Monday, February 24, 2014

Question: If I break an iron clad rule, am I doomed?

Oh Wise and Worldly Ms. Shark,

I'm looking for some guidance (hope) on the warning to 'never start a story with a character waking up'. When I first started crafting this tale, I wasn't aware of the abhorrence this elicits in so many folks.

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. An unexpected liberty had been called.

I can find no meaningful (not inelegant) way to 'work it in later'. I have only a scant few paragraphs to build reader sympathy for this guy, and his obvious isolation ( and ostracization) 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 really contrived.

I've even gone so far as relocating (to the beginning) a flashback reveal that occurs much later in the story, the true inciting incident, which occurs well in advance of the opening, with naught but boring sea voyage between. But doing this feels very stuck on, almost like a prologue, even though I've edited out the flashbackiness.

I could make it a prologue, at my peril, but would still be back at my 'waking' beginning, especially for any(every)one who skips it. And the reveal works so much better where I had it before, after it has been referred to several times and the reader is just dying to know: what really happened, why was he really marooned, etc.

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


Woeful in Weeki Wachee

Let's all remember that you can break every rule in the book and twice on Sunday IF you do it well. The rules "no sleeping, no driving, no this that and the other" really mean Don't Bore Me. Driving, waking, sleeping are all static.

Now, if you open a scene with a car chase, that's certainly driving and done well, it can be very very dynamic.

And weather? Well, open in a hurricane and you just might have something pretty tense.

And in your case, you might have your character waking but if he finds himself mysteriously alone on a ship that should be crewed by dozens...well, I'd sure want to read on to find out why.

The rules are guidelines for keeping out of trouble.  Sometimes though, you really want to be IN trouble, and breaking the rules is a good way to get there.


Josin L. McQuein said...

I've always found those "don't" rules funny. The biggest hits of the last decade or so each break one of them.

"Always start with the main character and action!" -- except Harry Potter doesn't.

"Never start with the weather!" -- except Twilight does.

"Never start with a character waking up!" -- except the Hunger Games does.

"Never start with the main character looking at herself in a mirror!" -- Except Divergent does.

If it works, it works. If it works well, even better.

Deep River said...

The "don't start with the character waking up rule" generally applies to situations in which the writer doesn't know when to begin the story, so he chooses to start by turning the character 'on' like an appliance, so to speak. Bad idea.

In your case, you're presenting your character with a crisis (the crew has vanished overnight) and jumping into the action immediately (the search). Good idea.

The waking-up is essential to establishing mystery: The crew vanished outside the character's observation.

You're also building tension through a sudden change in an ordinary routine: last night, everything normal. This morning... chaos. Better idea.

And that flashback thing? Leave it where your gut tells you to put it. Worry about that in revision.

I think you're on to a good thing.

Heather Kelly said...

I love that explanation by Deep River--to not turn on the character like an appliance--that really explains the why not behind the don't. :)

Colin Smith said...

Just adding my "amen." There are no "rules" in writing fiction--as Janet said, there are guidelines to keep you out of trouble. I'm sure there are people out there who could write a really boring car chase, or a thoroughly dull opening fight scene. The craft of writing is more about how well you write than what you write. Don't worry about whether your subject is engaging; worry more about whether you can MAKE the subject engaging. :)

Anonymous said...

"A Wrinkle in Time" started out with "it was a dark and stormy night," and still won a Newbery.

Elissa M said...

"The rules "no sleeping, no driving, no this that and the other" really mean Don't Bore Me."

This sums up the issue perfectly. As a bonus, it not only applies to "the rules", but to all of writing.

Unknown said...

This post + comments are perfect. I think isn't it great to keep in mind that many of the world's greatest authors (ie Charles Dickens, Jane Austen) had no forums, blog or basic clue/education/literary experience before writing books that massively changed the world? Some arts require nothing more than practice...and reading good books!

Steve Stubbs said...

Why does a sea voyage have to be boring? Read Norman Mailer’s book THE NAKED AND THE DEAD. Is that boring?

I would dump the cliches. (The poop hits the fan, we’re off to the races, etc.)

