Prologues, Openings and Inciting Incidents

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Prologues: DON'T DO IT!

Kidding... kind of? Prologues are really, really difficult to get right. Most agent hate them. For many, prologues are auto-rejects. The thing about prologues is most often the style, voice and perspective in them are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from the rest of the book. So when it comes to querying especially, a prologue won't be the best showcase of what your book actually IS.

Prologues also often are used as crutch by writers who use them to info-dump backstory/worldbuilding because they don't otherwise know how to artfully weave those details into the book. Craft wise, it will almost ALWAYS be better and your book stronger if you don't rely on a prologue to do that heavy lifting. If you're inclined to write one, why? What is it you want to get across in a prologue that you can't otherwise achieve?

So nine times out of ten, I recommend against starting with a prologue. That said, when it comes to first novels, or even first drafts, I encourage writers not to fight against the current. Writing is hard, drafting is hard, and FINISHING a book is the hardest of all (especially the first time). So if the way for you to unlock the writing process is to write a prologue, then write the damn prologue.

But then when you revise, try to get rid of it.

I say all this because the way you start is hugely essential. The first sentence, the first page, where you choose to open your story and how determines whether or not someone will want to continue reading and join you on the journey of your story. It's important to introduce your setting/world, characters and what they want in a compelling and interesting way.

Your opening scenes/first few chapters should lead up to your inciting incident. This is the thing that happens, the turn in the story, that sends your main character on their journey. It launches them into the core conflict, and lays out (or hints at) the stakes.

Back to my favorite example, THE HUNGER GAMES. The inciting incident is the Reaping, when Prim's name is called, and Katniss volunteers to take her place.

There isn't much that happens before this scene--THG has incredibly fast, effective pacing. The opening scenes lay out the world, showing glimpses of District 12 and mentioning PANEM, and establish Katniss as a character, highlighting who she is against those who surround her and are important to her: Prim, her mother, Gale, and Peeta. 

Think about this when you are starting your story. Many writers start in the wrong place, either too far away from the inciting incident, ending up with a story that drags--the pacing is too slow. Alternately, some writers start too soon, hitting the reader with the inciting incident in the first chapter, scene, page... the pacing is too fast. You need to give the reader just enough to grasp onto that they care about your main character, what they want, and the world they live in. Without this, you'll have the reader saying "I don't care" when the big conflict/inciting incident happens.

Imagine if the Reaping had happened on page one--we'd be like "who is Prim, why should I care, and why is it a big deal that this Katniss chick just volunteered to take her place?" That would have been starting in the wrong place.

Typically you want to start right before everything is going to change for your main character. Many writers go for a "slice of life" approach--showing the reader a typical day or scene from the character's life, before everything changes. But be careful not to bore--the reader doesn't need the minutiae of the character's day, and a play-by-play of everything they do, everyone in their life. Pick a scene or scenes that will impart essential information/give a good sense of who the character is, and the world in which they live.

You can achieve the same effect using another common technique, which is the Collins uses in THG: "15 minutes before." Start the book approximately fifteen minutes (this can be metaphorically, not literally, depending on your story--an hour, two hours before works, too) before the inciting incident. Think of it like a roller coaster. "Fifteen minutes before" is the very start of the ride, when you are slowly being cranked up the hill. The inciting incident is the click when you get to the top of the first rise and gravity lets you go.

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