I read a book last week that really messed with my head. Okay, so there were some clues … the book was called We Were Liars after all. I went into it expecting some mind games, maybe an unreliable narrator or some misinformation along the way. But in spite of going into it expecting that, it still messed with my head. But this post isn’t about that book (even though I think I’m recommending it – it was so beautifully written; the language was simple and poetic and unexpected and so gorgeous I just wanted to weep at the beauty of it). But it left me in a funk. You know, the kind where you can’t bring yourself to pick up a new book for a few days because (for better or worse) you’re still stuck in the world of the last book? Yeah, that funk.
So then two nights ago, I decided it was time to get out of the funk and pick a new book. Based on some reviews I’d read, I decided to give Shadow and Bone a try. It’s the first in a trilogy (or larger series? I’m not sure) and the third just came out, so there’s been lots of buzz about it lately and I thought I’d see what the hype is about. And I have to admit, I was completely hooked after the Prologue. Completely. I loved the intrigue and the implied darkness and the world-building right off the bat. And the stakes … so inspiring to my current predicament with my own writing. I mean, the main character is in love with her best friend and he has no idea. STAKES. She is small and scrawny but part of an army, joined by magical beings called the Grisha who are led by the mysterious Darkling. STAKES. And she is en route to a crossing of a perilous, otherworldly desert known as the Unsea which may or may not kill her and her entire travelling party. STAKES. All of this before Chapter Four, and all of this isn’t even The Thing. (There are no spoilers here, by the way – I think all of this and more is in the back cover description.)
So I started thinking… how do I incorporate these kinds of stakes into my own writing? When was I first hooked? What was it that grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let me go? And the answer: it was the Prologue.
And THEN I started thinking … Hang on. A Prologue?? But what about The Rules?
You know the rules, right?
- No bright light
- Don’t get them wet
- NEVER feed them after midnight
No wait, those are the wrong rules. But these are no less familiar, I’m sure, to those of us tackling our first novel. How to start that all important first chapter:
- Don’t start with your character waking up
- Don’t describe your narrator by having them look into a mirror
- Don’t use that crutch known as a prologue
So those are the rules, don’t break them or there will be severe Gremlin-like consequences, right? SO WRONG! I’m sure that they’re good rules, and they’re there for a reason. You have to know the rules before you can break them, and all that. But seriously … Let’s look at each of those for a second.
Don’t start with your character waking up. Anyone remember a little book called the Hunger Games? Yeah, it starts with Katniss waking up. She realizes that Prim is missing, and we immediately see how her instinct to protect her little sister will drive the rest of the story. It works.
Don’t describe your narrator by having them look into a mirror. I can see how this could be over-used, or cliche, or just lazy. But maybe you recall Divergent (another favourite of mine), and the opening scene where Tris’s mother is cutting her hair. The use of the mirror is unique for them in their household because they’re Abnegation and it’s the only time during the year when she gets to see herself. And so, breaking this rule WORKS.
Don’t use a Prologue. The first example that comes to mind in breaking this rule is Twilight. Every book in the series begins with a Prologue. But since that series as a whole has fallen into disfavor, the much better example is the aforementioned Shadow and Bone. The Prologue sets up the world so beautifully, and we immediately see the bond between Alina and Mal before they’re older and soldiers and about to be ripped apart. It works.
So who made these rules? Why do we abide by them when clearly they are meant to be broken? Obviously, with the right story and the right hook, they are not the immediate turn-offs that we’re led to believe they are. But aren’t we supposed to have the right story and the right hook regardless of how we open chapter one? YES! So what’s the big deal here?
BREAK THE RULES! Tell your story the way you need to tell it and forget the rest. Let the critics be critics, it’s what they do anyway. At least you’ll get to write your novel the way you know it needs to be written. The way no one else can do it, even if you have to make your own rules.