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It’s not just the unpublished authors either.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.
22 Comments Add yours
Thanks as always for the advice. I am happily jubilating that I haven’t done this. However, I await the others in the hope that I am still striking it lucky
With you on both accounts!
Thanks for sharing this… I wonder if you feel similarly about starting a novel with the day ending? Or maybe the novel starting with the protagnist’s birth!?
At least Kafka got in early… and can we forgive McCarthy? I loved that one. I guess it’s as my husband says (about medicine), ‘Common things are common.’ Sage.
I take all of your points but your post has the whiff of someone is bored with their work.
I know it’s tongue in cheek but it does rather read as a negative cry of a reader overwhelmed!
I’ve not commited any of the big no noes though mine does start at sunrise!
Thanks for the advice though.
Wendy, I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.
Those both sound like great ways to start a novel, the connorseur. And might I add – great name. Just brilliant.
T upchurch, I’m inclined to let McCarthy off too. For almost anything actually. And well done for correctly identifying those two.
And to Jeannie, I would hate you to think that anyone at DA who is reading submissions is ‘bored with their work’. I know I’m biased but I find it hard to imagine anyone who could get bored with their work when their work largely consists of reading stories. Incidentally, that was the concluding note of the post I wrote on this blog about how I got into publishing (https://darleyandersonblog.com/2013/06/27/getting-into-publishing-vicki-le-feuvre-agency-editor/).
However, one of the major messages that we wanted to communicate through this blog is the notion summed up in Our Top Ten Tips For Writing a Tip Top Covering Letter No.6 (https://darleyandersonblog.com/2012/06/06/our-top-ten-tips-for-writing-a-tip-top-covering-letter-6/).
Any literary agent you submit your work to will be a flawed human being and flawed human beings get tired, think it’s a Thursday when it’s a Monday, forget to eat lunch sometimes and have terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days every now and then. Just like anyone does.
But we’re all looking for something exciting. We are excited to be excited by a submission. So we want to help you make your submissions as exciting as possible. One great way of doing this is to avoid any clichés or common routes that will mask the excitingness of your work, to avoid anything that does not immediately show off your talent and grab the reader.
Hence these editorial series. Because how are you to know what techniques are a little overused by now? You don’t read around 300 submissions a week. But we do. And we want to help.
We’re excited to help new writers in any way we can. Just like we are excited to open the postal submissions every morning and to hear the ping of a new email submission coming into our inboxes. As I said in Top Tip No. 1 – “Remember, we want to read your submission and think ‘this is it! This is the one!’ We want to join in with your excitement. We are on your side” (https://darleyandersonblog.com/2012/03/23/our-top-ten-tips-for-writing-a-tip-top-covering-letter/).
Always find your advice beneficial, so always take note. But would you recommend this for ANY scene, or solely the opening of the manuscript / introduction of the protagonist?
I started my mystery thriller with my main character waking up from being unconscoius. she gains consciousness, realizing she is bound to a ceiling by a rope and the story goes from there. I don’t know, if that still applies as a cliche, though.
I think the first one is The Road, not sure about the others. Are you allowed to wake from a dream (with snakes) at the start of a novel if it was a ‘dark and stormy morning’ 🙂
Yes thanks Vickie. So much positivity helps to combat the ever rising doubts ready to balloon up at random moments. I go from ‘yes it’s possible to why are you kidding yourself?’
Hi Vickie, I’ve enjoyed your blogs, I had a look at the five books starting with the process of waking up, didn’t get one. Having said that I’m from Wigan so if a novel doesn’t include within the opening chapter a whippet on a piece of string or the sound of cloggs clattering on cobbles then I’m at a loss.
Look forward to more insights.
Although the nightmare is very important for my story, it is true that I would not have to start my novel with it. Well, you learn something new every day. 🙂 Luckily my second novel starts with … a different type of a cliché!!! Hahahaha.
I will pay close attention to this blog, so at least I can avoid cliché openings in my third novel.
Oh dear. Child of the Hive does start with a character waking up – but at least I avoided the dream sequence.
I only got one of your quotes – as a former chair of a university Douglas Adams society, I’d be in trouble if I didn’t get that one.
1. The Road, McCarthy
2. Don’t know
3. Metamorphosis, Kafka
4. Should know…
5. The Stand? Stephen King?
Thanks for the post. First sentences fascinate me. It’s like looking into the eyes of a new person, that first bit of info that can still change so quickly.
2. The Lost Hero, Rick Riordon
5. Something by Douglas Adams, from the hitchhiker’s series, though it’s not the first book. The second?
And thanks for the tips! I don’t usually start a story with a character waking up, but it’s nice to know that there is in fact a good/less bad way to do it
Not guilty. I might have been guilty of a running dream in a first novel way back in draft one. Not since. It’s a useful warning.
Well sorry for the extreme late comment, I doubt you’ll see this, but great advice! And almost exactly how the past 5 novels I’ve read have begun… And how the book I was about to write was going to be begin… So yeah, thanks. I know #2 for sure is rick riordan’s heroes of Olympus: the lost hero. Read that last year and I think the last one is hitchhikers guide to the galaxy… Maybe…
So happy you found it useful. Best of luck with your book!
I want to write a story, but the beginning of the story needs to begin with an awaking up because it wouldn’t make sense and would ruin the suprise of the plot if it began anywhere else later on. the waking up is more of a rebirth rather than just waking up but it needs to happen all the same so idk what to do. I wasn’t going to start the story in 1st person either but get to that point later in the story as the protagonist becomes more self aware so what would u say I should do, because I don’t want to be cliché.
Hi Lizzie, this article is more about avoiding mundane detail in a story. Basically, realism is important but giving a blow-by-blow account of what a person does from the moment they wake up is boring and unnecessary. If waking up is integral to the plot, definitely open with it. Good luck with your novel! DA Agency