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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Awake, Oh Sleeper

   
Author Topic: Awake, Oh Sleeper
philocinemas
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Waking up should be the most natural beginning to any story. When we are born it is sort of like waking up - entering from darkness into light. We begin each day of our lives by waking up. The eye itself should be a great beginning, because it is supposedly the window to our souls. Don't we want our readers to "enter into" our characters?

Then why is "waking up" so frowned upon as a beginning in modern literature?

It is possibly because it has been overdone and it is "unoriginal". But I don't think this is why. As others have pointed out, movies and TV use this beginning all of the time to great effect. Almost every episode of Lost begins with somebody waking up or opening his/her eyes, and it is one of the most original shows to ever be on TV.

I think it has to do with the same difference between a picture and a word. A picture is something that can be seen, and thus is "real", and a word is something that has to be imagined.

In Lost, we see Jack wake up after the crash and he's a real person with expression and a certain appearance and surroundings that draw us into his/their story. In literature, it is difficult to draw the reader in this way because, according the old proverb, it (often) would take a thousand words - and we would most likely lose our audience by the time the story actually started.

There is a trend in modern writing toward ultra- or hyper-realism. One way I see this being done is through in medias res - putting the reader in the middle of a life already in motion. With this, we enter the story with this character or characters already having been "alive" for some time. They have friends, family, a career, etc. They are not usually being born and their troubles are not usually just starting. By doing this, the author is establishing that sense of believability that is so easily achieved through a picture or a series of pictures in motion. By not creating that sense of "being born", whether it is into life or into the day, the author is better able to establish the character as a "real" person with a life that is already in motion - the reader then just has to "jump on board".

These are just my thoughts - I haven't read it anywhere, and it is on no authority. It's just how I "see" the matter.

Any other thoughts?


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Corky
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AVATAR ends with someone waking up.

I agree that seeing someone waking up in a setting (as shown in movies or on tv) is a much easier way to get an audience involved than reading about someone waking up (for this audience member, anyway).


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posulliv
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Maybe it's frowned on because it's boring and a sign of laziness. It signals that the author either hasn't thought through were the story ought to begin, or hasn't edited out the mundane parts of a story written in time sequence.

Even if the character wakes up in a car trunk, or wakes up to find they've turned into a cockroach an author could edit out the waking up verbiage and just begin with the realization of the unusual circumstances.

As a reader, since I wake up nearly every day I really don't have to read about it. I pretty much have that whole waking up experience down by now, and have yet to read a description of the process that communicates something new.

[This message has been edited by posulliv (edited February 12, 2010).]


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BenM
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I think this is a controversial issue because it borders between what might be commonly considered 'commercially viable' fiction, and what might be considered 'art' or 'personal expression'.

Let's say that you and I can write a hundred stories that start with people waking up, and to us that seems the natural part of starting a story, because we subscribe to the idea of there being a beginning, middle and end, and waking is a very recognisable beginning (we won't go into the idea that therefore the MC always has to go to sleep or die at the end as a natural converse).

And as personal expression and art, this might be perfectly fine. For us, and for some readers, this will be okay.

The problem, as I see it, shows up in commercial fiction, where a story has to be sold. The story in this case is a product, and as a product it has to differentiate itself. The first and most recognisable place it differentiates itself is in the opening, and so openings that appear "all the same" are going to (more often than not) be rejected.

So while I think we all recognise that a story with a waking-opening is potentially sellable, I think it's just as important to consider why other forms of opening are preferred.

Consider another type of writing advice, perhaps commercial, which states that a story begins with an Inciting Incident. Up until the Inciting Incident, life has been going along normally for the protag; the incident serves to throw life out of balance and the character down a new path - one that takes them into a story.

And there's perhaps where the danger in waking lies: it is mundane (your reader did it recently) and so not out of the ordinary. There is also a context issue, where waking somewhere out of the ordinary suggests the inciting incident happened earlier. And lastly there is the risk of milieu-building on waking, which unlike great milieu stories that build a character and then have them discover the milieu, the reader has to discover the character and the milieu at the same time, and wonder why they're doing it, and get horribly confused.

