Question: I'm working on a story that I've been outlining for a while now. I've started chapter 1, and my protagonist starts alone in her room, woken up from a nightmare. Since there are no characters for her to interact with, I'm having trouble making this small scene interesting and meaningful. What are some writing style tips that I can use to characterize a specific character while her or she is alone for a brief time? I'm going to put the most effort and characterization into the scenes that she's involved with other characters, but I don't want scenes like these to be dead weight.
Well.... it is a bit of a cliche to begin the story with a character waking up. Waking up from a nightmare is also fairly common.
However, that doesn't mean it can't work, depending on what you do with it.
Think about the scene as an event, by which I mean a change. Something happens that ignites a sequence of events.
For example, how does the character react to the nightmare (other than waking up)? Does it prompt her to take action or make a decision on the spot? Does the nightmare give her a sudden insight or realization that will send her in a new direction?
Character is often best revealed by how someone reacts to a stressful situation. You want her to do more than just go back to sleep, because that would say the dream was unimportant. If the dream is important enough to prompt the character to take action, and an interesting action, that might get the reader interested in finding out what happens next as a result. Consider having the character react in her own a unique way that tells us something about her personality, her background, her goals, situation, her typical approach to handling problems or emotions, etc.
To take some broad examples, here's how I imagine some famous characters might react upon waking
from a nightmare...
* James Bond: reach for the gun under his pillow, then see if the girl next to him is still breathing.
* Ebenezer Scrooge: kiss the bed post in gratitude for realizing it was just a dream, then decide to reform his life.
* Elizabeth Bennet: run to check on her sisters and offer them support.
* Luke Skywalker: hop in a spaceship and fly to check on his friends.
* Sherlock Holmes: light a pipe and spend the rest of the night using the events of the nightmare to help him solve his current case.
* Frodo Baggins: spend several minutes trying to resist putting on the magic ring, and then put it on despite knowing it's the wrong choice.
* Severus Snape: use occlumency to prevent the Dark Lord from discovering that he had a nightmare.
* Jean-Luc Picard: Check with the doctor to see if the nightmare was normal, and if not invite his senior officers to suggest actions to take.
* King Arthur: order his knights to go on a quest to discover the meaning of the nightmare.
* Hamlet: concoct an elaborate plan to discover whether the event in the dream actually occurred so he can know whether to do something about it.
* Anne Shirley: invent a long imaginative story in which she triumphs over the monster in the nightmare.
This is assuming the nightmare itself is not described, only the character waking from it.
Describing the nightmare itself is a bit risky. If the readers don't know from the outset that it is a dream, you could create a "bait and switch" effect where the readers get interested in the story in the dream, only to be emotionally deflated when they find out it doesn't matter because it was "just a nightmare."
However, if the dream is a trigger for some more important action to begin, whether an inner or outer journey, that may be a different story.