I walk down the darkened alley underneath the old Smith and 9th Street subway station, on my way home from a publishing mingle in Midtown. The humidity is thick and there’s nobody else out on the street. They’re all huddled ’round their AC, exactly where I should be at the moment. But then I hear footsteps approaching behind me. I glance over my shoulder and see a man with a black velvet cloak hanging from his tall frame. He walks faster, his footsteps echoing. With a jerk of the hand, he draws something from the folds of his garment. It flashes in the streetlight. A dagger! I gasp and will myself to scream. A shriek pierces the night…
and it’s my alarm clock. I jerk awake, cozy in my bed, and listen to the reassuring hum of my air conditioner.
HA HA HA! I fooled you all! This is the best novel beginning ever. Right?
Wrong. If I read one more “it was all a dream” or “I’m actually in a video game” fake-out beginning, I am going to make like dagger man and stab someone. This is a huge cliché. And perhaps a cliché squared because it’s piled on top of the cliché of having a character waking up at the beginning of your story.
I don’t care if you are writing a book about dream worlds. I don’t care if your character is the Sandman. I don’t care if she absolutely positively has to experience the first morning of school, from alarm clock to breakfast to shower to bus. I don’t care if “That book by that really famous author that was published last week does this so why can’t I?” I simply don’t care.
Everyone else has ruined this cliché for you. It’s cheap and it’s fake. It disrespects the reader and sets them up not to trust you from page one. It’s a flimsy Band Aid that’s doing nothing to address the problem of otherwise low tension in the beginning you’ve chosen (which may not be the right beginning). And I am on a personal vendetta against it. Why jerk your audience around with tricks when you can tell a story? Aim higher. Aim fresher.