IT'S A TRAP: Opening With a Nightmare

| Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Today's Tune: Wake Up

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?


{ Matthew MacNish } at: July 13, 2011 at 5:22 AM said...

I had a CP once whose book opened with the most awesome sequence. But then it turned out the MC was playing a MMORPG. The writing was so good, and the scene was so fun, but it ended up being a let down because none of all that great tension was real.

{ Margo Lerwill } at: July 13, 2011 at 7:39 AM said...

It's amazing how these traps just never die. I've been running into warnings about this one from writers, agents, and editors for more than 10 years, and yet there's no shortage of them in manuscripts.

{ GKJeyasingham } at: July 13, 2011 at 8:06 AM said...

The most recent novel I've read with a dream opening was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It actually had the main character initially waking up from the dream. The dream was described shortly after. So yeah, the reader was told upfront that the description that follows was only a dream.

The first act of my WIP ends with a dream (followed by the MC waking up from it). By then the reader knows the rules of my world and can tell dreams and memories from reality. Furthermore, although I don't outright say it's a dream at the beginning of the passage, I've made the dream so abstract and mythical that the reader (ideally) should be able to identify it as a dream right from the start.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: July 13, 2011 at 11:01 AM said...

Matthew - That's interesting! I haven't heard of that approach before, but you're right, it's very similar.

Margo - Right? I've lost count of the number of times I've heard "Don't open with a dream and/or the character waking up." Doesn't mean the rule can't be broken well, of course, but it's rarely done well.

GK - That's the way to do it, I think. Make it obvious that we're dealing with a dream, if not outright telling the reader it's a dream.

{ Old Kitty } at: July 13, 2011 at 11:08 AM said...

I was going to cite The Road too as a fab way to start your novel with a dream. Don't fool the audience - tell them upfront! And do it beautifully! LOL!

Take care

{ Shelley Sly } at: July 13, 2011 at 3:04 PM said...

Agreed, agreed, agreed! Too many writers are focused on hooking the reader -- which, yes, they should be focused on, but not to the point that they disregard other things. I don't want to be tricked. I want to know just what I'm getting into when I read an opening scene, not be fooled with a "just kidding, it's not that exciting."

{ Magan } at: July 14, 2011 at 12:35 PM said...

I actually hate when books open with a dream or nightmare scene. "And then I woke up." NOOOO. It's almost like a cop out. Think of something that isn't a dream and have your character actually do it.

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