To Prologue or not to Prologue: How to Draft the First Scene of Your Novel
Hello again and thanks for joining me for another thrilling episode in our novel-crafting adventure. At long last, we have journeyed through the heart of the drafting process and have arrived at the culminating exercise for this section: drafting the first scene of your novel. Although you have likely already hammered out a decent pile of text by this point, we are going to shift the focus all the way back to page one and take a close look at the first scene of your novel, building it all the way into a complete draft.
Over the course of this chapter, we have explored a number of tools and techniques for scenecrafting, so make sure that you have taken a look at the previous entry on scenecrafting 101 before getting started here. It will also be helpful if you have already read my prior entry on planning out your plot, so that you can be sure that you are beginning your novel in the best place for the story you are trying to tell.
For today’s exercise, we will be developing and polishing your opening scene, helping to ensure that the reader’s first impression of your novel will be a good one, including techniques for inserting a tempting hook that will help to seal the deal and ensure that they take the plunge and read your book from cover to cover. We will also discuss taking a step back and writing from the reader’s perspective. This is especially important at the beginning of your novel, as your reader knows absolutely nothing yet regarding your world, characters, and plot.
We will then discuss the pros and cons of opening with a prologue, including some tricks and tips for constructing one. Finally, we will end with a series of exercises intended to get the ball rolling as you dive into a complete draft, as well as a few to help flesh and round things out. So roll up your sleeves and get ready for an exciting session, for today your novel writing voyage enters exciting new territory!
The power of a first impression
Placing yourself in your reader’s shoes
Before we launch into some theory and technique regarding how to draft the beginning of a novel, I want to help you to recover a bit of distance by reminding yourself of just how much of an expert you have become regarding your story. Over the course of many long hours, you have pondered and labored over your characters, granting them unique personalities, drives, and backstories. You have meditated on the world you have created, fleshing out a fine collection of colorful settings. You have unpacked your novel’s theme and central conflict and lovingly sculpted your plot structure, packing in wonderful nuance and detail. In short, you have become an expert on your own book, an important step in growing as an author.
Despite all you have gained throughout this process, there is one thing you have lost. Namely, you no longer have the ability to easily and accurately perceive how your story appears to a new reader, who knows absolutely nothing about your world, plot, and characters.
In essence, you have lost your beginner’s mind, and with its passage, you are now in danger of unconsciously assuming that your readers have access to the same information that you do. This puts you at risk, especially when writing the first scene of your novel, in assuming the events and action that are crystal clear to you will be equally easy for your reader to follow.
So what do we do about this dilemma?
To begin, I want to you take a deep breath and remember what it is like to pick up new book for the first time. In fact, I advise that you crack open a novel or two you that haven’t read before and browse the opening chapters, just to remind yourself what it feels like to be coming at a new story with fresh eyes. This is important because when writing a scene from your expert’s perspective, it is astonishingly easy to assume that the events and characters you have laid out are way clearer than they really are.
The takeaway here is that when you begin to draft your first scene, you want it to be as simple and clear, as easy to follow as possible. Your reader needs to know (and only know) what is happening, who it is happening to, and why they should care/what they should feel. Get this right and you should have a relatively easy time drafting your first scene. Get it wrong and your reader will have trouble connecting to your story and forming that oh so critical positive first impression.
Components of a powerful first impression
1: Grabbing the reader’s attention
Creating a solid first impression starts with obtaining your reader’s attention. Before they can begin to appreciate your characters, settings, and hook, you will need to pull them into the flow of your narrative. Or, put another way, the first half of hooking your audience is getting them to pay full attention to your story, followed by cementing their interest with the main hook that will arrive a bit later in your opening. Some ways to grab your reader’s interest might include:
- An engaging slice of action.
- A provocative statement or hint of foreshadowing.
- A problem that needs to be solved.
2: Let the reader know what kind of story this will be from the start
Right from the first paragraph of your novel, you should let your reader know what kind of story they are signing up for. This means showing them your protagonist and world in the opening scene (more about that below) but also giving them a fair introduction to the style, voice, and tone of your writing. This means that if your opening scene is gritty and grim, you create an expectation that this is the flavor that much of the rest of the novel will carry as well.
Conversely, if your opening is light or humorous, the reader will expect the rest of the story to be fairly upbeat. The opening scene of your novel should reflect the core theme and overall atmosphere of the book to at least some extent as well.