But as I understand it, all of these concerns apply more to mainstream commercial fiction. There are people with varied tastes out there; if someone gets a crit in F&F saying "white room syndrome" or "waking cliche" and they've no intention of writing commercially or want to buck the trend, then hey, they're free to do whatever they want. It just gets tiring to prepend every such critique with a post such as this one to explain why.


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sholar
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Elantris by Sanderson starts with a waking up scene. I don't think that there is really a better place to start. I think it is an easy default starting point, which makes it difficult to do well.
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Nathaniel Merrin
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Nice essay, philocinemas!

###

Yep, it's a natural beginning. Here's a quote ascribed, rightly or wrongly, to Ray Bradbury: "Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her all day."

Another supposedly cliched way to start the description of a scene is with the weather. But, if you do so, hope to do it like this, the first line from "Franny and Zooey":

"Though brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather, as it had been all week and as everyone had hoped it would stay for the big weekend--the weekend of the Yale game."


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posulliv
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This morning I awoke from restless dreams to the realization that my previous post, written in the small hours, fails to convey precisely why I find the waking scene boring. That reason, dear reader, is that "She awoke to find that", for example, is a trite throwaway phrase, the sort of useless text, like this paragraph, that can be skipped altogether.

When I read "She awoke to find that" as the first words of a story I feel like I've been cheated. The author has an opportunity to tell me something about the story that is unique and they've blown it. There are any number of things an author might have conveyed that describe the situation and the character while still showing that it is a new day for the character. Instead I get a stock, throw away phrase with transparent symbolism.

I'd like to learn about the sound her bunny slippers made as they slapped against the hardwood floor, or the feel of that first cup of Sanka as it splashes against last night's pizza, or how the water pressure in the shower lets her down every single morning, or how the unmade bed is a perfect metaphor for her life, _before_ Lucifer jams the ray gun in her face and orders her to hand over the plans for the time machine. Then maybe she'd seem like a real person and I'd care enough to read on.

If the story needs to begin with a bang, and Lucifer shows up before I get to know her, then I'd hope he'd be gentleman enough to let her spit out the toothpaste or finish shaving her legs.

I know my examples are cliches as well, but hey, I just woke up, and haven't had my Sanka yet.

[This message has been edited by posulliv (edited February 12, 2010).]


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philocinemas
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I used to be a regular participant in the "First 13" challenges back when we had those regularly. Now, I don't consider openings to be my strong point (I suppose that was why I entered the challenges so often), but I had several second and third place finishes from my many entries. Oddly enough, my one win broke two "rules" in one - I had the main character wake up in a white room.

Here it is:

quote:
Entry # 7
Title: Double Take

Amelia Earhart awoke to find herself naked and confined within a mysterious column of white light. There was no sign of her plane, the Electra, or of her navigator, Fred Noonan, or of the ocean for that matter. There was only the harsh light.

At first, she thought this was the entrance to heaven. But as her body rose into the air and began to contort and pose as if held up by a thousand invisible strings, she came to believe this was her first step into hell.

A man fell from above and impacted hard on the floor. He was also naked. She could tell he was Asian by his narrow eyes and tan skin. His limp body rose up into the air alongside her.

Someone strolled into the room and stood below them. It appeared to be Fred. "This is my body. Call me Noonan," he said.



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Crank
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I won't First-13-esque dismiss a story simply because it starts with the MC waking up, but I would prefer some sort of action or conflict at the story's beginning. That said, waking up with a knife to the MC's throat or having the MC's bunker mate waking him up in the midst of being overrun by an attacking force can easily make for good opening action and/or conflict.

Even better is when the story starts inside an MC's dream or waking hallucination. Of course, that mechanism can fall just as victim to the "been there, done that" feeling for a reader as simply starting the story with waking up, but I have far more tolerance for the dream / hallucination intro because the workings of the subconscious fascinate me. My only suggestion for writers considering this approach is that not all dreams need be about a possible horrifying future that the MC is tasked to avert.

S!
S!


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skadder
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The point about the waking cliche is not whether you as an author would put down the story, it's that editors see it so regularly that they tend dismiss stories that start with waking scenes.

