How, strategically speaking, should you begin your novel? When a reader reads your first chapter, what should she find?
There are four primary approaches for beginning a successful novel. Probably more, including some highly experimental ones, but these are the classic main four. Run your story idea through the filter of each of these and see if one of them feels right for your book.
1. The Prologue Beginning
A prologue is an episode that pertains to your story but does not include the hero (or includes the hero at a time well before the story proper begins, when he’s a child). It might not be “Chapter 1” per se, but it can serve as a legitimate opening—if it works.
For example, the film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (I often use film and television examples when I teach because they illustrate so perfectly the concepts of storytelling and are so universal) begins with a prologue in which two of our main heroes first meet each other as children. Our heroes are onstage, but they’re not at the age they’ll be for the story proper.
Mulan begins with a prologue that establishes the villain, the stakes and the ticking time bomb. The action is contemporaneous with the scene that introduces our heroine, but she is not onstage, and she does not become aware of the danger until deeper into the story.
Game of Thrones (the HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s novels) begins with a prologue showing less-than-minor characters discovering a new danger in the land. Ghostbusters begins with a prologue showing a nonprimary character who sees a ghost, which provides the need for the Ghostbusters to form. The 2009 version of Star Trek begins with the arrival of a terrifying new enemy vessel that can destroy whole fleets, and our heroes haven’t even been born yet.
In these cases, we see some of the ways a prologue-style opening can help your story. These examples also illustrate why it’s one of the most popular ways to open a novel. A prologue can establish why things are as they are in the world of your story, and why the character is the way he is when the main action begins. And a prologue can even hint at or reveal the danger that will soon sweep over the hero’s life.
As you probably know, we’re in disputed territory when we talk about prologues. Many fiction experts tell writers never to write a prologue, while others (like me) say prologues are great.
The Anti-Prologuers argue that: 1) No one reads prologues; 2) Prologues are just dumping grounds for backstory; and 3) Prologues prevent you from getting to the main action of the story.
The Pro-Prologuers (Pro-Loguers?) contend that: 1) 95 percent of fiction readers do read prologues; 2) Any portion of a book that is a dumping ground for backstory should be cut—not because it has the word prologue at the top but because telling instead of showing is lazy writing; and 3) Prologues allow you to set the right tone for your novel without having your protagonist onstage doing something heroic.
Can beginning with a prologue engage your reader? Yes. Can it be done so poorly that it disengages the reader? Also yes. It’s not an issue of right or wrong. If your prologue engages the reader, it’s a good thing, and if your prologue disengages the reader, it’s a bad thing.
2. The Hero Action Beginning
In a hero action beginning, the hero is onstage, doing something active and interesting related to the launching of the core story (it need not involve explosions and car chases, but it certainly can).
Groundhog Day begins with Phil Connors onstage giving a (sarcastic) weather report. WALL-E begins with WALL-E onstage doing his daily routine of garbage collecting and compacting. Juno begins with Juno walking through the neighborhood, drinking SunnyD, on her way to the corner store to buy a pregnancy test. Nearly every James Bond story begins with 007 performing some amazing derring-do. What About Bob? begins with Bob going through his neurotic morning rituals.
The hero action beginning is the other most common way to begin a story. Only the rarest of story ideas can’t manage a hero action beginning. Unless your hero is catatonic or incarcerated in a hole or the like, I’m certain you can come up with something interesting for him to do at the start of the novel.
But remember to ask yourself how much of a stretch is it to show that action. And would a prologue (or some other approach) help you more than a hero action beginning? Now you’re thinking strategically about your story—an excellent and essential thing to do.
Some books lend themselves naturally to a hero action beginning. If the protagonist is a superhero when the story begins, you can start the novel by having her save the earth. If he’s a football player, show him on the field in a big game. If she’s a karate champion, show her winning a tournament.
But if your hero isn’t a hero yet or isn’t yet in a position to show it—or if you simply prefer to establish your villain and time bomb in a prologue—perhaps the hero action beginning isn’t right for your book. Mulan begins with a prologue because the protagonist isn’t yet in any kind of heroic capacity. Mulan is feeding chickens on the family farm—not necessarily an interesting introduction. The writers could’ve invented a way for her to be heroic at the outset, but they chose not to, and I agree with their choice.
Don’t force a hero action beginning. We all could make up something for our heroes to do as the book begins. But if it feels like a stretch or a cliché, choose another approach.
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3. The In Medias Res Beginning
In medias res is a Latin phrase meaning “in the middle of things.” It’s one of the less common ways to begin a novel, but it can definitely be effective.
