On taking a step back in order to move forwards

Do you know what words terrify me most? Either ‘Prologue’ or ‘Chapter One’. True story. They just sit there for a while, all nice and bold in whatever header font I’ve selected, with the cursor blinking after, and a sea of white below.

They terrify me because after that, I need a first sentence. And it has to be good, doesn’t it? How many of you have read a book and just groaned at an awful first sentence? I know I have many times. And given that, beyond ‘prologue’ or ‘chapter one’ it’s the first thing the reader says. First impressions are everything.

On November 1st, 2012 I spent an hour writing and erasing first sentences. I tried short and simple, along the lines of “Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick, Herman Melville). I tried long and beautiful like “The Man in Black fled across the desert and the Gunslinger followed” (The Gunslinger, Stephen King). What I settled on was “As she leaned out through the window of the car, a bullet flashed past Lee’s ear.”

It’s not amazing. Honestly, it’s probably not even good. I don’t like how unwieldy it sounds, compared to the examples I used above. I don’t like how it introduces the reader to a general female (she) before giving her a name (Lee). It’s worth noting that I did it this way because I was worried people would automatically assume Lee was a man before getting to the part where her gender is defined, and that would take people out of the story before they reached the first full stop. But it just doesn’t quite work, yet it’s what I’m faced with every time I open the document.

Another reason they terrify me is that the opening chapter or prologue has to introduce the reader to the characters whilst still being interesting to read. A lot of the influences on Post-Apocalipstick are movies, and so I opted for a cinematic trick. I started in media res in the middle of a car chase that chronologically takes place around a quarter of the way through the story. In a somewhat similar move to Fight Club, the prologue would cold open onto this exciting sequence then flash back. The idea was that the fast paced action would get the reader interested, then the story could begin.

Bad idea. First, it demonstrates what could be taken as a lack of confidence in my story to be interesting enough to attract a reader’s attention. Second, the reader doesn’t know these characters, and therefore doesn’t care that they’re in danger. I know these characters, I birthed them. But in the middle of all the cars chasing, and bullets flying, and people dying, and vehicular mayhem, and holy shitting fuckballs awesome, there was no room to breathe. No room to introduce each character.

I started to notice that every book I’ve been reading recently introduces the characters by showing us their status quo. The book I’m currently reading (The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke) opens with a little girl collecting fireflies in a jar. It didn’t need a huge action sequence, it just introduced the character, her world, and set the status quo. Then it broke the status quo, and that’s what made the story interesting.

Now, the status quo of my characters isn’t car chases and shootouts, at least not at the start of the story. I’ve spent several days considering the problem, and I’ve decided to address the issue now. I thought hard about leaving it until my first round of edits, but I’ll be much happier writing my ending knowing I’m not unhappy with my beginning. Which leaves me here again, the word ‘Prologue’ at the top of a blank page, all those fears surfacing again.

But sometimes you need to take a step back in order to move forwards.


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