In order to create a first impression of your novel that is true to the rest of your story, you are going to need to pay close attention to the words you choose and to the atmosphere or feelings they convey. Think of this as a micro introduction to your story as a whole. Thus, whatever manner of story you are trying to tell, choose words and events that match it right from the start.
3: Introducing your protagonist and giving them a problem to solve
Once you have managed to grab the reader’s attention and set the initial atmosphere, helping them to form the beginnings of a first impression about your writing and story, it’s time to toss in another key ingredient to their evaluation of your novel, introducing your main character. Introducing your protagonist is a key moment in your story, so make sure to make it memorable. How you first describe your protagonist, along with what goal he or she is attempting to achieve at the start, will go a long way in cementing the reader’s first impression.
This means that you should try to make sure that you create an accurate and engaging image of this character, one that will stick with the reader as they head into the body of your novel. The early descriptions you provide, and even more importantly, what the protagonist thinks, says, and does, will help the reader to understand what kind of story lies beneath their fingertips.
Help the reader to like and empathize with the protagonist right from the start
If your audience can’t form a meaningful connection to your protagonist from the moment they meet them, they won’t buy in and decide to keep reading, no matter how well-crafted your prose and other elements of your introduction. The best way to help create such a connection is to allow the reader to emphasize with the protagonist, vicariously sharing in their emotions from page one.
The most effective way to achieve such a connection is to provide your characters with clear and relatable goals, as well as by making it obvious what the character feels and desires as well as their reasons for doing so. The wants and needs of your characters, their goals along with the obstacles that stand in their way, are a critical force that drives your story forwards. Such vibrant sources of tension and energy should be shown to the reader right from the start, as superficial goals and motivations will prevent them from caring about your characters and their inner worlds.
4: Your first setting
Alongside your protagonist, how you go about introducing your first setting will also play a part in creating a favorable first impression. This environment is a key piece of the reader’s initial glimpse into the wide world of your novel, so make sure to pick a location that is iconic to the events that will follow as well as one that reinforces the overall theme and atmosphere of your story as a whole.
5: Planting your initial hook
With that bit of introduction out of the way, it’s time to move on to the single most important component of creating a good first impression, planting the initial hook of your story. This a critical piece of narrative, designed to transform an interested reader into a committed one. Hooks can take many forms, but they all share a single defining feature, they make the reader want to know more. A well-crafted hook will lead to the reader wanting (or better yet needing) to know what happens next as well as what will happen to your characters later on down the road.
6: The first challenge and/or first setback for protagonist
Perhaps the most common form of hook, as well as another important part in generating a positive first impression, is introducing the first challenge and setback your protagonist will face. This might not happen at the end of the first scene, but should certainly transpire by the end of the first chapter. This moment is important because it contains the first time that your protagonist encounters failure. How they respond to this undesired occurrence, alongside how it changes them, will reveal a great deal about your novel to your reader. Make this setback important to your character, changing them in some way. Make the moment memorable and your hook will sink, reeling your reader in all the way to the last page of your novel.
To prologue or not to prologue
Although they do seem to be a bit less common than in decades past, many works of fiction include some manner of prologue. Some prologues work well, serving as powerful springboards that help to launch the audience into the midst of a thrilling narrative. Others are rather… less effective, rambling on for several pages with information that is difficult for the audience to absorb and glued to overall story like a vestigial appendage.
As a writer, the choice is yours. You will have to do a bit of pondering and then decide whether or not a prologue is a good fit for your story. Regardless, I recommend that you educate yourself regarding how to write a prologue now, so that you can make an informed decision regarding your first scene a bit later on down the road.
What is a prologue?
At its heart, a prologue is simply a bit of text that is included before the first chapter of a novel begins. A solid prologue provides the reader with important information that frames or catalyzes the plot.
Prologues often involve a character or event far removed from the lives of your central characters and the events of the chapter to follow, giving the reader a glimpse of things to come well before the inciting incident and conveying information that none of the main characters possess.
Does your story really need a prologue?
As we just finished discussing, creating a positive first impression is mandatory if you want people to read and enjoy your novel. One easy way to prevent this from happening is by starting off with an unnecessary or clunky prologue. In essence, you should only include a prologue in your novel if it provides information that is important to your reader’s understanding and that could not be included in the first chapter.