Yes, stories from well known authors may start with a waking scene but that's different. One of my stories was recently returned to me (after being critted) by a well known science fiction author. He suggested I take a little longer setting the initial scene.

I responded to him that I'd always been told to get to the conflict as soon as possible.

He then emailed me back to say that he apologised--he'd forgotten that different rules applied to him; editors would give him more time/leeway.

[This message has been edited by skadder (edited February 12, 2010).]


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dee_boncci
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In a sense, your first paragraph answers your first question.

Why then, do we not start at the "real" natural beginning, when the character is born? Usually, it is because nothing of interest to a reader happens for many years.

In thinking through my more memorable days, I really don't remember waking up on any of them--because what was memorable started at some point later. The exception maybe is Christmas when I was a kid, and on those days the "action" started as fast as I could get down stairs to the tree.

Starting a story as a character awakens just because it "seems" natural is generally inefficient since there's usually some lag before much happens.

Of course there are exceptions. But we should not let the exceptions tempt us into discarding our active imagination and lazily picking somewhere to start because it is easy. Ideally, the story itself will "demand" a certain opening. In a story concerning a character whose life is thrown in turmoil due to a house fire, waking up to the bleating of a smoke detector might be the appropriate start.

For most readers, the lure of fiction is the conflict and tension--the disruption of the rhythms of life--and the parts of a story that reflect the normal, peaceful routines of life are, in fiction, mostly boring.

Stories I've read and liked that started at an awakening also had the core story starting at the same time, not later on after lunch while the character muddles about and gets oriented in a generally ineffective attempt at "character development".


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geekyMary
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Waking up isn't very exciting, unless you're waking up in a strange situation. I mean, you have to get through the routine (which can be revealing, but I'd save it for later after you've already made people interesting) - pee, shower, brush teeth, tea, paper - before you get to the fun stuff.

After all, we usually don't let people see us wake up until we know them well. It's not an attractive time of day.


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tchernabyelo
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Broadly speaking, the start of a story should be the moment of change: the point at which something happens which needs to be resolved by the end of the story (either through acceptance - change of the protagonist - or through correction - return to the status quo).

Waking is a moment of change for the protagonist, but it is not usually the actual moment of change for the story. It can be made to SEEM like the moment of change - the protag waking up in a strange place, for example - but in this instance, the actual moment of change has already happened. Yes, it is the protag's discovery of the moment of change, and therefore arguably a relevant place to start the story, but because waking up is in itself a state change, it actually disguises, and thus weakens, the real moment of change.

"Selling" a TV show/film to an audience is different from selling a story. Most people who go and see a film, or watch a TV pilot have already been hooked by a trailer or review or word of mouth. Most people who watch an episode of a TV program do so because they have already wathed other episodes, or because of the reasons above. Waking up scenes are fine, there, because they are carrying the viewer along but the viewer has certain expectations/anticipations already set.

Short fiction does not have that luxury. Novels arguably do (cover, blurb, etc) but short fiction people normally come to "cold". They read it because they regularly read a magazine, but the contents of any given issue are completely unpredictable. So you don't have the trust and expectations of the reader. You don't have time to let them wake up with a character, because they don't have any context in which to place that wake-up.

Obviously it CAN be done. But if it is to be done, it has to be done WELL, and all too frequently, it is not.


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Meredith
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quote:
Obviously it CAN be done. But if it is to be done, it has to be done WELL, and all too frequently, it is not.

I don't disagree with this. As I said in another topic, I'm all about understanding the rules. Once, you know why something is a rule, you can better understand how to--and how not to--apply it. In this case, if you write a story that opens with someone waking up, at least some editors may never read past the first paragraph and so may never find out how totally awesome your story really is. If you really feel that's where your story starts and you're willing to take that chance, at least you're doing so with your eyes open.

But this advice about it having to be done well does give me pause. No matter what the opening--whether it's cliche or the most original nobody's-ever-started-a-story-like-that-before beginning--shouldn't any opening be written as well as we possibly can?


