My editor didn’t much care for the three-part prologue I wrote for Book 3 of my four-volume epic. I’m pretty sure she’s right. What I was doing was setting up the story, rather in the way that one would assemble scaffolding. Two of the sections of the prologue introduce the reader to very minor characters — characters who are never seen or heard from again. The things these characters do are certainly relevant to the later action, but nothing they do is dramatic. Minor characters and no drama — not an effective opening. The third section of the prologue is an excerpt from the autobiography (written many years later) of one of the secondary characters. It’s by way of being a quick summary of some of the action in Book 2 and a couple of hints about what is to come. There’s no action at all in that section.
The conventional wisdom on how to start a novel — or, for that matter, a short story — is to begin in medias res. That’s Latin for “in the middle of things.” Don’t lead up to the main conflict of the story; dump us into the middle of it!
I have a few multi-volume series in my Wall of Paperbacks, so tonight I went and looked at how other authors start Book 2 or Book 3. One starts with an invading army pouring over a hill while the king watches from the battlements of his castle. Okay, we know where that’s going. Another starts with a deadly standoff — two good guys and two bad guys aiming crossbow bolts at one another, from extremely close range. Gets your attention, doesn’t it?
Two factors need to be weighed, I think, in considering how to start Book 2 or Book 3 in a series. There may be other factors, but these two leap to mind.
First, how directly do the events at the start of this book follow the events at the end of the previous book? Some series are loosely tied, each book standing more or less on its own. In that case it’s easy enough to just start the new story with fresh action — no need to bog down the opening with an explanation of how the characters came to be doing whatever they’re doing. But in other series the action is closely linked, each book leading directly to the next.
That’s what I have. The beginning of Book 2 follows the end of Book 1 by only a few hours, and the segue from Book 2 to Book 3 is equally taut. In that situation, a fresh and dramatic opener becomes a bit of a challenge, because the previous book had an ending. The action had resolved. And then suddenly shit goes boom? That would be tricky to set up.
Second, do we anticipate that the reader will have finished with the previous book only a few days before and will remember most of the salient details, or do we anticipate that some months may have passed, in which case the reader is likely to need reminding in order to understand what the heck is going on?
There’s also the size of the cast in the opening scene to consider. An opening scene with six or eight people is almost bound to be a mistake, because the author has to drag the action to a screeching halt in order to make sure the reader knows who everybody is. But if Book 3 follows Book 2 with a lapse of only a few hours, and if Book 2 ended with a whole bunch of characters in the same place at the same time, they’re still going to be onstage in the dramatic opening of Book 3.
Pardon me while I devote fifteen seconds to feeling sorry for myself. Okay, I’m fine now.
No matter how those factors line up, though, an opening needs some sort of tension. As Holmes says to Watson, “The game’s afoot!”
This is why some editors, and some readers, despise prologues. They want the author to get on with the story right now, with no hemming and hawing. (George R. R. Martin starts every book in the Game of Thrones series with a prologue, but what does he know?)
If you’re writing literature, of course, the game that’s afoot may be very much more subtle than a confrontation with crossbows, but a careful examination of almost any well-written novel is likely to reveal that the author is very carefully setting up the psychological, emotional, or cultural conflicts to be explicated in the book.
I’m not trying to write literature. I’m just trying to tell a good story. But if I ditch the prologue of Book 3, the opening scene is going to be a banquet with more than a hundred people, among whom will be Kyura, Meery, Spindler, Benagat, Dunny, Strudabend, Iknizer, Farin, and several characters who are new and need to be introduced. There is tension in this scene, but it’s going to be a mess.
Whatever. As I like to tell my cello students, if playing the cello was easy, everybody would do it. I think that applies pretty well to writing novels, too.