Thursday, March 6, 2008

Beginnings, and Prologues, and Talking Bears . . .Oh My

Wow, great thoughts on villains everyone. Mostly, I try to remember that villain is spelled “ai” and not “ia.” Button eyes, though. Now that is creepy. I thought Stephen King’s recurring villain, Randall Flagg was pretty creepy. As far as Disney villains, Ursula was pretty nasty with her pet eels. Anyone remember their names without Googling?

Also, thanks for dropping by Queen of Chaos, Becky, and Onelowerlight. Love your sites. And Becky, I have no idea how you keep up with so many BLOGS.

Okay, so I promised that today we’d talk about beginnings, prologues, and talking animals. Let’s see, always begin your prologue with an animal that talks. Thank you folks, you’ve been a great audience. Please don’t forget to tip the hat girl on your way out, and remember, we’re here six nights a week.

No? Oh, alright then. Eeenie, meenie, minnie, moe. Let’s start with beginnings. The goal of your first sentence is to do one thing. Can you guess? To get the reader to read the second sentence. That’s the main goal of the beginning of your story, to keep the reader reading. If they shut the book, anything else you might want to accomplish is impossible. Did you know that agents and editors don’t make it past the first page of most manuscripts? If you don’t hook the reader in those first few lines, you are out of luck.

The problem is that the best ways to hook the reader are often the beginnings that come least easily to most writers. And the ways we tend to want to start our books our often the ways the turn off an agent, editor, and reader. So let’s begin by examining a few ways not to start your book.


Jane remembered the first time she’d sat on this very rock. It was the day after Michael left. She remembered the wind had been blowing cold, and her face had been raw and chapped by the tears she’d shed over the last few days. Mary had arrived holding the handle of her unusual umbrella. But all Jane wanted to do was curl up in a ball, drink some lime cordial, and . . .


Little did Mickey realize as he headed to the laboratory that only an hour later he would be fighting for his life with a giant but deadly mop.

First of all, why are so many authors drawn to the flashback? I think it’s because inside they realize where the story needs to begin, but they feel they absolutely must provide the reader with all of the background information necessary to “appreciate” the story. Wrong. What the reader wants is immediacy. What is more interesting? A car chase happening right outside your window at this very moment, or someone recounting a chase that happened years before? To capture the reader’s attention, you must engage them. To engage them, you must catch their interest right now.

I’m not saying you can’t use flashbacks in your story. But not at the beginning. Even then, any time you are tempted to use a flashback, ask yourself if it is essential to the story or if the background information can be conveyed via implied history, dialog, or internal monologue.

Heavy handed foreshadowing is nearly as bad. You can accomplish the same thing in the sentence above, by saying, “Mickey was sure he would be in and out of the laboratory in thirty minutes, an hour tops.” This isn’t nearly as intrusive and heavy handed, but the reader will still jump to the conclusion that for some reason Mickey is going to run into trouble.


“Now I have you!” the ogre shouted, placing his spear tip against Mickey’s throat. Mickey, tried to pull away, but the flint cut cruelly into his furry flesh, drawing blood. Mickey knew he had only one chance. He needed his wand. It was less than a foot away, but before he could think of a scheme to reach it, the ogre sneered.

“Too late, Sorcerer. Now you will taste death.” The ogre rammed the spear into Mickey’s throat. Mickey coughed out a red spray—which coincidentally matched his outfit—as his life bled onto the ground. It was finished. He was dead.

Mickey jerked awake with a moan. “Oh, boy!” he cried in his squeaky voice. “What a dream.”

The first two paragraphs are exciting right? (Okay, also a little gratuitously gory.) They are definitely immediate. The problem is the third paragraph. Again, the writer is trying to use a trick or gimmick to hook the reader. Typically because inside they know their beginning is not as exciting as it should be. Often the writer uses a dream sequence to hook the header before finding out the protagonist is actually daydreaming at his desk or waking up to go to school. Yawn!

The problem is, readers don’t like to be tricked. Nothing pulls the reader out of a story more quickly than realizing the author used a gimmick to get their attention. Agents and editors will drop a manuscript as soon as they see it is starting with a dream. This is a big no-no.

Killing off a character too early

“Can I get you a cup of coffee?”

“Certainly,” replied Jane. “With a little cream if you have it.”

“Of course.” As Tarzan started toward the kitchen, the jealous hunter stepped into the living room and began to spray bullets. Tarzan crumpled to the ground, dead.

Okay, now this is exciting. It’s immediate. It’s not exactly a trick. So what doesn’t work with this beginning? The reader doesn’t care. I don’t know who Tarzan is, other than the fact that he seems to make a good cup of coffee. To the author this may be a poignant scene worthy of many tears. But that’s because they know that Tarzan is a hunky, leopard-skin-wearing swinger who protects little kids from bullies and donates his spare time knitting vine sweaters for less fortunate seniors. The author is crying buckets as they peck out this sad, sad beginning.

But since the author didn’t take time to let us meet Tarzan first—and hopefully come to like him—they’re shaking their heads and going, “Huh. Wonder what that was all about?” It doesn’t take much, maybe only a page or so, but you have to make the reader care about a main character whom you are going to kill off at the beginning of the book. If the point is to just kill off some place holder, you might be able to get away with it, but even then it’s better if you can create a connection in some other way (tension, humor, action, etc.)

