Time for IT'S A TRAP! These posts are intended as somewhat humorous (but true) tributes to traps that we writers occasionally find ourselves falling into. Disclaimer: there are always exceptions to every rule. Sometimes even the worst writer "traps" can be pulled off with style in the right hands.
But they're usually a bad idea. MOVING ON.
IT'S A TRAP! - Opening With a Nightmare
When I'm critiquing work, time and time again I come across opening chapters that start out in media res with lots of high tension. But then, around the end of the chapter, all of that tension is completely lost. Why?
Because the character wakes up. It was all a nightmare.
This beginning rarely, if ever, works for me. It leaves me feeling cheated and annoyed. What about all that great tension and action? Now I'm watching a character get out of bed? UGH.
The reason this trope rarely works is because it immediately evaporates any and all danger. Yeah, sure, the monster was good and scary when we thought it was REAL, but now we realize the character was in no real danger the whole time. Sure, you could pull a Freddy Krueger or Dream Spying later, but if your character wakes up unharmed, you risk a big ol' eye roll from your audience.
In as much as you can notice a pattern when reading/critiquing, I've noticed this technique is usually a way to inject some excitement before things slow way down for some "boring" set-up chapters. It's similar to the technique of creating a prologue from an action-packed scene that happens much later in the manuscript (often at the climax) in order to have something to hook the reader in before feeding them the slower stuff.
Also: this is one of those dreaded CLICHÉ things.
How To Avoid This Trap
Generally speaking, it's usually best to figure out how to inject more tension and action into the "slow" chapters, rather than relying on a scary dream to grab the reader and then leave them hanging. Better yet, don't rely on a scary dream at all. Start with actual action.
It's not impossible to successfully open a book with a dream sequence or nightmare, but you have to play it carefully. Make sure the character doesn't get off scott-free. Also, don't attempt to trick your audience. Try letting them know, up front, that we're in dream territory (Lisa McMann does this in the opening of Wake). Don't try to pull a fast one and get them all wound up only to go, "Haha, just kidding, it was only a dream!" Readers don't like being jerked around.
This technique is sometimes, sometimes, used more effectively later in the manuscript. Once the audience is aware of the basic rules for the world you've built, they'll likely be able to tell that the character's dreaming and will feel less jarred when they wake up. Of course, you could always just call a dream a dream instead of trying to be sneaky.
Have you seen this technique used successfully, readers? Where?