A vital prologue is one that contributes directly to the plot by unveiling significant, relevant information or events. Details without which there would be something critical missing from your reader’s understanding. Put another way, the reason for including a prologue needs to be more compelling than merely setting the stage or establishing atmosphere. Perhaps these events took place in the distant past, or in a place far removed from location of the main characters. Perhaps a bit of context and history is so important that the reader can’t really understand the events to follow without them. A good rule of thumb is that if the story could work just as well by starting at chapter one, without becoming weaker or more confusing, the prologue was most likely not needed to begin with.
The truth of the matter is that most stories simply will not need a prologue. And as such, many authors will advise you to avoid them altogether. But that doesn’t mean that you as a writer shouldn’t have a solid understand of how prologues work and how to write one. Who knows, maybe your story will be better served by including one. Personally I found that having the option at my disposal gave me a bit more flexibility when pondering how to start my story. For my first book I did decide to include a short prologue like section, as it reveals a ticking clock that none of the main characters are aware of (until it is much too late).
If you are considering a prologue, first ask yourself if the details or action it contains are relevant to your core plot. Then ask if this information really needs to be provided to the reader before they dive into the first chapter. If both questions come back “yes” then go ahead and give a prologue a chance. If you are worried that seeing the word prologue might be a turn off to your audience, simply remove it and leave the opening section untitled.
If you do decide to use a prologue:
- The prologue should be a key piece of the novel, consistent with the voice and theme of the rest of the book.
- The prologue should be a complete story, except that it should end with something important left unresolved.
- The prologue needs its own hook, separate from the one you place in the first chapter.
- The prologue should involve a time, location, or character far removed from the events of the chapters to follow.
Bury your reader under a pile of information
Some of the worst prologues are formed from pages and pages of background information. Such prologues are first impression disasters waiting to happen. This is because a reader has not yet had time to connect to a novel’s world and characters. To become curious about them and begin to care. Thus, all of this extraneous information is effectively meaningless. Worse, thick blocks of facts are tough to chew and swallow, preventing immersion and shattering the fourth wall from page one.
There is simply no way that a reader can form a great first impression while skimming past mountains of raw exposition, and your chance to hook them will have already blown past before they make it to chapter one. Most of these kinds of prologues can be cut out altogether, the information spread out across the first few chapters and introduced as it becomes relevant.
If you do want to include a bit of worldbuilding in your prologue, remember to keep it short and sweet and only include information that your audience really needs to know before the main story begins.
This may seem a bit obvious, but a prologue should only be included if it as least as interesting as the chapter to follow. One easy way to make your reader’s eyes glaze over is to include a prologue where there is no tension. Where the characters do not possess clear goals or problems. The reader needs to know why they should care about what they are being told, as well as why they should feel something in response. Furthermore, the events of a prologue need to be important and not exist in isolation. They need to be compelling and tied directly to the main plot of the novel.
Another way of writing a boring prologue is by making it too long, forcing the reader to turn page after page before they get introduced to your protagonist and opening setting.
Six types of prologue
To help you wrap your head around the many approaches to crafting prologues that are out there, I will now outline six types of prologues commonly used in fiction. As with so many aspects of writing, there are an incredible variety of potential approaches to constructing a prologue. With time and practice, you will certainly develop your own variants as well.
1: A vision from the future
This type of prologue involves the protagonist or another character in a period of time set after the main events of the novel have occurred, written in the same point of view and tense as the rest of the novel. This purpose of this prologue is to show the state of affairs at the end of the story, while the novel explains and follows how these events came to be.
Although this approach my reveal aspects of the story’s conclusion, it should avoid showing too many of the key events that take place in the climax and resolution. Instead, think of it as a form of heavy foreshadowing. An example of a vision from the future might include the protagonist standing in the ruins of the city they lived in, letting the reader know that some manner of catastrophe is in the works.
2: … or from the distant past
This version of prologue shows a critical event in real time that occurred far in the past of the timeline of the novel. It is used when this moment is vital to understanding the story’s protagonist or central conflict, rather than packaging these events into a flashback or summary. An example of a view from the past might include the moment that a superhero first gained/became aware of their special powers, setting the stage for the character they have become by the beginning of the book.
3: An outside point of view
This type of prologue involves using a point of view character who is not one of the PoVs used throughout the rest of the novel. It can occur before, after, or during the main events of the plot. It allows you to show your reader a vital piece of story that none of the other characters have witnessed or heard about. This can help you to set up a variety of plot twists and foreshadowing techniques, which may not come to fruition until much later.
