Let’s start at the very beginning…

… a very good place to start.

The other day I was reading Jo Eberhardt’s Blog entitled ‘Begin at the Begining, End at the End’. She spoke alot about being able to define what a story is about and that if you don’t have the ‘beginning’ of your story right it makes the defining part just that much harder.

I have always, and I mean always, had trouble defining what my story, Ankhari, is actually about. I can tell you all the twists and turns, I know the characters inside out, but when is comes to condensing what it is about into three sharp sentences I fail (and I know I fail because I am still unable to produce a query letter that I am 100% happy with).

But Jo helped me to see that it is the beginning of my story that is the problem. As the writer, I know that my protagonist has self-esteem issues; that she would love to travel across the country for college but feels trapped by a requirement to stay close to her single mother; that she has never been kissed; that she would give anything to rise above the throng and be extraordinary – just for one day. I know all these things, but my readers don’t. Because with all the cutting and editing to get into the action of the story faster, I lost all of this somewhere along the way. My story has no beginning. If the readers don’t know who my protagonist is, then how can they appreciate her journey?

Don’t worry I plan to fix it!

While we are speaking of beginnings there is something else I would like to talk about – The Prologue.

I can honestly confess that until a few days ago I had no idea that prologues were such a big no-no. Apparently they are literary C4 (as in put one in your story and watch it spontaneously explode!). In Kristen Lamb’s Blog she details the reasons why prologues are so perilous, so I won’t repeat them here. Save to say that of the three novels I currently have in the works, all three have a prologue!

“Kaboom”

Also, until reading her blog I had no idea that readers tend to skip over the prologue – I have NEVER done this and don’t understand why anyone would. Unlike Kristen I am a big fan of the ‘set the mood’ type of prologue – they help me determine if I am going to bother continuing onto the first chapter.

Let me know your thoughts on beginnings an prologues. Am I just being overly sensitive? (don’t worry, you won’t offend me)

The Exasperated Novelist

p.s. as a side thought I thought I would provide I link to one of the aforementioned Prologues and you can judge for yourselves. Check out my blog Prologue Central.

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13 responses to “Let’s start at the very beginning…

  1. I put a prologue in my last book and ended up taking all of it out apart from the first 200 words or so. That has to stay in because it’s the creation myth that underscores the entire story.

    My current WIP also has a prologue, but again it’s short, about 300 words. I think it’s necessary, so it’s there, although I might end up working it into the book later on. If I can get the same feel into the main body of the book, I’ll take out the prologue.

    I’ve always been a fan and, like you, only recently discovered that they were definitely device non grata. We’ll see what happens down the line!

    • Well the good news is all three of my prologues are less than 300 words already! But I do think that for two of the novels, where the prologue is ‘mood setting’ it will have to go (I can easily get it into the first chapter). Your right though, these things have a habit of being cyclic, perhaps down the track they will come back into fashion!

  2. It all depends on what the prologue is trying to do. If it’s just a history lesson or (sorry!) setting a mood or tone, odds are readers will skip it. They want to get to the story. If there’s nothing for them to wonder about, why read it?

    But if the prologue offers an intriguing puzzle or something readers want to know the answer to, it can work. If it’s like the start of the book and hooks, not just “stuff you need to know to understand the real story.”

    Beginnings are the same way. Too much setting the scene risks boring readers because nothing is going on. Getting to too much action too fast risks overwhelming them so they don’t *care* what’s going on. It’s finding that balance between an interesting character doing (this is key, make them do something) an interesting thing readers want to know more about.

    I like to open with my protag doing something that is about to get her into trouble, and that trouble is what puts her on the path to the core conflict of the novel. Readers get to know her right away, see who she is and how she reacts to problems, see a problem they (hopefully) want to see how it turns out, and then see how this problem has larger ramifications. (this often connects in some way to the cover blurb/query hook). Basically, readers can see where this smaller problem will lead to what the book is about.

