Time for another post of me rambling inanely about writing. As usual, I’m hesitant to give any definitive opinions about what does and doesn’t make for a good story start, so I’ll just do as I normally do and ramble through different ways you can open, and my thoughts on them. And as usual, I’m just some random person who’s not yet managed to get published, so my opinions are of no more value than anyone else’s, and less value than some people’s.
So, a pretty vital part of writing a story – or anything – is the beginning. If you don’t grab people at the start then they don’t have any reason to read on, and a promise of ‘it gets better’ won’t help very much. People can’t be expected to read something they don’t like in the hopes that they may eventually start liking it. They sometimes do; I’ve ended up liking some things that I initially had to force my way through. But I’ve also put books down because they didn’t catch my interest fast enough. Whether or not I keep on going depends on my mood and what else I happen to have on hand that I could be doing. And I don’t think any writer wants to rely on readers being in a charitable mood and having nothing else to do.
First off, prologues and introductions. You don’t have to have one of these and if the story doesn’t need one, then it could actually be detrimental to have one. But on the other hand, some stories do need something at the beginning. And some can go either way, depending on how the writer wants to tell the story.
So, prologues. Sometimes it’s difficult to decide if an opening scene should be a prologue, or just chapter one. How do you decide?
If it’s going to be a prologue, I think there would have to be something that makes it noticeable different from the rest of the story. Maybe it’s a scene that’s set a significant time before the rest of the story, or that has a different point of view character. Even if a book is in first person, I’d say it’s acceptable to have a prologue written in a different characters’ voice, or in third person, whereas the first chapter being that way would be very odd. But if it’s just the start of the story with nothing to really distinguish it, it should probably be chapter one.
Sometimes prologues are scenes that take place later in the story put at the beginning to hook readers in. I’m not sure how I feel about this; I think it’s something you’d have to be careful about; you’d have to pick the right scene and it would have to be right for the story. I don’t think you can really repeat that scene later, unless it’s entirely rewritten and from a different point of view. So unless that’s the case, it would need to be a scene that won’t break the later narrative by its absence, while also being memorable enough that when readers get to that point, they’ll still remember it.
And then there’s introductions. I don’t think I could pinpoint exactly where the line is between a prologue and an introduction, but there definitely is a difference. I feel like an introduction wouldn’t really be part of the story proper at all. More of a quick rundown of the backstory, an introduction to a character, or some other plot relevant information that doesn’t have a natural place in the rest of the story. Even more so than prologues, introductions aren’t always – or even usually – necessary. Personally, I can find them offputting if they don’t feel necessary.
I’m going to be honest, I think my view may have been clouded a bit by one too many bad introductions. My specific problem is, I think, that I’ve read some introductions that feel like they’ve been put in because the author wants to make the story seem deeper than it is, and that can feel pretentious. If the story’s deep, it doesn’t need the introduction to convince people, and if it’s not then it’s not, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t try and turn a story into something it’s not.
But that’s a very specific thing and of course not a general statement on introductions. There are plenty of good ones, but this was in my head as I was writing and I thought I should explain it in case some of that negativity was leaking through.
So overall, introductions generally shouldn’t be put in unless they truly are necessary.
Can you have an introduction and a prologue? That would feel like overkill to me, but it may be necessary. In most stories it isn’t though.
I’ll move on now to the ways you can write the first few paragraphs. I’ll do my usual thing and just ramble on until I run out of steam.
You can start off with some description, of the setting or of a character. This is a perfectly fine choice, as long as you can catch and keep the readers’ interest. I find description very difficult, and badly written description can be a massive slog. If it’s bland it won’t catch the interest, if it’s overwritten readers may just give up. And even well written description of interesting things might get annoying if it goes on for too long; I think most readers would rather get to the story sooner rather than later.
If you’re introducing a character, I think there’s also a danger of moving from description into rambling. When I’m properly in a character’s head I can write for ages in their voice about what basically amounts to nothing, which is helpful if I’m trying to work out exactly who the character is for myself, but in an actual story it generally isn’t, especially not at the beginning when readers don’t know your character and have no special reason to care about their musings. This is mostly a risk with first person, but I’ve found myself doing it in third person too.
Or you may have some backstory to go over, that you didn’t feel fit as a prologue or an introduction. If this is interesting and well written I think this should be OK, sometimes it may be vital to get everything explained straight away. I’d say there should be something substantial to explain if you’re going to go this route. And again, I think the readers will want to get to the actual ‘now’ story before too long.
You can also start by jumping into a conversation between characters. Again, this runs the risk of being boring; your readers don’t know the characters yet so the conversation will have to be able to keep them interested without having to be previously invested. Another risk is being confusing, since obviously readers don’t know what’s going on. Even if you’re going to give an explanation before too long, that might still be long enough for readers to give up on trying to work things out. You may still have to give an explanation after a bit to properly clarify things, but readers should be able to work out some things for themselves.
For a fast paced story, just diving right into the action might be appropriate. Again, this can be confusing, and again, readers should be able to gage something of what’s going on, but when done well, in the right story, it can really grab the reader and get things going.
But if you’re going to open this way then I feel the action of the scene needs some sort of resolution before you stop and explain exactly what led to this. For instance, if a character is trying to escape someone they should escape or be captured or something. Opening straight into the action, then immediately jumping back and spending the next few paragraphs going over everything that led up to this moment can feel like a cheat. If readers need to see the lead up to things then it’s probably better to start with that; if the lead up is interesting and well written then readers will probably be fine with that. If it’s all a bit boring then knowing that something interesting is coming before too long may motivate some readers, but others could just be annoyed.
Personally, I don’t like it. That’s probably the best way to sum that up. But I’ve been over how little weight my opinions actually carry.
I’ll end here. This isn’t an extensive ramble, I’ve run out of steam. Thanks for reading, I hope reading my posts doesn’t feel like a total waste of time.