Beginnings: The Maze Runner

It’s been a crazy full day. A good day, but it had a really early start.

I’m posting another book to screen opening. It was much harder to find a recent science fiction movie made into a movie or TV show. Fantasy books seem to be turned into movies more often.

This is The Maze Runner by James Dashner

He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air.

Metal ground against metal; a lurching shudder shook the floor beneath him. I fell down at the sudden movement and shuffled backwards on his hands and feet, drops of sweat beading on his forehead despite the cool air. His back struck a hard metal wall; he slid along it until he hit the corner of the room. Sinking to the floor, he pulled his legs up tight against his body, hoping his eyes would soon adjust to the darkness.

With another jolt, the room jerked upward like an old mine shaft.

Harsh sounds of chains and pulleys, like the workings of an ancient steel factory, echoed through the room, bouncing off the walls with a hollow tinny whine. The lightless elevator swayed back and forth as it ascended, turning the boy’s stomach sour with nausea; a smell like burnt oil invaded his senses, making hims feel worse. He wanted to cry, but no tears came; he could only sit there alone, waiting.

My name is Thomas, he thought.

That…that was the only thing he could remember about his life.

This book begins with the hook: He began his new life standing up. That immediately illicits curiosity in the reader. But, I have to apologize to Mr. Dashner, I really didn’t understand the second paragraph. The character falls down and shuffles backward on hands and feet. So I’m picturing him with his butt way up in the air. But then he runs into a wall with his back.

So I asked my son to act it out. At first he thought it was the same as me. He fell down, crawled back on his hands and feet with his butt in the air, and then stopped. “Oh! I get it.” So then he fell backwards and crab walked backwards on his hands and feet.

Ok, I could go with that. But then the character is still running into a wall with his back and later he slides down it. If you’re crab walking, you’ll run into a wall with your head, and there’s not much sliding down going on because you’re not far from the ground.

Maybe I was overthinking it. But I used to get in trouble for that kind of writing all the time. My first teacher, Paula Guran, made me be very specific because the last thing you want is your reader going back to read something again because she doesn’t understand it. And this is in the beginning. He’s made millions, so I must be over-thinking. Maybe that’s a fault in my openings.

What I’ve learned from this opening is loads of semi-colons are okay and amnesia stories are fine despite everything I’m told by agents and editors to the contrary.


Female Characters: A Debate

I’ve been thinking a lot about opening chapters and crafting relatable characters. I’m so appreciative of all of you who like my Rapunzel character, but overall, I seem to struggle with likeable female leads. Even with Rapunzel I hear from readers that she’s a little too over-the-top, a little too crazy.
My romance heroines are sometimes called bitches or selfish by those who don’t like the stories.

Actually, it seems people either love my female characters or they hate them. I didn’t intentionally write them to be divisive. I write females to be independent and smart with some sort of flaw they have to fix or at least come to terms with during the story.

So what’s going on?

Recently, I read three stories: two urban fantasy and one romance. It occurred to me that the two stories that have a female lead start with the character caring for someone else. In the urban fantasy, she has to save her sister. In the romance, she’s the mother figure for her employees. In the urban fantasy with a male lead, he’s abused by his dad and strikes out on his own. We are made to like him based on how others treat him, not how he treats others.

Hmmm. I began to run through beginnings of stories I like. Bilbo launches his adventure without caring for anyone or anything but his own comfort. Harry is another orphan story—we feel sorry for him and want him out of the bad situation. But in A Wrinkle in Time, Meg gets in a fight to defend her baby brother.

Do female characters have to be caregivers at the beginning of a story for people to relate to them? Why can’t a female strike out on her own for an adventure without any other reason—like a male does?

So I researched. It’s not exhaustive by any means, but I think the findings were interesting enough to post. I picked at least two books from each decade starting in the sixties. They are all fantasy or science fiction. I only looked at the opening chapter. Some of these books I’ve read all of, others only the first chapter. My theory was the boys in the very opening scenes would be unattached while the girls would be caregivers to someone or even an animal.

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, 1964: Taran, a boy, wishes to be a hero but has to be a pig keeper and learn lessons instead. He wants to make a sword, but his mentor forces him to make horseshoes.

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, 1968: Lessa is shown as orphaned. She’s also destroyed much of her hold as revenge to Fax who conquered her hold in the past. But it’s contrasted with her attachment to the watch-wher who she cares for when no one is watching.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, 1973: Meg is seen right away defending her baby brother. It is refreshing that in the same chapter we see the baby brother takes care of her possibly more than she take care of him.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, 1979: Arthur Dent is completely unattached to everything but his house. He’s launched into adventure when not only his house is demolished for a highway, but the earth is demolished as well.

The Hero and the Crown by Robin Mckinley, 1984: Aerin wishes to go on a diplomatic war mission with her father and army. She isn’t shown as caretaker to anything. She just wants to get out of the castle. It’s a Newbery Award winner and definitely an exception to my theory.

