Wednesday, February 5

Studying the Waking Up Scene: Is it Really That Bad?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

One of the things on the common list of writing “nevers” is starting a scene with someone waking up—especially if it’s the opening scene. At first glance it doesn’t seem like it should be so taboo. After all, it’s a clear start to a day or a situation, and it gives both readers and writers a leaping off point for the story.

Like the don't use adverbs advice, this is a “rule” that is quoted frequently, but doesn’t always come with solid reasons as to why it’s bad. So let’s look a little closer at this all-too-common scene and study why writing pros advise against it.

Key Elements of a Good Opening Scene

Openings have a lot of pressure on them because they need to grab readers and pull them into the novel. They need to:
  • Introduce readers to a likable or compelling character
  • Present a problem or story question to be solved (show goals and conflict)
  • Ground readers in the world or setting
  • Entice readers to read on
Let’s compare the typical waking up scene against these elements and see what happens.

Introduce readers to a likable or compelling character

Let’s face it, most people don’t wake up at their best and characters are no exception. They’re sleepy, annoyed at being woken up, moving slowly, and they don’t have much ambition to drive them or the story forward. There's just not a lot going on in a waking up scene to allow the character to shine.

Making it work: Show something about how the character wakes up that's compelling or intriguing.

(More on creating compelling characters here)

Present a problem or story question to be solved (show goals and conflict)

This is where it's easy to see the limits of a waking up scene. These scenes frequently start in one of three ways: a character doesn’t want to wake up, a character goes through her daily routine, or a character has a rude awakening. None of these contain any conflict or compelling goals.

The “Don’t Wanna” Scene: It's hard to bring conflict into someone not wanting to get out of bed. And if the conflict is the character dreading with what's going to happen after they get up, why not just start with her already awake? There's nothing to be gained by showing her in bed whining about her day.

The "Routine Day" Scene:
Same with this scene. We all know what getting up and getting ready looks like, so unless this is radically different for some reason (possible in a science fiction or fantasy novel) there's no conflict and nothing to draw readers in.

The "Rude Awakening" Scene:
This one seems like it ought to work but it rarely does, because readers aren't yet grounded in the world or invested in the characters to care. These scenes also commonly try to evoke mystery by not giving readers enough information to become intrigued, so it's just a faceless person scared of or dealing with an unknown problem.

There's no inherent conflict in waking up, and that's the real issue with this type of scene.

Making it work: Add conflict in some way.

(More on adding conflict to your scenes here)

Ground readers in the world or setting

People waking up are not interacting with their worlds, they're gearing up to interact with them. Bedrooms or bedrolls are not good representations of what that world is like--it's all too generic.

Making it work:
Have the character wake up somewhere that shows the critical aspects of the world or setting and allows her to interact with it in a meaningful way.

(More on grounding readers in your world or setting here)

Entice readers to read on

This is why most waking up scenes don't work--they're set up, not the actual story, and readers know it. Waking up is just what has to happen before the story begins, a way to introduce the character and set the scene. In 99% of these scenes, starting a few pages into the chapter provides a much stronger opening.

Making it work: Make waking up matter, and make it interesting enough to entice readers to know what happens next.

(More on enticing readers to read on here)

Like all things writing, every rule can be broken with great effect if done well. If your waking up scene does everything a good beginning needs to do, it can work. If it's just throat-clearing before you get to the good stuff, it won't work.

Have you ever read a strong waking up scene? Why did it work for you? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. I can't think of any I've read right now, but I've got one I've written that takes place a couple chapters into one of my WIPs that I think has some strong elements going for it. The last thing that character remembers is sparring with the other main character and him going strange during their session. His eyes go funny, and he seemed not all there, attacking harder and harder until he smashes her leg. She'd passed out at that point. So she wakes up with a bunch of questions like what happened, why, and where was she (not at sparring grounds anymore and also not her room). And she's also realizing she's been partly healed by magic. And the only possible person who could have done it is her new friend (the one she'd been sparring with), who had adamantly sworn off using magic before she'd even met him. Then her stirring wakes him up (he'd been slumped in a nearby chair) and they have a bit of a not-an-argument over his excessive guilt and some teasers regarding his past which is why he'd gone strange during their sparring. He doesn't reveal much, but what he doesn't say and how he doesn't say it tells her quite a bit, too. It's still rather rough, but I like re-reading what I wrote, so I'm hoping it'll work for others as well when I get it polished.

    1. It sounds like it'll work fine. It fits with the story and has context before the reader reaches it. I think wake up scene farther into the book aren't as problematic.

  2. The Hunger Games opens with Katniss waking up the morning of the reaping. Of course, the reaping and her sister's bad dreams about it are mentioned in paragraph one, and it grabs us right away. Ms. Collins has managed to open with a character waking up, while putting tension and story questions right into that supposedly cliched opening.

    One of the things I learned at my last writers' conference is that while we might read the openings of a few books a month, agents read the openings of hundreds of books a month. They become really sick of things that they have to see over and over again; things the average reader might not object to. I think the average reader will still give a book a few pages or even chapters to get moving, but no agent or editor will.