With in medias res, you start at a point deep in the story, show a bit of activity to intrigue the reader, and then jump back to an earlier, quieter part in the story. It’s the opposite of the prologue beginnings that show an early episode from the hero’s life. In this case, you show a later episode, and then you hit the rewind button and spend some or all of the rest of the book catching up to that moment.
Battle: Los Angeles begins with U.S. military helicopters flying over a Los Angeles under attack from alien beasties. We see the faces of some soldiers in the helicopters, but we don’t know who these people are. We’re just getting the uh-oh feeling about what we’re seeing, and then the movie skips back 24 hours. It’s a good distance into the plot before we get back to that helicopter moment. And when we do, this time we know what’s going on and who those people are. That’s an in medias res beginning.
The film version of One Day (based on David Nicholls’ novel of the same name), starring Anne Hathaway, uses the in medias res beginning. It opens with Anne’s character happily riding a bicycle through the streets of Paris. Then we jump back about 20 years. It’s a long time before we catch up to her joyride.
Why isn’t in medias res used more often? Part of the reason is because it can be perceived as a gimmick. Sometimes it gives readers that same ripped-off feeling they get when they read a novel that begins with a dream. It can also sacrifice suspense for that whole portion of the story until you catch up with the first moment.
Think about it: If you see the main character alive and well in what you now realize is a future moment, how nervous are you going to be when she gets into danger? I mean, you know she lives, right, at least up to the in medias res moment? An in medias res opening can deflate the tension the way a hole deflates a tire.
One benefit, however, of in medias res is that once you do catch up with that opening moment, especially if it’s taken a long time to get there, the reader is given an injection of fictive adrenaline. Before now, everything has been relatively safe. It’s been within the protective confines of story time when you know the hero is fine. But when you get to that moment, and especially when you surpass it, everything changes. Dramatically.
Now that you know these soldiers and see what’s been happening on the ground, all of a sudden you don’t know if you want them flying in to attack. Now that you care about that Parisian bicyclist, you’re concerned about what’s going to happen to her when she rounds that corner.
The payoff of the in medias res beginning is that thrilling moment of angst you give your reader when you reach that point and go beyond it. The tension shoots through the roof.
Consider your story: Is that the sort of risk/payoff pathway you’d love to send your novel and your readers on? The risk is that you may bore your readers if things are too slow before you catch up to that opening moment. The payoff is that breathless feeling of performing without a net that you give readers who stay with you. The choice is yours.
4. The Frame Device
The final major way of beginning your first chapter is to use a frame device. In this, your story is bookended on the front and back (and usually a few instances in the middle) by a story that is outside the main story. The primary tale is framed by this other story.
The Princess Bride (the novel and the film, both of which were written by William Goldman) is a frame-device story. The movie begins with a kid playing a video game. He’s staying home from school because he’s sick. His grandfather comes over and offers to read the boy a book to pass the time. Whenever he reads the book, the movie switches over to the main story, a fantasy swashbuckling adventure. Throughout the story, we cut back to the grandfather and boy, where we get commentary on the story and see a bond developing between them. Then it’s back to the fantasy world. The movie ends in the modern day as well.
Another example of a film that uses the frame device is Titanic. The story the audience cares most about is the historical tale of Rose and Jack and Cal onboard the doomed ocean liner. But we access that story through the device of an old woman (Rose) in the present. There’s a minor story going on in the modern day—they’re searching for a jewel she had while on the ship—but the real drama is the historical part. Now and then during the story we cut back to Old Rose, and the movie also ends with her, but our interest is in the other set of circumstances.
Would a frame device work for your story? One reason to consider a frame device is that you’re concerned a modern reader simply wouldn’t care deeply enough about your primary topic. If it’s too far removed from where they are in their lives, you might use a frame device to show someone very much like the reader (a kid playing a video game, for instance) coming to enjoy the main tale. Show someone like us getting involved in the story, and maybe we’ll go with you as well.
Another great thing about the frame device is that you can use it to make large jumps in time in your primary story. If you need to jump 10 years, just cut back to the frame story and have the narrator say, “It went pretty much like that for the next 10 years. Until finally …” and then return to the story. The frame device can act like a DJ transitioning between songs.
Why don’t authors use a frame device more often? I think it’s because it sometimes involves people who are out of danger and out of the action, which isn’t especially engaging. The instinct of most writers is to skip the frame and go straight to what’s inside it, and I agree. But there are good reasons to use a frame device in certain situations, and if you show movement or growth in the frame story, too, you can achieve something special.
Consider your choices, and then choose the beginning that fits naturally with the story you want to tell. If you approach your first chapter from a strategic standpoint, you have a better chance of maximizing your novel’s potential—and engaging the reader from the very beginning.