Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Great Beginnings - Day Three

In response to posts over the last two days, we're going to start with some stuff about prologues. Why is the anti-prologue sentiment growing? I tend to think it's for the same reason that we are told not to write rhyming picture books. Because so many people do it badly. In my "travels" (meaning conferences, forums, blogs, newsletters etc), I've heard that editors at fantasy publishing houses are not keen on prologues simply because so many are one of the following: a prophecy, a curse, or an info dump. The first two are outdated tropes, and the third is bad writing. It can apply to any kind of prologue.

Out of interest, I just went to one of my bookshelves and picked out eight books - four of them had prologues. That surprised me, I have to admit. So I took a closer look. Please note that my comments that follow here are my own personal preferences/opinions. You may well disagree.
Book 1 is A Thin Dark Line by Tami Hoag. The prologue is like a poem, presumably "written" by the killer. Another one doesn't appear until page 153. My vote: not necessary, doesn't add anything.

Book 2 is Mercy by Jodi Picoult. In the prologue, a woman holds a yard sale where she apparently sells stuff as a way of telling her husband their marriage is over. It creates intrigue - why, who are these people? Does it add anything vital to the story? Well, it introduces story questions, but when I launch into the actual story itself, I instantly forget everything in the prologue. My vote: probably could do away with it, or move it.

Book 3 is Indigo Slam by Robert Crais. (You can tell I read a lot of crime!) He hasn't called it a prologue (good thinking) - it's called SEATTLE. And the next bit is called Three Years Later: Los Angeles. So we're being given backstory, involving characters who are not the main players. My vote: this works because it is chock-full of action, fear, more action, and the feeling that I will get to find out what happens to these people, and it will matter.

Book 4 is Every Dead Thing by John Connolly. The prologue is 12 pages, and is a mix of alternating bits - the main character narrating the precipitating incident that changes his life, the villain buying flowers, and a whole heap of excerpts from police reports. I guess it's a prologue because it's about something that happens before the actual story starts, and it's about the main character. My vote: it doesn't really hold my interest. Lots of it feels like I'm being fed information. Could he have done this another way?

Obviously lots of writers use prologues. There is nothing to stop you having one. But let me ask you this - if your book was about to be accepted for publication, the offer on the table was $50,000 advance, and the editor said, "The advance is yours and the first print run will be 50,000 copies - if you lose your prologue" - could you do it? If you honestly think you could, maybe you should seriously consider it.

Situating The Reader
Opening paragraphs are tricky. We want to include story hooks or questions, we want to capture the reader's interest and make them excited about what's coming next, we want to create intrigue, we want those zinger first and second sentences, we want to grab the reader by the throat. Yep, yep, all of that. But what we don't want is for the reader to think What the heck is going on? Who are these people? Where are we? Who's talking? What is that stupid monkey doing in the car? Is this 1946 or 2008?

It's probably the key reason why beginnings are so tricky, because as well as all that hook stuff, you have to let the reader know these things: who the main character/narrator is, what POV the story is in, where and when the story is taking place, what kind of voice the story has, what the tone is, what genre it is, what level of language to expect, why the story is starting here. You have to pack all of that into the first couple of paragraphs, as well as hooking the reader into the story! No wonder we rewrite our beginnings a hundred times.

But it's also why we come back and rewrite the beginning after the novel is finished. It's like writing backwards. It's a lot easier to get voice and tone working after you've been doing it for 90,000 words. You're in the groove, you hear the narrator's voice, the tone of the novel is settled and consistent. None of that is likely to be happening when you first write page 1. And even if you are a writer who rewrites as you go (I have to write the whole first draft before I can revise), you will still need to look again at Page 1 and Chapter 1 when the thing is finished. In other words, don't panic. That's what revision is for.

Remember, too, that you created the novel, so you know the characters and setting, you know what is coming next. The reader doesn't. What often happens is the writer either leaves too much out (not realising there isn't enough there to "signpost" the reader), or overdoes it, ending up with a beginning that is way too slow and explanatory. I think two key things your opening pages (I'd say opening chapter, actually) should not have are backstory and flashbacks.

