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

Beginning a novel recap

Today I would usually post something about writing or publishing, but it is May, which is a crazy busy month. It is the last month of school for my kids, so there are all sorts of events – school art display, reading with my first grader in class, class picnics – and on top of that we had my son’s 10th birthday party at the house.

So instead of something new, I am going to fall back on my old standby and do a recap. This time I am doing a recap of things that might be of use when beginning a novel.

The past post title is listed first and then typically the beginning of the post. To read more simple click the links.

Starting a Novel…So you have decided to write a novel. Before you sits a blank screen. For some that brings excitement at the unlimited possibilities but for others it can be intimidating. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task at hand. (To read a short intro to novel writing, click here.)

9 ways to Brainstorm Story Ideas – Many authors are teeming with story ideas, so they just need to pluck one and develop it into a novel. But newbies and even a few veteran authors sometimes falter when finding a story to write. (Click here to discover those 9 ways.)

Conflict drives your story – Every story needs some form of conflict. Without conflict there would be nothing to drive the characters and plot forward. It is the character overcoming obstacles that supply the drama, the suspense, the tension in the story. (Lists the 5 types of conflict – click here to read more.)

Choosing the Setting for your Novel – Selecting the right setting can have a significant impact on your story. Choosing where a story or even a scene takes place can add suspense or excitement to a theme. (Click here to read more on settings.)

Making sure your story ideas is sound – You have a brilliant idea for a story. You can imagine the main character and even the opening scene…but when you sit down to write, you realize that is all you have. You don’t have a complete story with a structured plot and a satisfying ending. All you have is this great story idea. (To read more, click here.)

Keeping your story believable – You are watching an action movie, and during the fight scene, the two sides shoot and shoot and shoot some more. And while you are engrossed in the action, somewhere in the back of your mind you are wondering “Shouldn’t they run out of bullets or at least need to reload?” (To read more about making your story believable, click here.)

The importance of character flaws – No one wants to read about perfect characters that always smile, act polite and eat their vegetables. No one is perfect and readers don’t expect your characters to be perfect. In other words, everyone has flaws and so should your characters. (Just one of many posts on characters. Check out my character recap here or keep reading about character flaws by clicking here.)

I hope this helps. And next week I promise to have a new post about writing…just not sure what it will be at this moment.

Starting a novel…

So you have decided to write a novel. Before you sits a blank screen. For some that brings excitement at the unlimited possibilities but for others it can be intimidating. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task at hand.

I decided to post on this topic as I just published my latest work – The Heir to Alexandria – last month, and now I too am at this point. I am ready to begin my next novel.

Cartoon Characters uid 950048Now before you start typing your novel, you will need to do some planning. I am not saying you need to figure everything out but without a plan, your characters will just meander around.

You need a direction. Your characters need a direction.

Without a goal in mind, a plot becomes just a haphazard series of events with no meaning or purpose – one that will leave the reader wondering, “What was the point of that story?” (Or perhaps you will spend additional hours editing and cutting out all those scenes that didn’t actually add to your story.)

Before you begin to write even one word, I suggest you consider working on these three topics at a minimum.

Conflict/Plot – Basically, you will need to decide what your story is about. Conflict is what drives your story. You should be able to write down the conflict in just one sentence. (For more on conflict, check out my post on the seven types of conflict.) You also need to consider whether your plot idea has what it takes to last through the length of a whole novel. Not every idea will be worthy of a full-length novel or even a short story.

Setting/World – You need to know where this story is going to take place. If it takes place in the past, you will need to research not only the location but customs and styles of that time. If it takes place in a fictional world, you will need to spend some time developing this world. Even if you are writing a story that takes place in your hometown, you need to make sure you have planned out where everything will take place and know all the details of those locations. It is knowledge of these details, whether they make it into your story or not, that will allow you to bring the reader into your character’s world.

Characters – Don’t just give your characters a name and start writing. You need to get to know them. You need to know their history, their personality quirks, you need to know what motivates them. This is a must for your main characters, but you should develop at least some basic knowledge for the supporting cast too. Again, this development of characters will show in your writing.

As I said, I am currently starting my next novel. I am working on the overall plot/conflict right now. I want a strong storyline before I develop my world or continue developing the characters I already have begun. (Right now I just have the basics of two main characters.)

All of this may seem like a lot of work. And it can be a daunting task to start a new novel. But with planning – the laying down of a foundation – you will have a better chance of following through with writing a publishable novel.