With Your Protagonist Waking Up
The submission sits in front of me on the desk. I’ve read this scene about a hundred times before and here it is again. I’ll probably read it at least three more times before the day is up. The words spin in front of me and I search for the coffee I thought I had left just out of reach.
That’s when I notice the snakes. Only one at first then a couple more catch my eye as they come slithering down the bookshelves towards me. Suddenly they are everywhere, thousands of snakes writhing all over me. How can this be happening?
One of them lifts its head and glares at me across the tottering submission pile.
“Breakfasssssst,” it hisses, knowingly.
“What?” I reply.
One of them is coiling itself around my neck. I can’t breathe. I can’t think. The room is fading around me.
BEEP BEEP BEEP. BEEP BEEP BEEP.
“Vicki, hurry up! Breakfast is ready!”
I sit bolt upright in bed, clawing at the serpents that have dissolved along with the dream.
BEEP BEEP BEEP. BEEP BEEP BEEP.
“Vicki! You’re going to be late! And it’s your first day of school/that new job/going into the outlands to fight the half-human half-snake race that has taken over this hellish dystopian reality that we unfortunately live in.”
The stuff of nightmares, isn’t it? Well it’s certainly the stuff of literary agent’s nightmares, I can tell you that.
It makes perfect sense to start your novel with your protagonist waking up. That’s how each day starts, after all. Beginnings are inherent in mornings.
That’s why it should be avoided. It’s the place where the majority of people think to start their story. It’s the logical thing to do. So a lot of people do it.
For example, I would probably be surprised if I read just five submissions in a row and none of them started with the protagonist waking up. Moreover, I would be delighted to read ten submissions on the trot without a single protagonist waking up from a dream in the opening pages.
Starting with a dream makes sense too. Waking up is the sensible place to start a story but a person’s morning routine can often be mundane. How can you spice that scene up? Well with a crazy dream, of course, preferably including a hefty bit of foreshadowing but failing that just throw in a lot of snakes. People love snakes.
Again, starting with a dream makes perfect sense. That’s why everybody is doing it.
It’s not just the unpublished authors either. Writers have been kick-starting their novels with their protagonist waking up for as long as people have been waking up and other people have had the capacity to write about it.
Here’s a fun game. See if you can identify the authors who are responsible for these opening lines. Bonus points if you can tell us the novel they belong to:
- When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him
- Even before he got electrocuted, Jason was having a rotten day. He woke in the back seat of a school bus, not sure where he was, holding hands with a girl he didn’t know
- As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect
- The bedroom is strange. Unfamiliar. I don’t know where I am, how I come to be here. I don’t know how I’m going to get home
- The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was
Remember, Googling is cheating. Leave your answers in the comments below.
Did you get them all?
They weren’t that hard to come up with either because waking up really is a common starting point for many stories.
Although, you will notice that none of these waking up scenarios place the protagonists in an everyday, mundane situation. When this is the case the waking up part of the scene effectively becomes one of the least important things about it, rather than the most.
This is good.
Yet, still I’d advise you to find another point of the day to focus your opening lines around if at all possible.
If you must, however, these are the main constructs which I’d advise you to avoid:
- A dream. Particularly a dream that starts out like a normal scene and then weird things begin to happen before, oh twist, it turns out it was all just a dream
- Anyone ‘sitting bolt upright in bed’, ‘burying their head deeper into the pillow’ or the sheets being ‘drenched with sweat’
- Onomatopoeia. Alarm clocks, ringtones, knockings on doors – leave them out
- Any of these phrases: ‘Breakfast is ready’, ‘you’re going to be late for [x]’, ‘sleepy head’, ‘wakey wakey’, ‘rise and shine’, ‘up and at them’, ‘just five more minutes’ and any variations thereupon
- The smell of breakfast rousing your protagonist from their slumber/bed
- Your protagonist getting out of bed to look at themselves in the mirror (assuming they look the way they would on any other day and haven’t, say, aged several years from the last morning they remember)
- Your protagonist being even slightly hung-over
- Your protagonist waking up on the first day of anything in particular
The problem is that the waking up opening scene has been done so many times by so many writers that it’s almost impossible to avoid the clichés.
At this point you’d need to do something extreme like having your protagonist wake up to discover he’s transformed into a colossal creepy-crawly overnight to make the scene feel original enough that your chosen literary agent won’t even notice what you’re doing.
Although I should warn you, even that one has been done already.