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
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?
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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