Good Morning.. or is it? Three reasons NOT to open your story with your character waking up.


Short answer: NO.

Long answer… it depends. Like everything in writing, there is no hard and fast rule, but I just scoped out three new novels, each of which featured their characters awakening in the morning in bed.

Has anybody out there NOT had this conversation with someone?

Has anybody out there NOT had this conversation with someone?

I too have been an offender; one of my earliest short stories began with a lovely morning in bed for the main character. And it was stupid. Was it horrible? No, but it didn’t do anything for the story.

Some reasons why people might choose to open in a character’s bed are:
a) It is the logical beginning to any day. This is true. It does not however, mean it is the logical place to begin a story. Your story begins with the disruption of the status quo–that’s always where your story begins, because nobody wants to read about the boring same-old, same-old.

b) It is relatable. This, again, is true. You know what’s also relatable? Pooping. By this logic, why not begin your novel with your character on the toilet?
Everybody wakes up somewhere. There are certain things about being human which are universal. These don’t help you relate to a character; they’re taken for granted and cut out of a story. Everybody pees between two and five times a day–sometimes more. So why don’t more books feature frequent potty breaks? Because readers are smart enough to assume that these people pee and the writer has better things to use his words on. Imagine a book where, every fifty pages or so, the character stops the action to take a piss, then comes back and resumes the story.
Waking up is a bodily function, and as such, it comes standard on a human character. You don’t get extra emote points with readers because they have it in common.

c) It tells you about a character. Seems true, but this one isn’t as true as you think. Yeah, we might learn our character drinks coffee EVERY morning. Oooh, breaking some new ground there, Hawthorne!
Maybe they talk about their world while they’re doing their morning ‘toilet,’ as the Europeans say. Then it’s TELLING exposition where SHOWING would be more satisfying to the reader.
Writing a scene like this is tantamount to writing a Saturday-Morning-Cartoon-style Themesong for your book, in which you name the characters and set up the drama. Recall your ‘Animaniacs:’

We’re Animaniacs
…Come join the Warner brothers,
and the Warner sister, Dot.
Just for fun, we run
around the  Warner Movie-lot.
They lock us in the tower
whenever we get caught.
But we break loose,
and then ‘vamoose,’
so now you know the plot.

Effective. Also, it negates the need for continued exposition in every episode, so new viewers can jump right in.
Now I don’t know about you, but I fancy myself and my work a bit more high-brow than a Saturday Morning Cartoon-show. Needless to say, I think I can do better than that.
Your story is NOT A CARTOON (unless it is, in which case, rock-rock on). There’s almost nothing you can’t expose to the readers naturally as the story unfolds. Check out my post on showing v. telling for more tips here.

So when IS it ok to open with a character waking up?  As I said before, the only true rule of writing is whatever works, works. But examination of two other guidelines in fiction will show us the way: In Medias Res, and Upheaval of the status quo.
a) Your character wakes up, but there’s something different. Something he didn’t know about when he went to sleep, or something that surprises him. Maybe there’s a strange person in bed with him–one he doesn’t remember ever meeting? Maybe he’s in a strange place–not the same place he fell asleep?
b) There’s something about your character or their situation which makes it impossible for them to wake up “normally.” In this one, I’m citing example, but recall the short story “Memento” (if you haven’t read it drop what you’re doing and find it now). I won’t spoil anything, but we immediately see subtle differences in his environment which SHOW us something is wrong.
The other one I’ll cite is Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur Dent wakes up in the morning, but is too groggy to notice the team of big yellow bulldozers creeping on his house–until it’s too late.

And that’s not the limit; there could be a hundred other situations in which your character could awake and it would HELP the story. But think about it for yourself. Are you starting here because you don’t know where else to start? Then chances are there’s a better place to start.

Leave me a comment! Let me know if you agree–tell me of some other offenders, or even some success stories, of stories beginning in a person’s morning. 

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