Every writer has heard that most basic piece of writing advice: never open a story with your main character waking up. But some of my favorite novels prove this advice doesn’t apply when your hero wakes to a very troubling set of circumstances. In my own novel, The Echo Room, the main character wakes to find himself trapped in a mysterious depot with someone else’s blood on his clothes—and no memory of how he got into this mess.
Here are five other books starring characters who wake up in strange situations…
The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
A woman finds herself standing in a park, surrounded by dead people wearing latex gloves, her memory completely gone. A letter in her pocket explains that she is in terrible danger and tries to help her return to a life she doesn’t remember, including a bizarre government job and supernatural coworkers. It’s a fish-out-of-water scenario that’s even more fun because in order to keep herself alive, the main character must pretend that she knows exactly what’s going on—like why sentient mold is invading the city—even while she understands nothing.
Paradox by A. J. Paquette
Ana wakes in a round room, remembering nothing but her name. When she opens the door, she discovers she’s stepping out of a spacecraft and onto an alien planet. Paquette puts a great twist on the exploring-an-alien-planet story, because while Ana has a map of the strange terrain, we have no idea what the map is leading her to. To safety? To a problem that needs solving? To someone who can revive her memory? Along the way, we have to puzzle out how this planet works and why Ana has been sent here with her memory wiped, a fun mystery that keeps the pages turning.
More Than This by Patrick Ness
After drowning, a boy wakes in a strange, empty neighborhood. When he enters a house that reminds him of the worst thing that ever happened to him, he becomes convinced he’s in his own personal hell. Flashbacks of the boy’s life become evidence to examine—does he deserve to be trapped in this bleak wasteland? Meanwhile, the bizarre realm he explores becomes more foreboding as questions pile upon questions. Finding out exactly what’s going on becomes secondary to understanding what guilt can do to someone who can’t escape it.
Arena by Karen Hancock
Callie signs up for a psychological experiment and wakes in a vast arena full of odd creatures, surrounded by sheer canyon walls. To exit the arena, she only has to follow the path—but when the path forks and the creatures start to attack, Callie finds her way to a group of survivors who have been trapped in the arena for years and fear there’s no way out. The story is supposed to read as an allegory, but it’s a lot of fun in its own right because everything in the arena almost works the way it’s supposed to, which only makes us want to see it all put right.
House of Stairs by William Sleator
Five teens find themselves in a strange place made entirely of endless flights of stairs, where they must figure out which actions to take to get a machine to dispense their only food. This story starts off feeling like The Breakfast Club, with a group of very different teens forced to get to know each other—but soon the machine demands they do terrible things, and the characters’ worst faults are exposed. This book is probably the definitive teen novel about characters trapped in a strange place, and the most fascinating example of how to use this trope to explore group dynamics.
Parker Peevyhouse is likely trying to solve a puzzle at this very moment, probably while enjoying In-N-Out fries, admiring redwood trees, and quoting movies about sentient robots. Parker’s critically acclaimed collection of novellas for young adults, Where Futures End, was named a best book for teens by the New York Public Library, Chicago Public Library, and Bank Street. Her science fiction thriller, The Echo Room, is out in September from Tor Teen.