    One panel I attended was called, "Reading the Slush Pile." The agents were laughing and rolling their eyes as they read one opening page after the next. I got a rude awakening in things that turn agents off.

    I have to admit, if I had to read as many bad, dull, or cliched openings as they do, I would become much more critical much more quickly.

    1. It's funny, because Hunger Games is the most popular answer when this topic comes up. It's a great scene, and proof that everything can work if done well.

      That's an excellent point about agent readings and reader readings. This is probably why these "rules" exists. Poor agents see the best and worst of way too many openings.

  3. I was going to say "Hunger Games" as well, Leslie. Excellent example, in my opinion. That moment builds so much tension and immediately lets the reader know Katniss' role in her family. It definitely made me want to read on and learn about the world she lived in. There was such a heaviness -- how she spoke of her mother lost beauty and her sister's innocence, and that ugly cat who protects her sister.

    I can't think of any more examples, probably because they were all bad.

    Another wonderful resource. Thank you for sharing.

    1. My pleasure. I also thinks it's telling when everyone mentions the same example.

  4. The very opening of Roger Zelazny's first Amber book, "Nine Princes in Amber," begins with Corwin waking up in a hospital bed.

    It worked because of (1) the book's very first line, "It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me."; (2) the almost immediate introduction of a mystery; and (3) the protagonist quickly turning proactive.

    And, yeah, as an editor I can vouch for the fact that *way* too many of these turn up in the slushpile. Maybe as many as the headlong action openings without any effort to have the reader connect with the protagonist first.


    1. Those also came out back in the 70s, when the cliche wasn't so cliched. But even then it still did was a good opening should do.

  5. Chapter One of my near-future SF novel Division starts with one of two conjoined twins waking up. A conflict (!) quickly develops between him and his brother, about whether to keep sleeping or to get up and practice for a recital. We get to see how these main characters interact, and are introduced to a few of the differences in how they approach their lives -- differences which become crucial. We also get to meet another fairly important character, who shows up during the argument.

    1. The fact that it's conjoined twins immediately sets up an interesting situation, so the waking up isn't typical. Good example of one that would likely work.

  6. Hmm, I never really thought of that. I'll have to see how many of those waking up scenes I have used in my stories. I know I've used some waking-up-and-something-is-wrong scenes (not openers) in some of them.

    In the book that I currently have out to my beta readers, it opens with an intense nightmare sequence, followed by a jarring wake-up and conflict scene between the mother and the teen protagonist. I'll have to ask my betas how it worked for them.

    1. Hopefully it works, though it does fall into the common openings pile. Probably worth taking a close look at it just to be sure. Fingers crossed for you that it does!

  7. I've read a few openers set this way; no real objection but maybe the author made it work? Especially since I wasn't aware of this "guideline" (seems more flexible a term than "rule"). Haven't started stories this way, but I do have a story in which a key scene comes to a close. It is followed by the other POV character waking up and dealing in the aftermath. Far as I can tell, it works (and not sure how I'd progress the story otherwise, lol).

    1. Definitely a guideline. And honestly, things like this are more like missed opportunities. (And now I just got a topic idea for next week, thanks!) So many slush pile novels open this way so it's hard to stand out.

      I also think later waking up scenes work much better because the reader is already invested.

  8. I've never had an issue with the wake up scene as a reader. I'm okay with it. It's a way to start. However, as a writer, it's been pounded in my head not to do it. So even though I keep away from it in my writing, I've no problem with it reading-wise.

    1. It always makes me chuckle (and cry) and the difference between readers and agents/editors. I wonder how book reviews feel? They're right in the middle between casual reading and "work" reading a lot of books.

  9. I've never written a waking up scene! I'm sure I've read them, but none come to mind. I can handle just about any opening scene, as long as it's written well :)

    1. That's certainly the key--anything can be done if done well. Such a cliche to say that but I believe it (grin). Good writing and storytelling overcomes pretty much anything.

  10. I completely understand why starting with the main character waking up is not a strong start (and thanks for putting it into words so well, Janice!) but sometimes a story just begs to start that way. Though it always helps to know the 'rule' before you break it.

    These are the opening words of my first novel published by Harper Impulse, Waking up in Vegas, and I hope it works as an example of how the 'rule' can be broken:

    I wish I were dead. Phoenix moaned and pulled the pillow over her head to block out the blinding light and the clamour of rain. If only her head would just explode and get it over with.
    At least the pillow seemed softer this morning. And it smelled nicer than normal too. A fresh citrus scent that quickened her blood.
    Hang on a minute. Rain? In Vegas?
    She peeked out from under the pillow. Oh my…
    Not her room.

    1. I like it. I think the hints that she wakes up hung over, possibly in strange places, adds interest to this. And it does get to the conflict very quickly, another plus.

  11. I fear I may be tarred by this same brush, and have even asked around the webs about it, so maybe you all can tell me.