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sholar
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For my Sanderson example, Elantris was Sanderson's first book. He was still playing under the newby rules, which is why I mentioned it.
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Merlion-Emrys
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I agree with Meredith. As near as I can tell the big deal with the "waking up" opening (and indeed with most supposed "cliches" especially those dealing with openings) is that, yes, many editors have said they are tired of them. Although I think that it is exactly that...not that there is anything wrong with them, but that some editors have simply been "burned out" on them and so now have developed a dislike of them, rather than any sort of inherent weakness with the concept.

And even some of them (the person in the blogpost KDW posted recently for example) still allow as how they do occasionally see "waking up" openings that still "work" for them. So yeah, its good to know that its considered a "cliche" by many but I don't see it as a reason to totally retro-fit your story, necessarily. You never really know unless and until you try.


quote:
But this advice about it having to be done well does give me pause. No matter what the opening--whether it's cliche or the most original nobody's-ever-started-a-story-like-that-before beginning--shouldn't any opening be written as well as we possibly can?


Definitely, but while also remembering that "well" is in the eye of the beholder. Thats where the whole context thing comes in...we should try to write it, and everything, as effectively as we can within the context of what we want to do with the story. Since you can't please everyone no matter what you do, a logical first goal, it seems to me, is to please yourself with your product, then go from there (unless you have decided to write a piece specifically to the specifications of a market, editor or whatever.)


philo, in reference to your original post...you make good and interesting points. One thing in particular stands out for me, personally.


quote:
There is a trend in modern writing toward ultra- or hyper-realism. One way I see this being done is through in medias res - putting the reader in the middle of a life already in motion. With this, we enter the story with this character or characters already having been "alive" for some time. They have friends, family, a career, etc. They are not usually being born and their troubles are not usually just starting. By doing this, the author is establishing that sense of believability that is so easily achieved through a picture or a series of pictures in motion. By not creating that sense of "being born", whether it is into life or into the day, the author is better able to establish the character as a "real" person with a life that is already in motion - the reader then just has to "jump on board".

For me, personally, as a reader I dont really have any sort of preference between "begining" beginings and in medias res. I feel like it just depends on the particular story. Some need to start at the begining for various reasons...others work fine, or even better, begining with things already in motion.

I think this is related to the fact that I am, it seems, more attuned to setting and atmosphere and to things simply "being" than many people are (and I'm not saying this is a somehow superior state, just different.) I don't necessarily require a character to "relate" to or for much to be happening if theres a strong sense of place, and/or if the writing itself elicits a certain somethings I can't quite describe. I enjoy the atmosphere and emotion created by a character waking up in a strange place, transplanted, confused, unaware of whats going on, or perhaps they do know and the circumstances are slowly unveiled to the reader. I also enjoy stories...written or filmed, that to me feel like a glimpse into both another world and another state of being. For me the interest level of a piece usually has to do mainly with subject matter (if you've got sea monsters, rust, just about anything having to do with water, Asian themed content or various other things, you've got me) or with a hard to describe feeling of atmosphere of that glimpse into another existence, or some combination of the two.

Also I would mention that Stephen King in "On Writing" doesn't speak very glowingly of in medias res and (if i remember correctly its been a while since my last reading) seemed to feel that it could also be something of a "trap" for a writer.

quote:
It can be made to SEEM like the moment of change - the protag waking up in a strange place, for example - but in this instance, the actual moment of change has already happened. Yes, it is the protag's discovery of the moment of change, and therefore arguably a relevant place to start the story, but because waking up is in itself a state change, it actually disguises, and thus weakens, the real moment of change.


You make a good and interesting point. Certainly, one could fall into that sort of trap. But isn't starting after the moment of change a form of in medias res? And if done carefully, might not the desire to know more about how the protaganist got there, what has happend already, compell the reader on?

As I said you make a very valid point but, for me personally the oposite is often true and the "waking up" and similar things heightens that moment rather than weakening it.

[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited February 12, 2010).]


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Emily Palmer
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Waking up might be the right way to open the story, but usually it isn't.

For example, if you start it in the middle of the action (for example when the raiders attack the village or whatever other exciting moment brought them out of sleep), the Reader has not had a chance to get to know the characters well enough to care about what's happening to them. This is one thing many of my readers have pointed out as a weakness in my writing, and I had to move backwards and start at a new point. Card referred to this as "the life interrupted."