Why can’t the character start by doing Something Exciting? After doing Something Exciting he meanders off to his stateroom briefly, then returns to the deck to find everyone gone. An odd feeling in his head suggests he was knocked out, possibly by a drug. Then we can have a cliche. Maybe the poop hits the fan. That is a better setup than Man Wakes Up. Maybe something that happened before he goes to sleep cues the reader that something ia amiss,

Maybe the character is a stowaway on the ship. He escapes the ship’s hold, which can be very dramatic (think of Casanova’s escape from the Inquisition prison in Venice if you think that is a boring idea) and when he gets to the main deck he discovers there is no one else on board. He’s there by himself and he does not know how to pilot a dinghy, let alone a ship. Besides, he does not know where in the world he is. The good news is, the ship’s radio does not work and there is no food on board. Maybe the ship is listing and taking on water.

Is that boring?

There are several episodes of the original TWILIGHT ZONE TV show that work an idea like this and the effect is riveting. In my favorite, actor Richard Long wakes up in bed fully dressed in a suit and tie. His wife is in the bathroom and when she comes out she screams. He knows his wife, but she does not know him. He scurries out of their apartment to the bank where he works, and nobody recognizes him. The security guard does not know him. The bank staff do not know him. After numerous similar adventures he finds himself in bed again, fully dressed again, freshly awakened again. His wife is in the bathroom again and he tells her he had the weirdest dream. Then when she comes out of the bathroom, HE DOES NOT KNOW HER.

The central theme is: What if you woke up and found out you’d lost your identity?

Is that boring? It starts with Long’s character waking up, but the weirdness starts almost immediately. That show had some of the best writers in the business, especially Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson.

According to THE TWILIGHT ZONE COMPANION, this little gem aired March 23,. 1962, and wss written by Charles Beaumont. Those shows are all available on DVD. The eps from the first two seasons are Not Boring. There is probably an episode guide somewhere on the net. As a die hard fan, naturally I had to have the book.

You must solve this problem. If I were Agentzilla and I saw you could not open the story I would be very concerned about your ability to carry 500,000 words of a first novel. Especially when ten seconds of thought can produce ten ways to do it. Especially when your idea has been done so many times so bloody well.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

Definitely on the "no boring" rule.

My manuscript has 8 lines in the car, by line 30, everything has just gone straight square to hell.

Hopefully I got to the fun stuff quickly enough . . . ;)


MNye said...

So, your saying there are rules? Interesting.

Janet Reid said...

MNye, the One Great Rule of writing queries (and other places you need to talk about your book) is this: Entice me to read more.

Raymond said...

Forgive the name dropping but when I was in a novel-writing class with Walker Percy, one of the best pieces of advice he gave was a simple one: writers make their own rules. Basically you can open with anything you want or write what you want. Just make sure the writing is outstanding

Dor said...

Rules are shorthand and as such they often don't make much sense. If you're going to obey a rule, it's wise to know why it exists, what purpose it serves, and how you can break it without spending the rest of the week on jankers.

In this instance, "Don't begin with the character waking up," has two (that I can think of) explanations which go with it.

The first: it can be cliche. I've read a lot of unpublished novels where the MC wakens from a nightmare, a prophetic dream, or something odd which will Be Important Later. Then there's the MC waking up with amnesia version. *Big* cliche.

But, there's Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts which begins with MC waking up with amnesia. Hall was named as one of Granta's best young novelists last year (which is a very big deal). There's Rook by Daniel O'Malley which begins with the MC waking up with amnesia. It pulls the same trick as Hall, with the MC getting letters from their pre-amnesia self. Hall's book is excellent, O'Malley's is worth a read (it picks up after the first 30% but is badly let down by some irritating details which you won't notice if you're not British). What they both do is immediately make you want to keep reading.

The second, and more important of the two: the book needs to open when the story begins. The "Don't Open with the Character waking up rule" is aimed at books where the first chapter(s) can be cut because nothing happens in them beyond the character doing the same thing she does every single day. And very often this is met with "I'm establishing the character", except that you're not because I am extremely clever and good looking and can manage to spell my name right if you'll let me have more than one go at it and can therefore jump to the massive conclusion that your MC gets out of bed, has breakfast/a wash/brushes teeth/feeds the cat etc without needing to read a 5K description of it.

"Don't begin with somebody waking up" is actually shorthand for "Begin your story where your story begins". You, Woeful, definitely sound like you're doing that.

Jenz said...

Steve Stubbs - You're overthinking. The point of the rule is, don't be boring. And suddenly finding everyone else on the ship has vanished isn't boring.

Writing that well will be important, too, but that's actually a separate issue from a boring scene premise.