How, strategically speaking, should you begin your novel? When a reader reads your first chapter, what should she find?
There are four primary approaches for beginning a successful novel. Probably more, including some highly experimental ones, but these are the classic main four. Run your story idea through the filter of each of these and see if one of them feels right for your book.
1. The Prologue Beginning
A prologue is an episode that pertains to your story but does not include the hero (or includes the hero at a time well before the story proper begins, when he’s a child). It might not be “Chapter 1” per se, but it can serve as a legitimate opening—if it works.
For example, the film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (I often use film and television examples when I teach because they illustrate so perfectly the concepts of storytelling and are so universal) begins with a prologue in which two of our main heroes first meet each other as children. Our heroes are onstage, but they’re not at the age they’ll be for the story proper.
Mulan begins with a prologue that establishes the villain, the stakes and the ticking time bomb. The action is contemporaneous with the scene that introduces our heroine, but she is not onstage, and she does not become aware of the danger until deeper into the story.
Game of Thrones (the HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s novels) begins with a prologue showing less-than-minor characters discovering a new danger in the land. Ghostbusters begins with a prologue showing a nonprimary character who sees a ghost, which provides the need for the Ghostbusters to form. The 2009 version of Star Trek begins with the arrival of a terrifying new enemy vessel that can destroy whole fleets, and our heroes haven’t even been born yet.
In these cases, we see some of the ways a prologue-style opening can help your story. These examples also illustrate why it’s one of the most popular ways to open a novel. A prologue can establish why things are as they are in the world of your story, and why the character is the way he is when the main action begins. And a prologue can even hint at or reveal the danger that will soon sweep over the hero’s life.
As you probably know, we’re in disputed territory when we talk about prologues. Many fiction experts tell writers never to write a prologue, while others (like me) say prologues are great.
The Anti-Prologuers argue that: 1) No one reads prologues; 2) Prologues are just dumping grounds for backstory; and 3) Prologues prevent you from getting to the main action of the story.
The Pro-Prologuers (Pro-Loguers?) contend that: 1) 95 percent of fiction readers do read prologues; 2)Any portion of a book that is a dumping ground for backstory should be cut—not because it has the word prologue at the top but because telling instead of showing is lazy writing; and 3) Prologues allow you to set the right tone for your novel without having your protagonist onstage doing something heroic.
Can beginning with a prologue engage your reader? Yes. Can it be done so poorly that it disengages the reader? Also yes. It’s not an issue of right or wrong. If your prologue engages the reader, it’s a good thing, and if your prologue disengages the reader, it’s a bad thing.