Monday, May 18, 2015

Furthering Your First Pages

by Charlotte Levine Gruber

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?


  1. Give me action and tension in the first pages!

  2. It depends, if it's all about backstory, usually that can be sprinkled into the story. But sometimes it's a good place to connect dots to later situations in the story. Like everything in this business, it's subjective.

  3. Generally prologues leave me with a heavy case of WTF. And honestly, I almost always spend unnecessary reading time trying to figure out how the prologue relates to this or that plot twist. Like, tell me the story already.
    (Although I do think Ch 1 of Sorcerer's Stone added to the overall story.)

  4. I'm going to agree with all of the commenters, but add my two cents. First of all, many prologues could easily be retitled "Chapter 1," "Day 1," "Day Zero," "Prelude," etc. They can be chock full of action and tension from a point of view other than that of the MC, as opposed to yawn-inciting backstory that occurred X years in the past. I'm all for creepy, eerie, mystery-laden introductions, particularly if they show me the stakes right up front -- stakes that my MC isn't aware of (yet). Since I write thrillers, I love having a device that allows me to foreshadow something ominous and enticing -- something that I'll explain much later in the story, but that grabs my reader on Page One and shouts "Danger!"

    So I think the question is not whether to prologue or not to prologue, but rather, "What is the purpose of a prologue?" To crib from Hannibal Lecter, "What is its NATURE?" What we might want to ask, then, is what should a prologue do (and what should it avoid doing), rather than categorically dismiss any and all preliminary chapters that depart from the main POV or storyline.

    (A side note: I've called my Chapter One "Prologue," but in fact it's the first of several scenes from a victim's POV. Each scene reveals a bit more about the victim and her situation. Personally, I think it works, and I haven't had any suggestions to remove it. In all likelihood, however, the mere existence of the Dreaded P-Bomb in my MS may have been the cause of a few quick rejections. So be it.)

    Thanks for the plug, Charlotte! I'll be adding more titles to my list of blockbuster novels that include prologues as I come across them!