Magic Kingdom for Sale—Sold! by Terry Brooks, 1986: Ben is a widow who hasn’t gotten over the death of his wife. So the reader does see that he can care. But widowing is a bit of an adult version of being an orphan. Ultimately he’s driven to purchase a Magic Kingdom in a different world because he has no attachments in this world.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, 1997: Great beginning with her rebelling against the enchantment she’s given, but ultimately the first chapter ends with her caring for a sick mom and bargaining for her to get well.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone by JK Rowling, 1997: Harry is seen as a baby after his parents die. The first time we see Harry as a child, we hate the Dursley’s, his foster family. Our empathy for Harry hinges on how he’s treated by them, not how he treats others. He does have a “Sucks to be us” conversation with a snake, but I wouldn’t quite categorize it as caring for the snake.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher, 2000: Dresden is a supernatural detective just trying to make money.

Horn by Peter M. Ball, 2009: Miriam Aster is also a detective dealing with the supernatural. Refreshingly, she’s just in it for the money like a man.

Personal Demons by Stacia Kane, 2009: Megan is a radio talk show host who has psychic insights and cares about her caller.

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, 2006: Kovac is introduced with a female partner. There’s a gunfight. He doesn’t seem to try to help her much. It’s implied that she can handle things herself. She dies. His feelings for her aren’t clear.

Mad Skills by Walter Greatshell, 2010: Maddy is a cyborg, but we first meet her as a nanny caring for two children whose lives she saves.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, 2006: This one surprised me. Percy cares about a friend who is crippled in the very first chapter.

Pegasus and the Flame by Kate O’Hearn, 2012: Another surprise: Emily has a healthy relationship with her dad while being independent and capable.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 2008: We see Katniss right away as the caretaker for her whole family.

The Maze Runner by James Dashner, 2009: Thomas wakes up with amnesia and beaten up. He’s incapable of caretaking at the beginning of the book.

These last two are both vampire books, both with female leads. One is hugely popular, and the other is written by an award-winning author but is not nearly as well known:

Sunshine by Robin Mckinley, 2003: The defining lines from the first chapter: “It was a dumb thing to do but not that dumb. There hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake in years. And it was so exquisitely far from the rest of my life.”

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, 2005: The defining line from the preface: “Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved.”

Eventually both characters are attacked by vampires. The Sunshine character is attacked because she was trying to get away from her family and friends. The Twilight character thinks she’s saving her mom who’s being used as bait.

Do we sympathize best with female characters who are caretakers? Do authors and publishers consciously make the decision to put females in a position at the beginning of a story where they are taking care of somebody else, even an animal? Or is it something subconscious?

And why do we love stories where males are victims of circumstances or even not victims and get to strike out on their own without a care?

Looking at my stories:

Rapunzel: Stay at Home Mom: Caregiver.
A Sunset Finish: Stephanie can barely take care of herself.

Sienna: Kindergarten teacher, caretaker.
Grace: Victim of circumstances. Trying to put her life back together. Not a caregiver.

So I’m fifty fifty. But the current story I’m working on definitely starts like a male beginning—Gwen wants to break away from her family and get out on her own. Readers don’t always relate to her.

What is the beginning of your favorite story like?

Please post in the comments below. I’m really interested to hear what you think!

Openings Follow Up

Thanks for the great conversation on Openings! Diane Carlisle did a post on her site called 10 Lousy Story Starts. Please check out!

I wanted to put Holly’s comments on the front page for everyone to see because it was like a mini-blog. Thank you Holly! Please enjoy her thoughts on Openings:

My first piece of advice: check out the site I’ve linked below. It contains interviews from several agents regarding opening scenes, opening lines, and what to avoid. It has been a personal goldmine.

Yes, there are standard openings to steer clear of (dreams, waking, eating breakfast, riding in a car), but like others mentioned above, they can work well if done correctly. As far as I understand, most ‘waking up’ openings or others like it don’t work because they’re boring. We see the MC being all: ‘Oh, hum. My life is so dull. Now I get ready. Now I eat breakfast. Now I go to work/school.’

Mind-numbing, eh? You bet.

But imagine an MC waking up to find her stalker standing at the foot of her bed. Still boring? Hardly. I can feel my own stomach churning.

One time someone told me to revise meaning of “in media res” from ‘in action’ to ‘with tension’. Basically, start with tension and mystery and intrigue and uniqueness and voice all in the very first line. Don’t be boring. Showcase the most exceptional thing about your character and their situation right at the beginning. Even if that character isn’t aware of what’s special about them or their story, you can still hint at it in the first lines. “Three weeks ago, I never realized things would turn out like this, but then again, I never realized a lot of things about myself.”

Here’s the opening line to one of my favorites and my opinion on why it works:

Fight Club (the novel): “Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.”

The first half of the sentence is boring, but it’s so short and simple that we go straight to the second part of the sentence, about the gun and dying, and now it’s anything but dull. In a single sentence, the author has set up the following: the tone (dark and gritty), the theme (order vs. chaos), the relationship between Tyler and the MC (dominant and submissive), the POV (first person observer), the voice. Masterful!

The first half of the sentence is mundane and something we can relate to. Everyone knows someone who’s been a waiter. But the second half turns the mundane on its head. ‘Whoa, how did this guy go from being a waiter to having a gun shoved in his mouth?’ I’m intrigued, and eager to read on.

One last piece of advice: I’ve also learned that a unique reference to one of the underused senses helps to ground the reader inside the story. (It smelled like someone had sprayed my grandmother’s perfume over a puddle of cat piss). Yummy. Balance helps too. Too much description, action, dialogue or narration right at the beginning of the story can be a turnoff.