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Monday, September 25, 2023

Breaking Writing Rules: "Never Start with a Character Waking Up"

There are so many wrong ways to start a story, or even just a scene, and one of the common "wrong" ways is to open with a character waking up. It's even more "wrong" if the character then goes about his or her ordinary routine--shower, clothes, breakfast, commute. And yet, we've all seen and read stories, or scenes, that start, more or less, this way. So what gives? Why is it a "don't"? And when and how can we make it a "do"? In today's post, I want to go through just that.

What's the Rule?

Don't open a story or scene with a character waking up. Furthermore, don't then have the character go about her ordinary day.

Why it's a Rule

There are several reasons why this is a rule:

1. It can be lazy and weak.

For many writers, it's difficult to know when and how to start the story, or a scene, on the page. While it would often be ridiculous to start with the character's starting--his birth (though there are some exceptions where this works), usually the next natural starting we think of, is the start of the character's day.

Waking up is a natural "start" of something, so many writers will grab it without thinking. So in a sense, one could argue it's grabbed out of laziness. Or at least a lack of preparation. The writer didn't take the time to really consider what should be on the page.

Unfortunately, it can also be a weak starting.

It's unlikely the character waking up and beginning his ordinary routine, is important for the audience to sit through--important for the audience to know--for the story. It often ends up just being filler that needs to be scrapped later.

Now if you want to open that way in a rough draft and scrap it later once you've "found" or discovered the story, then please, follow the creative process that works best for you.

But starting with a character waking up and going about a typical routine is usually a weak choice for an opening. It often isn't interesting.

2. It can be cliche.

Because writers often grab this starting without thinking, it gets grabbed a lot. This can make the opening cliche. The audience--and especially the agents and editors--have seen this opening dozens (or hundreds) of times. So it's not going to hook or impress them.

When to Break the Rule

Let's talk about when starting with a character waking up, can work well . . . 

1. It's not an ordinary day (or routine) for the character.

Sometimes you can justify starting with a character waking up, when it's a special or unusual day, such as a birthday, wedding day, or Christmas Day. Or maybe it's the day of a first job or a critical deadline . . . or the morning after a first-ever one-night stand.

The Hunger Games literally starts with Katniss waking up in bed, but it's the morning of the reaping, and Prim isn't near her, which is unusual. This can help grab the audience right away.

2. It's not an ordinary way to wake up.

Maybe the character wakes up in or from unusual circumstances. This may better grab the audience's attention. Maybe he's tied up. Maybe he's just time-traveled. Maybe he's been in cryo-sleep. Maybe he's waking up alone for the first time in decades.

Do be mindful, though, that even things such as waking up from cryo-sleep can be overused and cliche, so you’ll still want to find ways to make it interesting . . . which I'll get to in a bit.

3. It's an ordinary day (or routine) for the character, but not for the audience.

If your story takes place in an unusual setting, you may be able to get away with the character waking up on an ordinary day and then doing ordinary things--because they aren't ordinary to the audience.

Barbie is a great example of this. While the film starts with a prologue (which we may liken to Barbie's "birth"), the main story opens with Barbie waking up and going through her typical morning routine. It's familiar, but the world she inhabits is different. Her shower has no water. Her cup has no drink. She magically floats out of her house.

4. The inciting incident hits quick.

The beginning of the story should help establish a sense of what's normal. Or at least, the current normal. This is sometimes relative to the story. It's normal compared to what will come later. In any case, that normalcy will be disrupted by the inciting incident.

If the inciting incident hits very early, you may justify starting the story with your character waking up and going about his ordinary routine. This will quickly establish the norm just before you upend it.

5. It begins with a dream.

Starting a story, or even a scene, with a dream is often considered a big no-no. This is because dreams lack immediacy and tension (or work off false tension). But like anything, there are exceptions where dreams can work well, such as if the dream is actually a premonition or vision. (But dreams themselves will be for another post.)

If you start with a dream, then obviously you will also likely have the character waking up as well. It sounds like common sense, but sometimes we writers overthink things and need to hear it from someone else.

In the Harry Potter series, Harry has dreams that turn out to not be ordinary dreams at all, so naturally, we have scenes with him waking up.


Now with all this said, these aren't necessarily automatic excuses to have a character wake up on the page. Ask yourself: Do you really need the character waking up and doing ordinary things on page? Or can you start the scene later? Is this the best way to open the scene, or story? Is it truly important for the audience to know how the character woke up?

How to Break the Rule

Let's say you've decided that, yes, the character needs to wake up on page. This means you have some things working against you: It's been done a lot, so can be cliche. And it's usually not interesting. How do we work around those issues and still keep readers invested?

For one, what happens needs to be tied to the story, and not just filler. Typically, that means it's pertinent to the plot. But it could also be used to speak to character. Or relate to theme.

Just because you've decided to start with a character waking up doesn't mean you get a pass to be lazy in handling your scene opening. It should still (usually) have these four key elements: a hook, setup (aka "grounding"), a goal, and stakes. So say your character wakes up on his anniversary day (setup), but alone (hook), because his wife has recently moved out. Nonetheless, he intends to make it the best anniversary ever for her (goal), in the hopes he can win her back (stakes). That scene opening is plot-relevant.

Sometimes how someone wakes up and starts his routine can be used to show off character. In A Man Called Otto, we see Otto wake up just before his alarm goes off. This is someone who is predictable and punctual--and even though he wakes before his alarm every day, he still sets his alarm. That alone conveys a lot. But it doesn't stop there. We see how precise he is in taking care of his house, and what a rule-stickler he is in the neighborhood. We learn plenty from an ordinary man waking up on an ordinary day, doing ordinary things.

Or perhaps the scene opening speaks to theme, such as Scrooge waking up Christmas Day and demanding to know what day it is, and then setting about to be more charitable than he's ever been.

And of course, often plot, character, and theme overlap in places.

Every rule can be broken, but it needs to be done for the right reasons and in the right way.

More Articles in this Series:

Read What Others Are Writing on the Topic:

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  1. The timing of my reading this blog post is serendipitous. I've just started outlining my first book, and it starts with the main character waking up. It does hit more than 1 of your listed criteria to start with a wake-up, but now I'm going to sit down and think of other ways to start it. The only thing that is important to me is that I foreshadow some sense of impending doom somewhere on the first page.

    Thank you for the blog posts. I ran across your blog while looking for information on the Em dash, which then led me to the semi-colon post. Both of those were good enough that I found myself bookmarking the front page before landing on this article.

    1. I'm glad this came just when you needed it! If there is another way to start it, it's probably safer to start it that way.

      I'm also glad the other posts were helpful. I don't do a lot of punctuation, but once in a while, I do.


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