The World’s Worst Story Opening (And How To Do It So It Works)

wpid-1332031954368.jpgBack in May, Chuck Wendig did this post about breaking rules. I like Chuck. He’s a smart guy. Knows his shit when he talks about writing, too, which is why we flew him out as a guest for last year’s GenreCon. But I’ve gotta admit, when he put up his post saying, well, fuck the rules, and included the following list of rules worth fucking, it kinda made my testicles crawl into my body and seek refuge from the terror he’d unleashed upon the world:

Don’t open on weather.

Don’t open with a character looking in a mirror.

Don’t open on a character just waking up.

(Wendig, IN FICTION, NOTHING IS FORBIDDEN, EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED)

Oh, Jesus, I thought. Why in hell would you tell people that? Don’t you realise what you’re unleashing on the world? Those poor fucking editors. Hell, those poor writers. DAMMIT, WENDIG, WHY ARE YOU USING YOUR POWERS FOR EVIL?

Then I got distracted. ‘Cause deadline’s wait for no fucking man and I had a copy of Frost to turn in that wasn’t yet finished. But that last one on Chuck’s list, it stuck in my head. Don’t open on a character just waking up. It irritated me, ’cause I’ve got a real pet peeve associated with that particular piece of writing advice. It is, without a doubt, the worst possible way I can think of to open a story.

So bad, in fact, that I tend to wax lyrical on the subject when you give me an audience of writers.

RULEBREAKING 101: KNOW YOUR ENEMY

Here’s the thing: I’m generally all for breaking rules. I like breaking rules. There are no words that fire me up like you can’t do X in fiction. If you tell me I can’t write a story about unicorns and fourteen year old girls that a jaded, bitter horror writer will actually like, I’ll wonder off and write shit like Horn just to prove you wrong.

The way I look at it, there is no point in writing fiction if you’re not saying FUCK YOU to someone, somewhere.

But when it comes to writing rules, I’m a firm believer in knowing your enemy. It’s worth taking the time to understand the difference between rules that are designed to make your life easier when you’re starting out and know nothing, and rules that are just plain crazy and deserve to be broken. Both types are worth breaking, but the first are worth breaking in interesting, innovative ways. ‘Cause the prohibitions you’re given that make your life easier are generally designed to keep you away from well-trod cliches and things editors hate, even if it isn’t immediately apparent why they hate said things.

Rarely do people sit down and bother to explains the reason behind such things – they just drop some knowledge and bail on the conversation, trusting that you’ll pay attention. ‘Cause me and I woke up have such a special relationship, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to share my pain so you understand what you’re up against. Ready? Here it is:

THE “I WOKE UP” BEGINNING IS LOW-HANGING FRUIT

Actually, I take that back. It’s not the low-hanging fruit. It’s the rotten fruit. The stuff that’s fallen off the tree and been left to ferment in the grass below. It’s easy to gather, sure, but it’s not particularly tasty. One of the best things you can do as a writer is surprise your readers. Kicking off with the same beginning every other schlub falls back on isn’t going to surprise everyone.

The popularity of the I woke up opening is easy to understand once you think through the psychology of the situation: You’re a writer. You’re sitting in front of a blank page. You need to start telling a story and filling said blank page with words. Starting a story is actually pretty hard: You need a character; you need to introduce some conflict; you have to know the setting. Most importantly, you’ve got to understand how all three of these things fit together. And right now, in that gut-clenching moment of terror where it’s just you and the blank page, you have nothing.

So you reach for the four words that will buy you time: I woke up and

It’s like a fucking magic trick. The moment you use those four words, you have routines to describe. You have a sense of direction. Your character gets up. They go about their morning. They have breakfast, shower, get the hell out of the house. You get to know your protagonist. Figure out what’s going on. The setting is easy. Familiar. Even if it’s not your house and your morning routine you’re describing, the familiarity is there.

What’s happened on a creative level is pretty simple: You needed a beginning, so you went for the beginning that every single one of us experiences, day after day. Then you started filling time until you know your character and setting well enough to introduce some conflict. ‘Cause conflict happens. It’s an everyday thing. We get to work and our boss asks us to do something we don’t want to do. We miss our train on the same morning we have a presentation due. We get into an argument with our flatmate over breakfast. Shit happens. If you stick with someone long enough, tracking the minutia of their day, you’ll uncover something that will actually be story-like.

Or, to put it another way: All the hard bits about telling a story are momentarily deferred, but you’re getting words on the page and it feels like you’re making progress ’cause you know the conflict is coming.