What they should have is the precipitating incident, action, conflict, and movement forward. Within these will be hooks and story questions. These are the things that make the reader want to find out what will happen next. The exercise for today is to look at your opening 200 words (no more) and identify the hooks and story questions in there. I think you should have at least three. Post one sentence only from your 200 words that you think has a hook or question in it.

Tomorrow, I'm going to post on the things that are dangerous to open with, and why. And some ways you could break the rules on them. I'm also going to post the email address tomorrow for your 200 words. I was going to put it up today, but I think you'd rather read the Dangerous List first. And then if you use something on the list anyway, we can decide if you've succeeded or not!


Natalie Hatch said...

I will wait for the dangerous list...

Lisa Cohen said...

Even mindblinds had an echo, but Sera was like a life sized hollow doll.

I had to do some editing to make ONE sentence in my first 200 that on its own had a strong story question. Thank you for forcing me to look at the opening this way.

Rashda Khan said...

Lynn balanced on one leg, eyes closed, and pretended to be a tree.

I'm looking forward to your Dangerous List since I now have a complete mss with ELEVEN first chapters. Can you tell the beginning is driving me crazy?

The above line is from the version I currently like the most...

Anonymous said...

She had hoped never to see him again, yet there he was, hanging limp, bloody and broken between two wranglers on her porch.

If I ever get the opening to my current WIP wrestled into submission, I will consider my life a success. The version note in the document title says "rev15," but it's got to represent at least the 150th time I've rewritten the opening paragraph.

Has anyone else noticed that classic literature has some of the worst, most boring opening sentences (and for that matter, entire opening paragraphs) ever written? I just glanced through my collection of classic works (The Count of Monte Cristo, Gone with the Wind, War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, The Sound and the Fury, etc.), and if I were picking out a book based on just its opening, none of them would have made the cut. The only opening line I found at all intriguing was the one in Lady Chatterly's Lover: "Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically." I'll bet most of the others can be shown to be victims of tomorrow's dangers, Sherryl, as all of them seemed to open with terribly dreary time-place settings. (Can't wait to see your list, BTW!)

Anonymous said...

The blue light illuminated the dried, rust color staining my fingers – Alicia’s blood.

There were two other sentences that I thought might be contenders but they related to each other so as a stand alone sentence I thought this one worked best. This exercise has helped me look at my opening in a new way which is going to help me better chop and finesse it into shape. Thank you!

Disorderly - I noticed the same thing yesterday lol. I was rummaging through some of my old favorites and going, hmmm. Perhaps this reflects the evolving nature of how people like to hear/read stories which is cool to think about. Some aspects of story telling seem consistent regardless of time (like the 3 act structure) but other bits seem suspect to change. Movies, tv and how fastpaced the world is today may be influencing the change in openings etc. Or not - I could be way off base lol. Fun to think about though.


Anonymous said...

I fight the urge to run up to him and say “I can’t believe you’re here! I never stopped loving you! Why aren't you dead? And why are you in New Hampshire?”

I too have rewritten more than I can count. :)

Anonymous said...

Okay, so an actual follow up to my first sentence from yesterday:
"They had destroyed the life that I had peacefully led for the past few years."
This is the first sentence of my second paragraph. Now that I'm reading this, I wonder if I should actually put this as my first sentence, and then continue on with my first paragraph.
Thank you so much for doing this right now. I just finished my first draft of this novel today, and all of this will help with my rewriting that is going to begin on Friday or Saturday.
ManiacScribbler =^..^=

Sherryl said...

Some great sentences here. Not every sentence in your first page will be a question or a hook, but the test is to see if you can identify them.

ljcohen - there's a lot of information in that sentence. I had to read it several times, but my main question was *what is a mindblind?*

rk - Lynn is doing yoga - I get the feeling there is a *but* in there somewhere?

disorderly - is this a romance? The question of course is: what happened to him?

Shannon - nothing like some blood to get us started!

jerzegurl - I like the idea of her simply saying to him "Why aren't you dead?" But maybe that's just me!

maniacscribbler - When do we find out who they are? Is it in another sentence close by?