    The MC needs to find himself unexpectedly alone aboard a ship usually teeming with crew. Now, to be fair, he is not shown waking up, doesn’t brush his teeth or put on his clothes. In effect he woke up five or ten minutes earlier, and is about to set out in search of his shipmates.

    In fact, there’s really only one sentence that describes his sleeping at all, and it’s there mostly for grounding, lest the reader think the crew has vanished with a poof.

    “He wasn’t surprised to have been left sleeping, but wondered how he’d not been roused by the crew’s no doubt raucous departure.” Or something like that. I've added/removed it several times so it's not yet re-jelled.

    I can find no meaningful way to ‘work it in later’. I have only a scant few paragraphs to build reader sympathy for this guy, and his obvious isolation (ostracization) aboard ship is a big part of it. Within two pages the poop hits the fan and we’re off to the races, and bringing it up after that feels very stuck on and contrived.

    But in a few reviews, I've been 'dismissed' as "opens with waking up, unacceptable".

    Am I truly doomed here? Will every agent who reads this waking up opening hit the auto-reject button?

    1. Hard to say without seeing more, but it doesn't sound like the bad waking up scene type. He's already up, already dealing with a problem, and it sounds like there's conflict right away. If that's the case, then you're probably fine.

      If your feedback is only that it has a waking up scene, then it might just be people telling you the bad "rule." Like if they can't back up why that's bad beyond "people say don't it."

      If the feedback offers reasons why that isn't working for them, that might indicate a problem.

      You can try submitting it to Real Life Diagnostics if you want. You'd get some good feedback about that exactly question.

    2. Thanks very much for the reply!!

  12. I wrote a waking up scene to start a novel once. (Pauses to feel nostalgic.) The character woke to the sound of someone breaking into her house, where she lived alone. I thought it worked, especially since the opening scene was her grabbing the nearest vase and rushing downstairs to confront the prowler.

    1. It all depends on how it's done. If you established the character and hit all the right buttons to hook the reader, it probably did. If it felt too abstract or disconnected, then maybe not.

  13. Not only does Hunger Games open with a waking up scene, Collins' earlier series, Gregor the Overlander, also begins with a waking scene. But in both she manages to convey so much about the characters, the family dynamics, the setting. I think it's unfortunate that agents and editors tend to write these openings off right away. Not everyone writes as well as Suzanne Collins, but I'm sure some perfectly good novels are being ignored because of this arbitrary rule.

    1. I'm not sure they write them off, but I do believe that it triggers a "oh great, another one of those openings" and sets up a negative response right away. Just like something readers have read a ton of times makes a book feel flat or predictable.

  14. Not giving away too much here, but a waking up scene to start a second book, when the reader is wondering exactly what happened at the end of the previous book, can work. Thinking about that - and the availability of the next book together is for the writer to work on: if a reader can check out the beginning of the next book online, or it is right there as a teaser chapter at the end of the previous book, the beginning may need to be different than if the next book isn't out yet, and all the reader will remember is being tantalized, signing up for the newsletter to be informed when the next book comes out, and that she liked the first book.

    I agree - there is a significant difference between agents and the general reading public in the area of having read too many openings.

    Maybe the agents should be looking at whether the scene does all the other things a first scene should do: introduce the (a) main character, start conflict, get bits of the setting in (so the reader gets oriented), whatever it needs to get the clock ticking.

    "Like all things writing, every rule can be broken with great effect if done well." The key is to do it well.

    If the agent is too jaded, eschew agents - or find a better one.

    Well put.

    1. I think that would only work if the reader went right from book one to book two. If they had to wait a year between books, they'd forget everything and could be confused.

      I think agents do look for all the other things as well. They're not going to reject someone for doing one thing, they look at the project as a whole.

  15. Not going to lie, my novel is a victim of the waking up scene. Could you consider doing a post on other over-done opening scenes that agents/editors see too often and might be sick of? I'm curious if anything original is left! Haha, thanks again for your wonderful insight!

    1. I'll add it to the idea list. Could make for a fun article. Thanks!

  16. Wow! Great article and amazing replies! I believe we not only learn from our mistakes, but from one another as well. So, thank you all for teaching me something today.

    5 years ago, I began writing my first book (novel) and I'm in my third round of edits. I made too many major changes and must go back to the drawing board. URGH!

    Now, my opening scene is a 72-year-old antagonist with a clandestine past, wakes up in a panic attack and fumbles to take her medicine. She had been suffering with attacks since childhood. The plot is centered around the reasons for these attacks, which she withheld from her grownup children.

    Do you think this will work, in my case?

    Again, many thanks for this great article.

    Seasons Greeting to you and your family!


    1. Glad I could help :) Don't fret about your first book. Having to go back to square one is very common, and that's all part of writing.

      It's hard to say without seeing the actual text, but generally speaking:

      If the scene focuses on her being in a panic and then moves on to the start of the novel, it will probably feel like a cliched wake up scene. The panic doesn't go anywhere, it just happens.

      If the panic causes the goal or conflict on the scene and moves the story forward, then it might work just fine.

      The difference would be between "this is something that happens to my character" and "here is a plot-driving situation that opens my story."

      Does that help?