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tchernabyelo
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Merlion said
quote:
For me personally the oposite is often true

How unusual.

quote:
But isn't starting after the moment of change a form of in medias res? And if done carefully, might not the desire to know more about how the protaganist got there, what has happend already, compell the reader on?

To the latter point: yes, which is why (as always) I was at pains to point out that I was not being absolutist. To the former: I'm not sure I agree. An "in media res" opening is normally an opening AFTER the moment of change - e.g. someone in the middle of a fight or a chase scene, when we don't know the reason they are fighting or being chased. And it generally requires flashbacks in some form to explain what has happened previously, which pretty much proves it wasn't "really" where the story started. I wasn't advocating "in media res" as a general solution (though again there may be times when it is appropriate - I'm trying to recall if I've ever used it, and I don't really think I have).


Meredith said:

quote:
But this advice about it having to be done well does give me pause. No matter what the opening--whether it's cliche or the most original nobody's-ever-started-a-story-like-that-before beginning--shouldn't any opening be written as well as we possibly can?

Absolutely. But some things are hard to do well, and some are easy to do badly, and doubtless vice versa. One of the reasons people are so prone to using the "waking up" opening (as with the "describe the weather" opening or the "infodump" opening) is that they are easier to do than other openings - but they are, in fact, just as hard (if not harder) to do well. That's why I felt the need to emphasise the fact.


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jayazman
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Philocinemas,
that was a very interesting opening and I think it would hook many readers (me included). However, I almost instantly forgot the scene started with her waking up with all the other interesting things going on. Personally, I think it would have been an stronger opening if you skipped the "awoke" part and just had her "find herself" in the situation ('protagonist' found herself...) or ('protagonist' was...). The awakening part was the most forgettable part of the opening and therefore, I think, could be removed without losing anything.

BTW, did you write the whole story or just that beginning? It sounds interesting....


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micmcd
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I've always felt that a story should only start with someone waking up if something interesting happens to him right as he gets out of bed. Two of my chapters start with someone waking up, because in one of them we are just getting a brief look at the life of an extreme hypochondriac (who naturally wakes up feeling very sick), and in another, someone sneaks into one of the MC's rooms and wakes her up in the middle of the night.

I think my main "don't start with waking" instinct is driven by my drive to always start with action. In the "clever bit of spying" chapter, we start where the spy begins his mission, not with what he did after getting out of bed (and he doesn't take a nap right before mission start as if he's in an RPG or something).

It's been a while since I read Elantris, but as I recall doesn't he start with the MC waking up as one of the chosen/deformed people (when he went to bed normal)? That qualifies as interesting to me. I was a fan of that book.

[This message has been edited by micmcd (edited February 12, 2010).]


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dee_boncci
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I mentioned this in a similar thread recently, but if you know of a story you really like that "breaks" some paradigm or uses elements that when done typically are cliche, it would likely be enlightening to go back and look carefully at the material.

For things like what's been mentioned here: weather openings, wake-up openings, scenery description openings, etc., I'm fairly confident that close examination will reveal more going on than someone waking up, a meteorological description, or whatnot. I have done this both myself and guided by instructional books, and what is apparent is that the "taboo" material is coincident with other story elements that are in motion every time, not presented in isolation. From a story perspective the "point" of the passage is not someone waking up, but the things going on at the time a person happens to wake up.

I don't know if there is genuine confusion or people are throwing up strawmen in this ongoing debate concerning "rules", but it shouldn't be too difficult to allow that the advice given to new writers is to steer them clear of the trap of opening a story with a bunch of material that is static in terms of the story's development, not an absolute ban on ever allowing a story to begin early in the morning, for example.

In the end it's a matter of execution, not of the trappings. When someone who's probably read more aspirant fiction in a few months than I will in my whole life warns against things she/he sees executed poorly over and over and over again, I'm going to think through what's behind the suggestion and put the resulting lesson in my tool box.

