Dear Story Nurse,
The first draft of my fantasy novel came out as a messy tangle of scenes. I’m now trying to turn it into something more coherent as I edit, but I’m struggling to pick out which of about three options should be the opening section. Sometimes I think one looks good, sometimes another.
Option 1 is chronologically first, set about three years before the main events, and sets up/reveals a lot of the emotional landscape behind the rest. It’s close to my heart, but other than the emotion shifts, doesn’t have a lot happening.
Option 2 is where the first draft started, an apparently small event with a lot of undercurrents swirling around underneath. It’s the event where the main character’s life is first pulled askew from what she wants it to be, if not quite upside down.
Option 3 is a busy action scene with the main character and her entire village turning out to cope with an immediate disaster. It’s also her first encounter with one of the antagonists.
I’ve had both positive and negative feedback on all of them, which makes it harder to decide. It feels like I need to decide before I go further, because which one I choose is going to have serious implications on how I unknot my tangle of a first draft.
How do I make this sort of decision when all the options seem equally good at different times and I keep second guessing whether I’ve picked right?
—Split Decision (they/them)
Dear Split Decision,
The three options you’ve come up with fall neatly into three very common categories of story opener: prologue, protagonist introduction, and in medias res. All of them can be perfectly fine ways to start a fantasy novel (though these days there isn’t a lot of love for prologues). In order to choose one, you need to understand the narrative purpose of each. You also need to know what kind of book you’re writing. You suggest that choosing an opener will shape your revisions, but I suggest that you need to pick a direction for your revisions and then go with the opener that suits the book you decide to write.
A prologue is a hint. It serves a very specific purpose of setting the tone and providing crucial information that influences how the reader approaches the story proper. I was just rereading A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, and it has an excellent prologue that’s almost like a short story. While keeping the reader’s attention with spooky atmosphere and strong characterization, it establishes incontrovertibly that this is a book in which supernatural things happen. Through the next several chapters, the reader observes events that might, or might not, be supernatural in origin. The characters almost universally dismiss the supernatural possibilities, claiming that magic is gone from the world. But the reader knows better, and is now looking for signs of magical happenings and eagerly waiting for the moment when the characters have to admit they were wrong. Without that anticipation, the intricate worldbuilding and political maneuvering might be a harder sell.
So if you go with the prologue, think about how you want it to influence the reader. Do you want to provide information that will become relevant later? Do you need to share just one thing that happens where your POV character can’t see it, so your reader knows something that the character doesn’t? If it feels more like background information or doesn’t shape how the reader experiences the initial chapters or a later revelation, you’re best off excising it from the book. You can make it a web exclusive (this is sort of my joke to myself about all the material I write and then cut), or sell it as a short story, or keep it in your heart. But if it doesn’t really connect to the novel other than having some of the same people in it, it shouldn’t be part of the novel.
For one of my novel projects, I have a lengthy prologue that I knew as I was writing it would never go in the finished manuscript. I still wrote it, because I wanted to see my characters at that point in their lives. Now I have a lot of information about their histories, and I can organically incorporate that information into the narrative while not delaying the actual plot. Given the way you describe your prologue, I’m guessing that’s what you need to do too.
Broadly speaking, protagonist introductions tell the reader that this is a character-focused story, and in medias res openers tell the reader that this is an action-focused story. That’s why you need to know at least approximately what kind of story you want to write before you figure out where and how it starts. I suspect that your struggle to choose an opener is standing in for your struggle to choose a direction for your book. Bite the bullet and make those big decisions instead of getting caught up on smaller ones. The exercises in my post on rediscovering your story’s heart might help.
For now, don’t worry about whether your opening chapter looks good, or whether you’ve gotten positive or negative feedback on it. Focus on the opener as the reader’s introduction to your world, your characters, your plot, and your style. You want to make an accurate first impression while putting your best foot forward. Some questions to ask:
- Does the opener grip the reader and make them want to read more? People often lean on the excitement of in medias res to do this, but readers can be just as drawn to slower starts, as long as there’s some compelling push-pull of tension in there. A delicate appetizer is just fine if readers are assured of a multi-course feast to come.
- Does it attract the kind of reader who will like the rest of the book? In other words, if your story is primarily a tale of investigation, does the opener set up the mystery? If it’s a romance, does it introduce protagonists who have some kind of connection?
- Does it set the reader’s expectations accurately, and only make promises that the rest of the story can keep? This is sometimes called the contract between the author and the reader, and it’s essential to reader satisfaction.
- Does it begin at the beginning of the story? You may need to try several times before you find that beginning.
- If your book contains heavy themes that a reader might need to be warned about, do those appear or at least get foreshadowed in the opener? Don’t be scared to push some readers away; it’s better to do that up front than to have them recoil halfway through and feel cheated of the time they invested in your work.
- If your book contains marginalized or minority characters, is that aspect of their characterization established up front rather than treated as a gotcha or a spoiler? Opinions differ on whether this is strictly necessary, but marginalized readers almost always appreciate knowing up front that a character is someone they can identify with, and it makes nuanced character development much easier.
While looking for a post on beginnings that I could have sworn I made but can’t find now, I found a different post about how to choose an ending and was amused to realize that the advice there is almost exactly the same. Some suggestions that work as well at the beginning as they do at the ending: listen to what your story wants, embrace your power to make decisions and the pleasure of having made them, pick an option at random if you truly can’t choose one on the merits, and learn from how you make other choices. Take a look at that post for expansions on those, and also for a little perspective. All these questions of writing craft come from the same place: wanting to do right by your story, your readers, and yourself. Keep that in mind and you’ll find that some of those tangles untangle themselves more easily than you might think.