|Photo by Stephen Poff|
We all want the magic ingredient that keeps readers turning pages — whether the reader is a agent, an editor, or a fan, what holds their interest?
As a writer I’ve gotten lots of advice how to begin, and how not to begin my story.
- Never have a prologue.
- Start with action. Or don't start with action—why should readers care if they don’t know the characters?
- Don’t start with a character waking up, talking on the phone or getting an email.
- Put your main character on page one.
Weeding through such conflicting advice is challenging, and ultimately, only you know what works best for your story. But lets face it. We have to start somewhere.
Do you need a prologue? Most often, the answer is no. But in certain instances, a prologue can be an effective device.
A prologue can provide the story question right up front. It may relate to a scene near the end of the story, and the story itself then shows what led up to this moment. This enables you to introduce your characters in a more leisurely fashion, and your reader's experience with 'meeting' them will be enhanced by foreshadowing of what is to come. Marg McAlister has an excellent example of this type of prologue on her blog.
A prologue can be used to introduce a certain character's viewpoint on one occasion only. The rest of the book may be told from just one other viewpoint, or from several different viewpoint characters that are in some way removed from the one you've used in the prologue. The prologue can bypass the danger of viewpoint violation.
J.K. Rowling’s first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, is told in a close 3rd person POV (Harry’s), but her first chapter is quite different, told when Harry is a baby. This chapter switches between omniscient and 3rd person POVs. Rowling may have considered setting this information aside as a prologue because of those different voices and the ten-year lag between it and the next chapter, but she didn’t do it. The information contained in those first pages is critical, it helps to set the story up. Had it been a prologue (at 17 pages) what do you think would have happened to Harry Potter?
My critique partner, Christina Dalcher, wrote about the Prologue Problem on her blog this month. She has an impressive list of bestsellers that all have prologues. Another book I’ll add to her list is the Book Thief (Markus Zusak). And I’ll admit that I loved the book, but skipped the prologue.
As Christina points out, most agents and editors hate prologues. Our in house-agents concur and add that established authors have more craft under their belt and more clout with publishers. My recommendation do what works. Never say never. And don’t give anyone a reason to skip pages.
How do you like to start a book?