I was going to write this post about breaking rules. Not real rules, like the law or physics or grammar, but the sort of rules you find when you start stalking following agents. For example: don't ever have your main character wake up at the beginning of a novel. Sure Kafka pulled it off (note: he also turned his MC into a bug on that first page, so yeah) but nowadays you should just avoid this. As soon as an agent sees your character waking up in that first page, she's rolling her eyes and saying, "Good Lord! Not again!"
This past weekend I re-read The Maze Runner, in preparation for The Death Cure (which I also read and it was great). And afterwards, I thought "hmm, didn't James Dashner just break a rule by opening with an amnesiac?"
But as I thought about it, I couldn't actually remember an agent ever saying, "Don't open your story with someone who has lost their memory!" For some reason, my mind has it defined as a common trope but I can't remember any examples of a book opening this way, except for The Maze Runner. Sure TV uses amnesia all the time, but books? I can't think of a one.
Well, I can, but it's The Lost Hero, and I don't think it counts since it's equally new and wouldn't have created this trope.
But I'm fairly certain amnesia is something that is considered as a trope. So what makes The Maze Runner or for that matter The Lost Hero compelling despite the fact it begins with a classic trope that might cause agents to roll their eyes?
For The Lost Hero, I think it gets the benefit of a doubt because it's a follow up to the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, but I also think it's because there is no obvious (non god related) reason why this kid Jason should not have his memory. He's sitting on a school bus. His best friend and girlfriend have been with him the entire time—no time for him to stumble off and hit his head without him knowing. Somehow, just sitting on a bus, this kid lost his memory. Or else something else is going on. And that's what keeps you reading. What else could be going on? Or how could a kid just suddenly lose his memory?
But The Maze Runner I think just takes this trope and makes it new. How? Why? Well, let's dissect it.
"He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air."
New life? What new life? And does the fact he faced this new life, started it, standing up, facing it, taking it like a man—does that tell us something about this mysterious character? And why would a new life begin in such a cold stale dusty place???? These are the thoughts that would pull me in if I read this first sentence.
The next three paragraphs show us that this person (we don't know if he's a kid or adult yet) is in an elevator, and Dashner's descriptions are vivid. You can hear the grind of metal against metal and feel the shudder of the room. Why is this guy beginning his new life in an elevator? What does it mean?
It's not until the fifth paragraph and on that you realize this guy has no better idea than you where is or why he is there. Somehow this boy (for we do learn he is a teenager) lost his memory and he lost it STANDING UP.
Think about that for a moment. Usually if you experience head trauma that's bad enough to cause memory loss, you're probably going to be disoriented and lose your sense of balance. But our main character, Thomas, was standing up when we met him. Somehow, while standing up, he lost his memory.
I mean doesn't that just make you want to know what happened? How it could happen?
If that's not enough, the fear and confusion Dashner conveys about being in this awful, dank elevator also kept me going, but ultimately what won me, was what Thomas meets when he gets out of the elevator.
A community of boys who all arrived to this strange place via the same elevator and who all have no memory of any life before living in this community.
This isn't just an isolated, stereotypical amnesia. This amnesia is caused by something—some higher organization within the novel that is plotting something. That wants a group of boys who have no idea where they are or how they got there, other than an elevator.
Something is going on. And it's ultimately the question "What's going on?" that keeps me reading.
So think about that, the next time you want to write a trope. It can be done. It can be done well. But you have to do it in a way that keeps the reader wondering what's going to happen next and "What's going on?"