Recently, I participated in a chat on Twitter. This was a good thing for at least two reasons: 1.) there was lots of lively, if compressed, conversation; and 2.) it proves that I’ve mastered hashtags.
But anyway, we were discussing beginnings in YA novels, and inevitably the subject of what NOT to do in the beginning of a novel came up. And equally inevitably, someone dropped the “never start with a character waking up” rule.
The problem with this particular “thou shalt not,” of course, is that lots of successful novels violate it. (Nine Princes in Amber, The Hunger Games, etc.) If it were really an ironclad rule—like, “never squash your head under a pneumatic press”—then we wouldn’t see people ignoring it all the time and living to tell the tale.
But it’s not a rule; it’s a preference, and that’s very much not the same thing.
When I pointed this out, another Tweeter argued that you should only break the “no waking up” rule if you have a very good reason to do so.
I couldn’t agree more. But then, you should never do anything in writing unless you have a very good reason to do so. Thus, once again, we’re not talking about rules versus non-rules; we’re not saying “no waking up” is a rule that can be broken only under the right circumstances while, say, “no character putting his or her head under a pneumatic press” is a non-rule that anyone can ignore with impunity. If you have a character put his or her head under a pneumatic press, you’d better have a good reason for it, just as you’d better have a good reason for inserting a conga line of elephants dressed like Groucho Marx.
Do you see what I’m getting at here?
Writing doesn’t have rules the same way reality does.
It has parameters and possibilities, and anything is possible within the right parameters.
Which brings me to another supposed “rule,” one that came up in the conversation as well: “no first-person narrator describing her or his reflection in a mirror.” There’s what we might call the “soft” version of this rule, which says never do so in the opening chapter, and the “hard” version, which says never do it anywhere, ever, for any reason, under pain of death (or at least, exile from the Eternal Order of Rule-Bound Writers).
But the problem with this “rule,” again, is that it’s violated on a regular basis. For example, I find the following passage in Margaret Stohl’s quite well-written and successful YA book Icons:
I watch my reflection in the window. My brown hair is dark and loose and matted with dirt and bile. My skin is pale and barely covers the handful of small bones that are me.
Nice writing, nice description, nice moment. Nice mirror (or, technically, window, but one that reflects in the manner of a mirror).
Plenty of books, YA or otherwise, allow the first-person narrator to engage in mirror-gazing. It’s a common technique for the very reason that it’s consistent with the reality readers know: one of the few available ways in which we can see ourselves is by looking into some reflective substance, whether that be a mirror, a window, a pool of water, your lover’s eyes, or the blade of a knife. Especially when you take photography out of the equation—which most fantasies do—how else are you supposed to see yourself?
I’m not being disingenuous here. I know that many writers make their first-person narrators look into mirrors because they don’t know what else to make them do, and somehow this convention has slipped into their minds as a good thing to have first-person narrators doing. I’m not saying you couldn’t describe your first-person narrator in some more interesting or original way, a way that’s more in keeping with the actual novel you’re writing. (I tried to do that in my deep-space adventure Freefall, where my narrator reads personal data on the screen of his life pod.) So I’m not defending every instance of first-person-narrator-mirror-gazing that’s ever been written. Some of these instances are no doubt poorly written, poorly thought out, poorly motivated.
But many are not. Many are brilliantly written, cleverly thought out, ingeniously motivated. And thus they’re fine. They’re exactly right. They belong.
In writing, each beginning, each scene, each word needs to find its own rightness, its own reason for existence.
If it can do that, keep it. If it can’t, lose it.
So let’s put an end to punitive novel-gazing. Let’s put an end to the literary correctness police. Let’s put an end to absolute writing rules, when we all know that, like mirrors, they were made to be broken without the slightest bad luck ensuing.
Joshua David Bellin has been writing novels since he was eight years old (though the first few were admittedly very short). He is the author of three YA science fiction novels: Survival Colony 9, Scavenger of Souls, and Freefall. Josh loves to read, watch movies, and spend time in Nature with his kids. Oh, yeah, and he likes monsters. Really scary monsters.