Sometimes the antagonist’s viewpoint is used for this scene (helpful when the protagonist will not encounter them until much later on), while in other cases a victim of the central conflict is utilized instead. An example of an outside point of view might be the antagonist setting their plans into motion, details which the protagonist will not uncover until the middle of the book.
4: Starting the clock
This is a variation of the outside point of view prologue, one that reveals a key, time-sensitive aspect of the central conflict to the reader well before the main characters will become aware of them. This a great way to foreshadow events to follow and one that creates tension and suspense right from the start. The reader knows that the characters and events are inevitably going to entangle with this threat, helping to draw them in and become curious how the problem will resolve. An example of starting the clock might include the antagonist concealing a bomb on a plane, the countdown starting and then ticking away as the early chapters of the book unfold.
Sometimes a novel is set in a world where the rules, culture, and settings are so unique or unusual, that it might not be possible for a reader to fully understand them without a brief introduction. A worldbuilding prologue is usually packaged in the form of a short story that reveals critical details that help render the first chapter relatable. Be careful when using a world building prologue not to overload the reader with too much, non-relevant information, and to include a hook that will grab their attention. Worldbuilding prologues are fairly common and easy to imagine, but a solid one will only include relevant information that contextualizes the first character and is presented in a form that is easy to understand and internalize.
6: The narrator introduces his or her story
This type of prologue is commonly used in first person PoV stories. It involves the protagonist either telling a story out loud to others or writing an autobiographical account (the rest of the novel). This helps to introduce the protagonist as well as their overall impression of the adventure they underwent, although the conclusion of the story is often only implied rather than explained in detail. An example of a narrator introducing his or her story might include the protagonist on their deathbed, relaying the story of their youth to a younger generation, or by dictating these experiences into a memoir.
Beyond prologues, drafting the opening scene of your novel
Deciding where to draw the starting line
Now that you have some ideas for the kinds of prologue that are out there, it’s time to move on to drafting the first chapter and opening scene of your story. In this section, you will be asking yourself a number of questions including:
- Where in my story’s timeline will I begin my narrative?
- What is the major event of my opening scene?
- Will I include any characters other than my protagonist?
- If so, who (Keep your starting cast slim and memorable during the first part of your book)?
- Where will my first scene take place?
- How will I grab my reader’s attention and then hook them into my story?
Drafting the opening scene of your novel
You have a number of important decisions to make before you are ready to start drafting, the first of which is where in the timeline of your story you want to begin your opening scene. We covered this topic already in my earlier entry on planning out your plot, but here is a summary of possible places to begin to help with your brainstorming now.
Places to open a story
At the beginning
One common place to begin a story is… at the beginning. When the characters are still immersed in their ordinary world and daily existence. This type of opening is generally used when you want to take some time to set the stage before the inciting incident, contrasting this bit of normalcy with the exciting events to follow.
Even with the slowly rising tension that this plot structure encourages, you will still want to lead with a hook to engage your readers and help connect them to your world and characters. One way to accomplish this is to foreshadow that this is the day to day existence of your characters, a state of affairs destined to come to an abrupt end before too long. Another is to introduce the wants and needs of your characters immediately in a subplot, following this bit of story until the main events of your plot sweep your characters up into the thick of things with the inciting incident.
Starting in a “present” that the story catches up to before the end
The next two starting points occur at key moments in the plotline, and then work the story backwards to explain how things came to be. One option is to have your novel open in a “present” that exists somewhere in the middle of the overall plotline, where the protagonist is narrating the backstory and explaining how these events came to be. At some point later on, the action will catch up with the story’s present, taking the reader along with the characters into unknown territory.
With this technique, it is easy to foreshadow the meat of the plot up to this point. After all, the main characters have already lived through these events and know what happened, while the ending is left a total mystery until you unveil the final scenes.
This type of opening shares a few similarities with a vision from the future prologue in that you should not give away too much regarding the overall plot. Just enough to make the conflict and characters seem interesting, ensuring that the reader will want to know how affairs arrived to this state, and how they will resolve after. One variation of this opening is to start in the aftermath of the inciting incident.
Right before the final climax
Another variation of opening a story in the middle of the plot occurs when the opening scene is set right before the main climax of the story. This lets the reader know immediately what the central conflict is and makes the rest of the story effectively a prolonged flashback until events catch up with the “present”, revealing to the reader how affairs have reached their current state. You can even place this start in the dark night of the soul, when the characters have reached a low point where things seem hopeless.
Exercise: Deciding where in your story’s timeline to place the opening act
It’s now time to decide if you want to begin your story at the beginning, or at some later point in the overall plotline.