And the standard caveat. I realize that there are people who enjoy and aspire to create fiction that is largely or at least substantially disconnected from the dramatic fiction model that has been at the heart of storytelling throughout human history. I am not one, but I suppose it might be best for them to ignore or be wary around advice and paradigms intended for writers who look to work within the more traditional and popular frameworks. I'm old school and I believe that one should master the traditional and current elements of a creative endeavor before attempting to turn them on their head and reinvent them, but that simply my opinion and approach.


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sholar
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micmcd- yup. I think it was a great opening and really the only right place to start it.
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snapper
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I say it is a perfect time for this challenge.

http://www.hatrack.com/forums/writers/forum/Forum7/HTML/000152.html

Join one, join all.


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Robert Nowall
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A little bit of solipcism here, if I've spelled that right...for most of us, the world doesn't begin, the sun doesn't rise, things don't start happening, until we open our eyes. For our characters, it's pretty much the same way. That's why so many stories start with somebody waking up.
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Brendan
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I wonder if we do better changing our language a bit about the "rules". In essence, even this opening isn't a rule, rather, it is a risk. Writing for an audience is all about risk, the risk of connecting and losing them, what works for that audience that you are targeting etc. And writing so that an editor will read is about understanding the risks, because you usually reduce your odds of connecting because apart from the usual potential for he/she to simply prefer other types of stories, an editor is someone that is reading with the purpose to reject most of what they read. That is where learning/knowing what they understand, look for and want to see will help assess the risks. But once the risks have been assessed, make a decision and live with it.
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philocinemas
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quote:
BTW, did you write the whole story or just that beginning? It sounds interesting....

I just wrote the first 13, but I might finish it some day.


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MAP
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quote:
I wonder if we do better changing our language a bit about the "rules". In essence, even this opening isn't a rule, rather, it is a risk. Writing for an audience is all about risk, the risk of connecting and losing them, what works for that audience that you are targeting etc. And writing so that an editor will read is about understanding the risks, because you usually reduce your odds of connecting because apart from the usual potential for he/she to simply prefer other types of stories, an editor is someone that is reading with the purpose to reject most of what they read. That is where learning/knowing what they understand, look for and want to see will help assess the risks. But once the risks have been assessed, make a decision and live with it.

I think this a great way of thinking about "the rules." Calculated risks can pay off big time.

As for Elantris. The book didn't start with the mc waking up. It started with a very compelling one page info dumping prologue which totally sucked me in. I knew after that first page I was going to finish the book. When it works, it works.


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sholar
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But prologues aren't the first page- we are allowed to skip prologues.

First real line: "Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity."

That line grabs me. The waking up bit doesn't really matter, but the whole damned for all eternity does make me go, what? how? if he was sleeping, what could he do that would damn him? I am going to keep reading to find those answers. If the story had started with say the second line "Still drowsy, Raoden sat up, blinking in the soft morning light." I would not be intrigued. The hook is gone and he is just a man waking up.

With the Amelia Earhardt example, I think this is a hook because we all know who she is and that there is a mystery there. Waking up is ok, because we already know the story before then. If it was replaced with Jane Doe, it would not be as intriguing.


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philocinemas
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I agree with your analysis, sholar. I do believe it works because we are familiar with who Amelia Earhart is. What helps is that it is already a mystery - someone who seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth and that I also introduce someone who is fairly unknown, but who was apparently with her - Fred Noonan. I also gave very specific details but clearly from the MC's POV.

Now, I'm not saying this to toot my own horn. When I wrote this I was trying very hard to immerse the readers immediately into the story/13 lines. I believe it is the immersion or "depth of story" that matters in modern writing. It is the essence of the hyper-realism that I described in my opening. This is not to say that structure, plot, character development, etc. are not all important.

I honestly do not think in matters if we begin a story by waking up, even though I've recommended against it, as long as the reader is immediately immersed into the "reality" of the story. That is what cinema and television can often do visually.

I am curious to see what happens with snapper's new challenge...


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billawaboy
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The problem is not with an MC waking on line 1, but with what happens right afterwards.

If a manuscript has an MC going through the daily morning routine in the first 13, that manuscript should be set ablaze before a few choice incantations sends it to Hades.

Other than that I don't see any problem.


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