Novel Writing – Prologue and opening scenes

This post is the eleventh in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

You have decided to write a novel. You have planned out your plot and built up believable characters. You have your outline or perhaps you are plan to just sit down and write. You are now at that point.

But where do you begin? How do you begin your novel?

The very first words, sentences and paragraphs are some of the most important. This is where you are going to hook your reader into wanting to keep reading.

You may decide to start with an interesting scene that draws in your reader and sets the stage for your story. That all sounds good until you have to write the scene.

Perhaps you are thinking your reader might benefit from more information before they are introduced to the world you created. This information might help them understand the importance of what is happening. This is where a prologue comes into play.

Prologues

 A prologue is an opening to a story that establishes the setting and gives background details.

Prologues appear at the beginning of most Star Wars movies.

Various purposes of the prologue

  • Give background information. For example, in a sci-fi book, it may be useful to introduce the alien world in a prologue so that the reader is not confused when they enter a completely foreign world in the first chapter.
  • Grabs the reader’s attention with a scene from the story. I can think of numerous movies that do this. They start with an exciting scene and then pause to go back and fill in everything that led up to that scene.
  • Describe a scene from the past that is important to the story, such as the death of the main character’s mother, which is motivation for the action in the novel.
  • Give information from a different point of view. If the story is written in first person and the prologue in third, the prologue could give information that the main character would have no way of knowing.
  • It expresses a different point in time. The prologue could be the main character when he or she is older and reflecting back on another event, which begins in Chapter 1. (Think of the opening scenes in the movie Titanic.)

So with all these good reasons for writing a prologue, what is the downside? Well, often prologues are boring. If too much history is put into the prologue, it can turn off readers. And many readers say they skip the prologues so if you include an essential part of the story here, your reader may not get it. But the main reason not to include a prologue is that they are often unnecessary. Many of the purposes of the prologue can be accomplished in the actual novel.

So before writing a prologue, ask yourself, will this fit in Chapter 1 or perhaps later in the story? Is this essential to the plot? If the answer is no, skip it.

But if you decide to add a prologue to your novel, here are some things to consider.

  • Keep it short. You don’t want the prologue to drag on for half the book.
  • Keep it interesting. This is the first thing the reader will read so you want to hook them with this passage.
  • Think of the prologue as a separate entity from the novel. Just because the prologue has a hook doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one in your first chapter.
  • Limit background information. I have read prologues that are dull and boring histories which I ended up skimming. You can weave background information into your novel so don’t dump it all here.

Overall the prologue, when done correctly, can enhance your story and further your plot. But when done incorrectly, it can put your readers off so consider carefully before you include a prologue.

Opening Scene

Now it doesn’t matter if you wrote a prologue or not as the opening scene must still hook the reader. You want them to read the first few paragraphs and want to keep on reading. They should want to know what happens next.

Here are some things that your opening could do…

Introduce your story idea – think of the opening scene of Jaws where the shark attacks a group of teenagers.

Foreshadow your story idea – think of this as the opening to Sleeping Beauty when the fairy curses the baby at her christening.

You may want to start with an action or suspenseful scene. Of course this could backfire as the reader may be confused as to what is happening and which character they are supposed to be rooting for. Well actually there are pros and cons for almost any way that you might want to start a novel.

Long scenery descriptions are typically bad. And most other website will also warn you to not start with a dream sequence unless you first let the reader know that it is a dream. Some authors recommend not introducing too many characters at once in the beginning and others will tell you not to start with the weather.

The key is to not throw too many new things at the reader in the beginning. Don’t worry about backstory, description, character motivation (or internal monologues). Instead look for action that drives your story forward. You only have a few pages to hook the reader (or book editor).

You want to begin with conflict and tension. Something has gone wrong.

Often writers spend too long building up to their story. This means that the first few pages or even the first few chapters could be totally omitted from the novel without any problem. I have seen a few other authors say that it is the first 50 pages or the first three chapter. Know that it does take some practice to figure out where to begin your novel. I re-wrote the beginning of my first novel Summoned a dozen times, starting later and later in the plot until I found the one that worked.

For every “rule” of what not to do, there is an example out there of someone who made it work for them. But the most important thing is to draw the reader into your story. You don’t have pages to convince them this is the book for them. You have just a few pages at most. Make them count.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

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