- Start by looking over your timelines and plotlines as well as any other information or text you have so far regarding this scene, character, and setting.
- Then move on and ponder your goals for this section (what about your character or world are you trying to show to your reader?).
- Think about how this intro will lead up to the inciting incident (foreshadowing works well here).
- Consider letting the reader know the most important thing about your protagonist and story in the first paragraph.
- Remember to open with a hook.
Try outlining the scene in complete sentences and mapping the setting if you get stuck at any point. If you do encounter writer’s block, pause for a few breaths to visualize your scene, picturing what it would be like to be standing there. Try to engage all five (ok maybe 3-4) senses and keep in mind the feelings (mood) you want to conjure for your reader.
Culminating exercise: A first draft of your opening scene
Drafting the opening
Now that you have an idea for how and where you want to begin your story, it’s time to begin drafting your first page, paragraph, and opening line.
If you are still mulling things over, go back and take a last look at my entry on scenecrafting and the discussion on various types of openings (action, character, narrative) to decide which you want to use for the opening scene of your novel. Remember, your job (in order) is to: 1) Catch the reader’s attention, 2) Make a positive first impression, and then, 3) Hook them all the way into your story.
The start of a novel contains the first several chapters and ends when the inciting incident launches events into the middle of the story. However, there is no way that a potential reader, publisher, or agent will make it anywhere close to that far unless everything up to that point is well-constructed.
They will never make it to the second chapter if the first doesn’t engage them. They won’t peruse the second page if the first doesn’t grab their attention and begin to hook them. They will never even arrive at the end of the first page if your leading paragraph and opening lines don’t excite them.
The first page
So then, what is your objective for page one of your book? Well, at the most basic level, your job is to do everything within your power to make sure that the reader forms a good first impression and then keeps on reading. In order to ensure that they continue reading, they are going to need to become curious about your characters and the events that are happening to them.
This comes down to the engagement power of your main character, as well as the initial action and conflict they are drawn into. Your protagonist needs to be interesting, likeable, and relatable. Any other interesting contradictions, traits, or behaviors will help with this process as well.
Moving beyond your characters, the opening of your story needs to create questions, questions which the reader is willing to keep turning those pages to discover the answer to. This needs to be introduced via some manner of engaging action or character interaction, setting the stage for the inciting incident to follow. While many opening scenes show a character still in their everyday life and environment, they should tease with a promise that more is yet to come. Resist the urge to dive into the protagonist’s inner world and backstory just yet, as your reader has not had time to form a bond to that person and become sufficiently curious about such matters.
The first sentence
In many ways, the opening line of your novel is the most important sentence you will ever write. If it doesn’t engage the reader’s curiosity, the rest of the pages that follow might as well remain blank. So then, what makes for a powerful and memorable opening sentence?
Well, of course there is no single answer to this question (try checking out the opening lines of your favorite books for ideas, as well as to appreciate just how many options you have at your disposal). In essence though, the opening line needs to grab the reader’s attention, making them curious to read a bit more and see just what this story is all about.
In general it’s best to:
- Launch into some manner of action or interaction, rather than describing the setting or contextualizing events via exposition or summary.
- Start with the protagonist rather than a minor character.
- Begin with prose rather than dialogue.
- Make the line unusual or unexpected, so that is raises questions in the reader’s mind.
In essence, you want your opening lines to flirt with the reader’s imagination, making them curious while also helping them to form an emotional connection to your character and events, usually by allowing them to emphasize with relatable goals. At the same time it’s good to entertain and surprise, while setting the mood for the scene to follow.
Closing your opening scene
I recommend that you make your first scene relatively compete in and of itself. It can and should raise provocative questions, but it’s nice if the opening action itself is self-contained, like a sneak peak of the entire story.
The end of your first scene should also offer a promise of exciting things to come, implying that the reader has only seen the tip of the iceberg of what your story has to offer.
With that out of the way, all that’s left if to try writing a draft of your scene. If you get stuck, try:
- Outlining the rest of the events in complete sentences.
- Looking at the next chapter and inciting incident and thinking about how the end of this scene will lead towards them.
Congratulations, you have now made it all the way through the drafting section of this guide. All that’s left is to put your nose to the grindstone and complete a draft of your first scene… and then keep right on going until you have complete a rough draft of your novel.
Of course, along the way you will begin to revise your existing text, so come on over and join me for the final chapter of this installment, the revising process.