It seems that every expert, agent, editor, publisher, and successful author agrees that you should never begin a novel with a prologue. I’ve personally had an agent tell me that she’ll reject a manuscript on the first word, if that word is prologue.
So, yeah, there is a lot of hate out there for the prologue. Don’t start your novel with one. But prologues aren’t the only way you shouldn’t begin your novel. Here are a few others. Some of these things can come in the form of a prologue as well, but for the sake of this post, I’m considering everything in this list as a bad Chapter One.
A Dream Sequence
Okay, before I tell you why you should not do this, I’ll have to confess that I am doing this in my current WIP. So what gives? Well, my current WIP is a novel about dreams interacting with real life, so dreams are a central part of the plot. But if dreams are not a part of the plot, you should never open a novel with a dream.
It betrays the reader. You just got someone to agree to read your work, maybe a customer, maybe an agent, maybe an editor, or maybe a beta reader. Either way, if they are spending precious time reading your book they’ll want to know what happens. And they certainly won’t want to
spend waste ten minutes on a first chapter, only to see the character wake up and say that nothing they just read actually happened.
One of my favorite books is The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub. That is if you cut out the first 150 pages or so. In typical King fashion, the novel opens with the life history of the main character and his mother, with a lot of focus on their relationship and her illness. None of it moves the plot forward, and I swear it could have been cut down to two pages.
Anyhow, you shouldn’t do this.
This may not apply to literary fiction, but in genre fiction, it’s never a good idea to bore the reader. If the first part of your book is a gigantic biography of your protagonist or a complete history of your world, you WILL bore the reader to tears. Remember: Establish conflict in your first chapter and keep the backstory in the back of the story.
There are three roads to hell. One is paved with adverbs, another with works-in-progress, and another–perhaps the most treacherous–is paved with flashback scenes. There is a time and a place for a flashback, but the beginning of your book is not it.
A flashback can serve a lot of purposes. It can be used to help justify a character’s actions or desires. It can be used to give a glimpse of the past to help establish the present. It can be used as a plot point, showing a cause that directly affects the protagonist and his quest.
But if you do any of that too early, it doesn’t work. A reader needs to know a character before he’ll care about the character’s past. He needs to care about the story’s present, before he’ll care about the story’s past.
Endless description of the setting
Have you ever opened up a book and said, “Yeah this cool, but I really need to know what color the bathroom walls are.”? Of course not. And neither does the agent reading this book. Details are good, but don’t overdo it, man!
Let’s put it this way. Pause for a moment and think about your favorite book. Okay. Now think about those first 6000 words that contained no action or dialogue. What? Your favorite book didn’t begin with 6000 words of no action or dialogue? Well good. Neither should the one you write.
Something that applies to all four of these
Start where the story starts. When you do the stuff I mentioned above, it pulls the reader away from your plot before he even stepped in it. If an agent is willing to give your first ten pages a look, then you damn well better make sure something happens in those ten pages that establishes a character, a conflict, and a story. Otherwise, you might as well make that opening chapter the entire story, because nobody will be reading on past it.
Hope I wasn’t too harsh here, but feel free to yell at me if I was 🙂 And also feel free to leave a comment and let me know if you’ve got any other things you should avoid in your opening scene.