Why is this bad? Well, two reasons. The first is simple: you’re not actually telling a story yet. Nothing in the opening you’ve written is related to the conflict, which means your character is in motion, but they’re not in action yet. Actions have purpose. Motions…motions are just movement. They have no real purpose within the context of the story. They aren’t meaningful, and your reader trusts you to point out things that have meaning when you’re reading a work of fiction.

The second reason? Well.

LET ME TELL YOU A FUCKING STORY

Years ago, before I was a writer, I taught creative writing classes to first-year students at Uni. Lecture halls filled with hundreds of students, all packed in to learn the basics of writing essays, fiction, and poetry.

For the most part, I dug this job. The students were usually pretty interesting, the content was in line with what I wanted to do with my life, and the money…well, let’s just say working as a sessional tutor at a university can be a pretty sweet gig in terms of the compensation.

On the other hand, there was the marking. Two hundred short stories that appeared in your letter box one morning. Two weeks to get them all read, marked and commented on. Six weeks later, another two hundred stories would appear. Ask any university lecturer what they hate about their job, and marking will be top of the list.

And marking creative writing story assignments is the worst. Worse than marking essay assignments. Worse than marking poetry, which almost no-one did the readings for or bothered to understand, thus resulted in assignment after assignment of rhyming doggerel.

For eight years, “short story assignment” was a synonym for “dread” in my books and a big part of the reason is the stories that began with I woke up. In a pile of 200 student short-stories, I was pretty much virtually guaranteed that about 35% would start with some variation of a character waking up and getting on with their day.

This made it the most common short-story opening I read by a large margin. I know. I kept stats. The only trope that wore out its welcome faster that the dread I woke up and beginnings were the stories that revolved about suicide.

There is no way to read that many stories featuring the same beginning without coming to hate it a little. Actually, given the wordcount I’m devoting to this topic, lets say I came to hate it a lot. The kind of hate that leads to phrases like “punk, I will cut you” being hissed between clenched teeth.

Now keep in mind that I only saw a comparatively small percentage of submissions compared to your average short story or novel editor, who have likely seen this opening thousands upon thousands of times. They don’t publish these stories, which is probably why people don’t realize how prevalent the sickness is, but they’re coming in, day after day, making the slush reader’s life a misery.

SIDENOTE: ADDING “AND DIDN’T KNOW WHERE I WAS” IS DOUBLING DOWN ON YOUR LAZY VILLAINY

I may hate the I woke up opening with a passion, but it’s got nothing on its close cousin, I woke up and didn’t know who/where I was. 

Rather than buying time to figure out the story, writers who bust out the mysterious location are doubling-down on an over-used opening and trying to make it the core conflict that drives the plot. On the surface, this actually seems kind of genius. Suddenly all that time you spend exploring routines and describing surroundings is germane to the story you’re trying to tell. It’s not filling time, it’s getting on with things, and—

Nope. Sorry. It’s still just another tired, dull beginning and we’ve all been there before. If I had a laser for every I woke up and didn’t know who/where I was story I’ve seen in draft form, I could equip my million-strong army of cybernetic death monkeys and take over the goddamn world already.

Please, please, don’t do this. If you do it, I will hunt you down and disembowel you with a rusty spoon.

THE GOOD NEWS: I PROMISE YOU, THE WAKE-UP SCENE ISN’T NECESSARY

“But wait,” you cry, “I’ve got this brilliant story I want to write, and it needs to start with exactly this scene. A character needs to wake up. It’s mandatory to the plot. The whole thing falls apart without that opening. It aboslutely, positively needs to start with someone opening their eyes at the beggining of the day. You see, she’s a spy…or a vampire…or…”

Peeps, I’m sorry, I’m going to call bullshit on this one. I’ve done my time in the trenches. I taught first-year creative writing for eight years, which means I’ve seen stories open with someone waking up approximately 560+ times. I’ve seen all the variations. Watched people take the challenge and try to redeem this particular opening after I gave them a warning not-unlike this blog post.

Not once did it lead to a story where it was actually necessary. Hell, there were very few instances where that start actually led to a story that was in the top half of the work produced that semester. In almost every I woke up and story I’ve read, there was a lag between the beginning and the point where the story actually started. Things would often be improved by the elimiantion of an opening paragraph (or five) and getting on with things once the story got interesting.

THE CINEMATIC CAVEAT

If you’ve made it this far into this post, you’ve probably started thinking of all kinds of counter-examples that prove me wrong. I’m good with that. Like all rules, this one exists to be broken, so long as it’s broken in an interesting way.

