prologue or not

Question: I'm not sure if I should do a prologue or not because there's stuff that happens before that explains how the world got the way it is and then there's my main character who get's put in this place when she's little and I want to say a little about what happens in the camp and then jump to 10 years later and that's when the story truly takes place but I'm not sure if I should put the 2 things and just make that the first chapter or if I should make one the prologue and the other the first chapter. I'm leaning more towards making it just the first chapter with no prologue but I want another opinion.


Answer: If it's possible, it may be better to start with the main character in the present (that is, 10 years after the incident in the camp) and then tell the earlier events in a summary or flashback later. There is an advantage to getting the reader involved in the present dilemma of the main character right away.

This is not a rule, however, and you will see plenty of examples where the opposite is done. An obvious example is Harry Potter where we see Harry as a baby being dropped off at his aunt's doorstep. The book then jumps ahead 10 years and we meet Harry in the present.

In this case, the opening works because there is a mystery being created. We wonder what happened to Harry's parents. Also, we are introduced to terms and events that are not fully explained. (How can this woman turn herself into a cat, and why is she called "Professor"? What does she mean by "our world"?)

If the incident in the camp creates a mystery that pulls the reader into the story, then it might work as the opening. On the other hand if it's there to explain something about the main character's personality, it may be better to tell it in flashback later. That way, you make the reader wonder for
a time why the main character is the way he/she is, which keeps them reading to find out.

As for how your story world got the way it is, which I'm guessing is your inciting incident, again there is no hard rule. However, it is usually better to get the readers involved in the present problem and then fill them in later on how it got that way.

Writers will often hide the beginning of the story deliberately in order to create a mystery. Again, taking Harry Potter as an example, you'll notice that the inciting incident (the murder of Harry's parents) is not told at the beginning. Rather, the story starts with Harry's uncle wondering why the streets are full of oddly dressed people celebrating something and calling him a Muggle.

Showing the characters reacting to something, but not telling the reader what event they are reacting to makes the reader want to keep reading to find out what's going on.

Again, this is not a rule. Some books do begin with a prologue that sets the stage. What you have to ask yourself is whether your prologue is the most effective way to pull the reader into the story. Will it be a stronger pull than starting with the main character's present day dilemma? For instance, does the prologue create a mystery or introduce an intriguing situation? Is it told by a compelling narrative voice?

Usually, you can create a stronger hook by starting with the main character wrestling with his/her present dilemmas and inner conflicts, which is why this is the most popular choice. But you have to decide if it's the strongest choice for your story.

The opening pages of a novel are the most important, because it is there that the reader decides whether or not the book is worth reading. And it is where agents and editors make (admittedly snap) decisions about whether your book is publishable.

You might want to write all three openings and ask some people which one makes them want to keep reading more.

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