Sticking with the emotion theme, the next way to wreck a good beginning is with . . .

Unearned emotions

“Why?” Jasmine wailed, pounding her fists against the useless lamp. Hot tears dripped down her cheeks as she gnashed her teeth. It was so unfair!

“Why did he have to die?” She’d loved him so much—more than life itself. He was everything to her. Her little street rat. And now he was gone. Stabbed by a maniacal street vendor. She pressed her face against her silk pillow and wept until she finally fell asleep and dreamed about an ogre and a white-gloved rodent.

Can you guess what’s wrong with this beginning? I’ll give you a hint. It’s a lot like the problem with the last one. You haven’t earned the care of the reader yet. Again, you are relying on what you, the author, know about Jasmine’s situation. Because you know what’s happening here, the scene tugs at your heart. But to the reader, Jasmine is a whinny, snot-nosed, cry baby. If you want the reader to feel the pain of your protagonist, you have to earn it by creating a bond between reader and character.

Last, and perhaps most despicable, is . . .

Flowery descriptions

It was a warm day for early spring, and the smell of jasmine floated on the slightly damp air—the flower, not the spoiled princess. Everywhere Aurora looked, signs of life abounded. Red throated warblers warbled, sprouts sprouted, fuzzy little bunnies . . . did whatever it was bunnies do. The sun peeked down from between the branches of the aspens and maples. It was a wonderful day to be alive. If only she could find a prince to help her celebrate her sixteenth birthday.

If you don’t know what’s wrong with this scene, you haven’t been listening. Is it exciting? Is it immediate? Does it make the reader go, “Yowza! I can’t wait to see what happens next!” If it does, this is not a reader you want to invite to your next party. As a writer you often begin with the scene inside your head. That’s why stories begin with things like, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Scenes are cool and they add a ton of value, but very seldom are they the way to hook your reader.

Next we’ll talk about how to create good beginnings. But since this blog is getting pretty long and I promised I’d cover two more things, we’ll save good beginnings for tomorrow.


This is almost as dicey a subject as my anti-SASE stance, which always gets me in trouble with other authors, but I’ll forge ahead at my own risk. Prologues are cool. One of the neatest things about them is that you can use any point of view, any tense, and start anywhere. The prologue is like a separate piece of the book that doesn’t have to follow the same rules.

However, there are two problems with prologues. While good readers—which means everyone who would read this blog—read prologues, many readers don’t. They see prologue and read “optional.” This is especially bad because authors often use prologues for one or both of two reasons. Chapter one is boring, so they start with an exciting prologue or key information needs to be given to the reader that doesn’t fit well into the rest of the story. Maybe it is an event that happened hundreds of years before. Maybe it is a scene the protagonist isn’t there to witness.

If this is the case, there are two choices you can make as the author. Either you write a prologue anyway, and say “Skip it at your own risk.” Or you write the story in such a way that the prologue is not necessary. Don’t like either of those choices? That’s okay neither do I. Which is why I opt for a third choice.

Write the prologue, but call it chapter one.

Finally we come to talking animals. Who doesn’t like talking animals? Without talking animals we wouldn’t have Mickey Mouse, Big Bird, or Thomas the Tank Engine. Okay he’s not really an animal, but you get my point.

Talking animals are cool. Dr. Doolittle thought so and so do I. In fact one my favorite characters in my book is a horse that tells really corny jokes like, “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Dishes.” “Dishes, who?” “Dishes the coldest it’s been in weeks.”

It’s okay, go ahead and groan. I won’t be offended . . . much. Treat your talking animals the same way you would with talking people. Make sure that their attitudes, speech patterns, and motivations are different enough that people could tell them apart even if you couldn’t use speech tags.

So there you have it. Don’t kill off your characters too soon. Do include talking animals. And include prologues at your own risk. See you tomorrow.


Chris said...

Yeah, I'm groaning at your knock-knock joke :p Kidding ;) Couldn't agree more with your advice! I wrote a novel for National Novel Writing Month and just sent it off to an author friend who's also been published and knows what publishers are looking for and she said the same thing. I had started my book off with a flashback, and though it picks up with action right away it leaves that action for awhile after it's mentioned. So it doesn't work. So I'm going back now and reworking the book so that everything happens in proper order. I think it'll work much better! Her advice was that flashbacks are ok after about 60 pages or so, but not at the beginning....keep everything in chronological order towards the beginning.

Great advice as always!

Becky said...

Great advice. I can think of plenty of books that break those rules. But it isn't necessarily pretty when they do. Especially the flashback advice. One book I read recently opened with several dreams. Then filled the next several chapters with flashback after flashback after flashback after flashback. The book did eventually begin the action, but it was a close call for a while whether it would ever get started. :)

So would-be writers should definitely follow your advice :)

Brian said...

Thanks Scott-
Even though I'm nowhere near where I'd write a prologue, I'll take your advice and not. Also, even though I never really planned to, I'll be sure not to start with one of the bad beginnings. By the way, to any one whose read A Series of Unfortunate Events, no pun intended.