Many of the “rules” repeated over and over to beginning writers have to do with the opening of the book, and nearly all of them are Don’ts. Don’t start with a prologue. Don’t start with your protagonist waking up. Don’t talk about the weather. Don’t use dreams. Don’t start slow.
Don’t, don’t, don’t.
But like so many of the rules we’ve covered in the Flip the Script series so far, these are somewhat off-base. First of all, I can name – and I know you can too – examples of bestsellers that violate every one of these rules. (The first 50 pages of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo are among the most tedious it has ever been my misfortune to read.)
Does that mean that prologues are great, waking up is the natural beginning to any book, weather is riveting, dreams are the right way to go, and you should totally take your time setting up your story?
Of course not. But it does mean that you’re way better off knowing what these “rules” are getting at than actually following said rules. To wit:
Prologues are often a cheat. A prologue is a way to sneak in a different point of view, or talk about something that took place 10 (or 100 or 1000) years earlier, or plunk down a load of exposition that you don’t see another way to include. But you can find a better way to include the same information without that odd detached feeling that nearly all prologues suffer from. Besides, some readers skip prologues as a matter of principle. You’re probably better off not giving them the excuse.
Waking up isn’t all that interesting. “But I have to show what an average day is like for him so that readers will understand what a big change it is when XYZ!” No, you don’t. If his average day is boring, readers will be bored. You don’t have to start with your main character reeling from a punch to the throat, but it’s a waste of pages to spend time explaining to us that he isn’t the kind of guy who likes getting his throat punched. Start with action. We’ll figure it out.
Weather is irrelevant. Sure, rain is a way to set the mood, but unless your story is set in a fantasy world where it rains fire and your protagonist has just invented the asbestos raincoat, it’s probably the least interesting entry point to the story. You only get one start. Use it.
Dreams, like prologues, are often a cheat. Yes, it’s tempting to start with a dissonant dream – like a paraplegic character dreaming about flying, or a chaste one dreaming something naughty – but you’re better off establishing a character for real instead of giving the reader whiplash in the first 10 pages. The beginning of your book is a promise to the reader – here’s what you’ll get if you keep reading. Don’t go back on your promise so fast.
A slow start is a dangerous gamble. Back to the example of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Once I realized that the opening pages were of no interest whatsoever to me, why did I keep reading? Only because my book club was discussing the book. If I’d been reading it in a store I’d have put it down without buying, and if I’d bought it sight unseen I would have set it aside unread. This is what readers will do if you don’t capture their attention. In which case they won’t ever be your readers.
So with those caveats, start your book anywhere and in any way you want. Start it with a dream-prologue or 15 pages detailing the clouds of a gathering storm. Just be clear on the lessons behind the “rules”:
- No one wants to read the setup for the story. They want to read the story itself.
- A beginning that doesn’t match up with the rest of the book (whether it’s a dream, a prologue, or something else) does more harm than good.
- You only get one start – make the most of it.
Start strong, and readers will want to keep reading.
(image by andyarthur)