Woke Up This Morning
We’ve heard this one before: Avoid at all costs the alarm-clock opening. Never begin with a character who’s just waking up. At first glance, it seems like such an arbitrary rule, akin to one of those edicts made by a bad-tempered magazine editor: No cancer stories, ever! No stories featuring children. Or gardening. Or children and gardening. But on second glance, the rule begins to make sense. Because we’ve all seen those openings – we might have written them ourselves – with the characters stumbling through their morning routines, shuffling to the bathroom, meandering through the breakfast. The pages of nothing happening. The author clearing his or her throat, so to speak. And so, we understand the rule. We know it’s there to protect us.
Still, the alarm-clock openings persist. Last spring, I had three students working on novels, and each began with a character waking up. The novels themselves couldn’t be more different. One featured a recent college graduate looking for love; another a high-school football player soon to be shipped to Vietnam; while the third one concerned a teenage vampire with a penchant for Victorian fashion. But the opening pages shared an uncanny similarity.
A typical alarm-clock opening is very detailed and it goes on for several pages. The protagonists contemplate their hangover or unnamed despair, avoid opening their eyes for as long as possible, eventually do open their eyes, sit up in bed with effort, push back their comforters, check the clock, wince, groan, stretch, yawn, run their hands through their hair. They get dressed in a slow, deliberate way. They might have a testy conversation with someone – a roommate, a butler, a dog — but the conversation, too, tends to underscore the routine, the sense of the familiar. It’s the same conversation they had yesterday or last Monday. Meanwhile, nothing is happening. Nothing to propel the reader forward.
A writing teacher faced with an alarm-clock opening might advise the writer to start over, start on page 5 or 20, start with the second chapter, or maybe even scrap the whole thing. But does it mean alarm-clock openings never work? Aren’t rules meant to be broken? Isn’t it true that for every rule there’s an exception?
For the alarm-clock rule, the most famous exception is Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Does it work? You bet. The awakening itself is the most startling event in the story.
“The Metamorphosis” might be a great example, but let’s be honest, it’s not an easy one to imitate. What if your story doesn’t involve a giant bug? What if you are working – gasp! – in the realist tradition?
Turns out we are in luck, because the most recent novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot, features a perfectly good alarm-clock opening.
The novel’s protagonist is a young woman, named Madeleine. Before we meet her, though, we see the collection of books in her room. Madeleine, we learn from these books, is a college student majoring in English and about to graduate; she comes from an educated family that values books (her set of Henry James was a gift from her father; her copy of Couples used to belong to her mother). This specificity is important -- it makes our first encounter with Madeline more meaningful. She’s not just another college girl waking up with a hangover. She’s somebody concrete, somebody we already know a little.
Finally, here she is. In bed, yes, and like all the alarm-clock protagonists, desperately wanting to remain asleep. But Eugenides is quick to make a few things clear: While it’s true that Madeleine got drunk last night, there’s a reason for that. Something significant happened to her, something she’d rather not think about. And just like that, there’s now a sense of suspense.
Eugenides doesn’t let Madeleine lounge in bed for long. In the very next paragraph we get another significant event: the doorbell begins to ring, and after a bit of summary, we learn that it’s Madeline’s parents, who have arrived for her graduation and are now waiting to take her out to breakfast. The encounter that follows is ripe with tension, despite being conducted over the intercom. Madeleine’s parents want to come in; she is determined to keep them out.
There’s nothing mundane about this scene, just as there’s nothing unnamed about Madeleine’s despair. “She wasn’t proud of herself,” Eugenides writes. “She was in no mood to celebrate. She’d lost faith in the significance of the day and what the day represented.” We still don’t know what happened to her last night, but it’s clear that Madeleine is in a state of crisis. And that’s a reason enough to keep going with the story.
Ellen Litman is the author of two novels, Mannequin Girl and The Last Chicken in America, a finalist for the 2007 LA Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the 2008 New York Public Library Young Lions Award. Her work has appeared in Best New American Voices, Best of Tin House, and elsewhere. A former GrubStreet instructor (and student), she now teaches at the University of Connecticut.See other articles by Ellen Litman