One thing that I will note – and this is an important one – is that I used to have discussions about this opening with classes all the time, and the counter-examples that were normally brought up were from film or TV narratives where (Warning: TV Tropes link) YOU WAKE UP IN A ROOM is common enough to get its own entry in TV Tropes. And, honestly, I’m all about this trope in film. Dark City? Brilliant. The opening minutes of 28 Days Later? The only good bit of the movie. Momento? Well, lets be honest, I could never bring myself to watch the movie, despite renting it from the video store at least a dozen times, but I’m sure I’d enjoy it before Christopher Nolan got his Christopher Nolan on and started doing all those things that make me hate his films.

But there’s a reason film/TV writers get away with this opening and prose writers don’t: film and television is a visually-rich medium. You can show a character waking up in an unfamiliar bed and every single detail of their surroundings is immediately apparent in that same shot. Film is simulatory. A character is placed within a context the moment they appear on screen, because we can see every element of their surroundings. We can immediately interpret their actions based on that context, which makes setting up the I woke up and didn’t know… beginning a little easier to swallow.

Prose is suggestive. Nothing exists within the context of your story until you suggest that it’s there, either overtly or discretely. Your character exists in a landscape that you build up, detail by detail, until it exists within the reader’s mind. You’re constantly managing the reader’s attention, trying to point them towards a character trait, an element of the setting, another character’s action…and it just doesn’t allow you to convey details fast enough to do what a film is doing.

More importantly, in prose, your reader trusts you to direct their attention to the things that are important.You absolutely cannot fucking squander that trust and hope to keep the reader onboard.

MAKING IT WORK: KEEP THE FEELING, SKIP THE CLICHÉ

Despite spending nearly 2,500 words trying to convince you that starting a story this way is a bad idea, people have done it in prose and made it work. Usually the people who stick with the argument this long are those who really love the YOU WAKE UP IN A ROOM beginning and want to explore the common spy/sci-fi trope of a character without a memory trying to figure their identity.

The good news is, it’s not that hard to keep that sort of story running. You just keep the emotion and skip the cliché. The best YOU WAKE UP IN A ROOM story I’ve seen in recent years is Dan O’Malley’s The Rook. You can download the first four chapters off his website, and it’s probably worth looking at if you’re interested in breaking this particular rule. He does it by advancing things a little further along the character’s timeline – we open with his protagonist standing in the rain, reading a letter written by her forgotten, former self, with no idea where she is or what kind of trouble is coming.

This gives us the basics: Character. Context. Conflict. All in one neat bundle.

If you want to rock the mysterious wake-up in prose, the easiest way to do it is skip through the bit where you explore the setting and get on with the big where the story gets interesting. Focus on the emotions and disorientation while hitting the character with things that matter, rather than having them figure out the colour of the walls and the texture of the blanket.

If you really need your character to be in bed – say, if you’re writing a short-story about a man who discovers there’s an alligator lurking beneath his Queen bed, waiting to take off a leg – then skip straight to the stuff that matters.We don’t need to know about the protagonists struggle to wake up or how comfy his blankets are on a winter’s morning; we need to know a) what makes his bed feel safe, and b) what tips him off that the alligator’s lurking below.

I mean, really, which of these sounds more interesting:

I woke up and stretched my arms, the same as I did every morning, then thought about going to the bathroom so I could pee. Then I discovered the alligator underneath my bed, and…

or

I crawled to the far side of the mattress, to the part of the double-bed I never really slept on. This was no man’s land. Had been ever since Cole left. Still no good. Just three feet from the door to the bathroom, but still too far. With the gator hiding between the boxes underneath my bed, I didn’t trust myself to run for it. On the other hand, I didn’t want to pee in the bed either, and there’s nothing quite like the bladder-bursting urgency that comes with the first piss of the morning…

If you do do a wake-up scene, focus on the things that are important to the story. It’ll make a world of difference.

  3 comments for “The World’s Worst Story Opening (And How To Do It So It Works)

  1. brokensea
    03/07/2014 at 2:11 PM

    Roger Zelazny's excellent Amber series opened the first book with Corwin, waking up in a (hospital) room with no idea of who or where he was.

    I think that is the only example I have ever read that worked.

    • petermball
      03/07/2014 at 4:33 PM

      True, but he skips right to the part that's important to the narrative: the first line is oblique (and, honestly, not a great opener); the second line features Corwin testing his physical limits by wriggling his toes, after discovering his legs in plaster.

      Zelazny knows the story he's telling; in the hands of a writer doing the standard "I woke up and…" style opener, we'd sit through several lines of discovering his legs in the cast before we get to the point Zelazny starts at.

  2. jeremyszal
    03/07/2014 at 4:40 PM

    Brilliant piece of writing. I've done slush reading, and I couldn't believe how many of these tropes plagued the stories.
    And half the time, them waking up is "only a dream". Ugh.
    Good job, though.

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