    • This is such a smart strategy of how to begin a novel, Janice. You’re talking about ratcheting up the tension from the initial scene, and showing the reader a character-driven problem that relates to the larger conflict/premise, and I can’t think of a better way to hook a reader. I need to go look at my first chapter of my current novel (and heck, the last one) and see whether I can implement your suggestion. This is a great discussion!

  3. This balance is exactly what I am struggling with at the moment. I think the pacing throughout the remainder of the novel is good. It’s just the start that I can’t seem to get right. Thanks for your comments.

    • Jody, you might try picking a few things about the story and character and showcasing those. For example, what’s a strong trait readers can identify with and connect to your protag with? Something that will make them like that character. Then look for an event/problem that shows that trait, but also shows the step toward that larger goal. (It can be a small nudge, too, it doesn’t HAVE to be a big thing as long as it’s interesting) Last, find something with stakes big enough to make the reader worry, but not so big that it starts the story off too high and leaves it nowhere to go.

      Once you have those elements, start there (or just before there). If you can achieve that with the prologue, then maybe it’ll work. If you’re better off with the first chapter, then you know you don;t need the prologue.

      It always takes me a long time (like weeks) to get my opening right. I think about them for ages, trying different first lines until I get them right. I just can’t move forward unless I start off right. So I spend a lot of time thinking about beginnings, LOL.

  4. I’ve bought books on account of loving the prologue.

    Still, a prologue to me needs to tie in to the main problem in the book. I can think of one YA fantasy where the prologue focuses on the birth of the MMC, which doesn’t affect the actual story. That ended up being a disappointment. But there’s a YA paranormal with a prologue that focuses on the MMC some centuries before the actual story, and it actually ends up tying in—which made it work, for me.

    So, if the prologue’s pertinent, I’m great with it, even (and perhaps particularly) when it’s a different perspective and style than the rest of the book. Otherwise, no.

    • Thanks for your comments. For my YA romantic fantasy novel the prologue is a 3rd person description of the ‘creation’ of the baddies. The story is first person and unless I include yet another dream sequence I don’t think I can get it into the novel any other way. Also the epilogue of the novel is in the same voice which I don’t think would make sense without the prologue!

  5. I don’t necessarily think that you should avoid writing prologues. Just as you shouldn’t avoid writing 17 chapters about your protag wandering around aimlessly before the story starts. Sometimes your brain needs to get those details on to paper so that it can focus on the real story.

    The trick isn’t in not writing that info – the trick is in being brave enough to surgically remove it from your novel at the end.

    In many cases, I think prologues (and overly long and boring introductions) are like scaffolding. You need it when you’re building a house, but once the house is strong enough to stand up on its own, you take it away. A building with scaffolding erected around it is ugly and looks unfinished – would you pay money to live there?

  6. I like to look at prologue I think work really well and figure out why they do. Elantris by Brandon Sanderson has a great, short prologue. Jessica Day George’s Princess of the Midnight Ball has a slightly longer one, but I think what makes both of these work is that they add tension to the story right away. They make me want to read. Elantris follows up the short prologue with one of the greatest first sentences I’ve ever read, so if I find myself in a situation where I think adding a prologue helps more than it hurts, I try to make it short and spend extra care developing a killer first-chapter, first-line hook.

    I’ve also seen a few books with very long prologues that are almost like short stories that worked well.

    • I haven’t read either of these books. I will have to track them down. I actually love all three of my prologues which is why I am experiencing so much trauma with the thought of culling them! Thanks for your comment..

  7. I had a prologue in my works when I was first starting out. After a number of revisions and changes the prologue was not only a bad idea but useless. It’s much easier to use pieces of your prologue throughout the story as memories/flashback-esque segments as the story moves forward. As a new scene reflects something from the prologue use a piece of it as a reference to their mood etc.

  8. Pingback: Good afternoon sir, my name is Main Character. | Jody Moller on Movies, Manuscripts and Mayhem

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