successful by your rules, then we get to break them and do what established (or even some debut) writers are already doing? Sorry, that just sounds flat out hypocritical. It has nothing to do with “fans’ forgiveness” and everything to do with gatekeeping. No amazon reviews talk about opening with awakening, or having a prologue, or whatever pet peeve a particular agent has. Mostly they complain about generic “teenage protagonist ends up in love triangle” type tropes that seem to appeal to agents because of their formulaic dependability.

    Each work should be evaluated on its own, waking opening, looking in mirrors, adverbs, prologues and all. Otherwise we’re writing to make you happy, not to create stories.

    And PS, HUNGER GAMES was written almost entirely in sentence fragments. Suzanne Collins is not a “masterful writer”. She’s a financially successful one. Big. Difference.