It’s rare that the Chapter One I start with when writing a new book lives on as Chapter One in the final version. Usually, it’s a structural thing. I’ll realize after I’m a couple of dozen (or a couple of hundred) pages that I set the story up the wrong way. Sometimes, this leads me to move existing chapters around, and sometimes it leads me to write whole new sections. It’s all part of the process.
The lure of the prologue.
We all know that in the suspense genres, readers expect something big, plot-wise, in the opening pages of a book, yet as authors we have twenty pages of setup and backstory in our heads that we want to reveal so that the Big Moment will make more sense when it arrives.
“I know!” the writer says to himself. “I’ll start with a really exciting moment from Act 2 that will pique the readers’ interest, and I’ll call it a prologue. After that, they’ll endure those twenty boring pages because they know something exciting is coming.”
Sounds silly, doesn’t it? It’s the same silliness that explains why prologues are largely reviled and spell real danger coming from a rookie writer.
Action wins the day every time.
Here’s the opening (for now) of my current Jonathan Grave WIP (with apologies up front for the formatting glitch that I don’t know how to fix:
Jonathan Grave snapped awake and snatched his cocked and locked Colt 1911 .45 from the edge of his nightstand. As his right thumb touched the safety, his left thumb depressed the button for the muzzle light, launching an 800-lumen disk that revealed the entirety of his bedroom. If there’d been an intruder, the bad guy would be dead now.
But the room was empty, save for Jonathan and the ever-flatulent 65-pound Labrador retriever that shared his bed tonight.
I write every series book with the assumption that it is the first time a reader has encountered Jonathan’s world. At this stage, the action of the scene is everything. Readers don’t need any of the backstory. They know that there’s a guy who’s cautious enough to sleep with a loaded pistol on the nightstand, likable enough to share his bed with a big dog, and that the dog senses danger. If the first paragraphs drive readers to read the succeeding paragraphs, they have done their job.
Lessons from Harry Potter.
An exercise I love to lead when I do seminars is to ask students to tell me when Harry Potter’s story begins. (Spoilers ahead for the 5 people on the planet who’ve neither read the books nor watched the movies.) Hands shoot up and invariably, someone says the story begins when Baby Harry is delivered by Hagrid to the doorstep of the Dursley home.
Okay, then it begins when Dumbledore sucks the light out the street lamps with his magical Zippo.
Those events do, indeed, mark the beginning of the book and movie, but not the beginning of the story. The story begins 10 years before Harry was born, when James and Lilly Potter–Harry’s parents–were mean to a teenage Severus Snape. The backstory that emerges from those bygone years ultimately have a massive impact on the overall plot, but Rowling had the good sense not to start with that backstory.
In Medias Res
A quick peek into Encyclopedia Britannica, in medias res translates from Latin as “in the midst of things.” It’s a phrase used by every writing instructor as the place to begin a story for maximum impact on the reader. It’s worth considering. If you hook the reader at the beginning, and you keep the journey interesting, readers will follow to wherever you want to take them.
What say you, TKZ family? Does the proper beginning elude you at times? How do you find it?