It’s generally easier to start writing a book at the beginning, keep on going until you reach the end, and then stop. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Sequential storytelling mirrors the world we experience on a daily basis. We live our lives chronologically, but that might not be the best way to tell a story.
Where do you begin?
Sometimes I begin in the wrong place, write a couple of chapters and then stick them in a holding file before starting again. I have occasionally also committed prologue, usually when writing my way into a story, however by the time my novel reaches publication, I’ve come to my senses and ditched anything resembling a prologue. A prologue often tells the reader something that happened before the story proper starts. It’s out of time (and/or place) with the rest of the novel. It might reveal information that the main protagonist does not know, or finds out much later in the book. Sometimes a prologue is just one huge infodump, and you wonder if you should set a test for your reader when she gets to the end of it.
What you have to ask yourself is: Does a prologue improve my story?
Whether it’s a prologue or a couple of chapters that I need to ditch, I never throw anything away. I’ve been able to use bits of my deleted scenes/prologue as flashbacks to add explanations where necessary. It’s often a mark of how unnecessary a whole prologue or chapter is that the flashback I end up using is barely a paragraph or two.
If you want to create a gripping opening, it’s good to start as close to the action as you can. It’s known as ‘in medias res’. You drop your protagonists into the middle of the narrative without any preamble or explanation. You can dripfeed worldbuilding details into the narrative without infodumps or pausing the story for explanations.
When you do need to explain backstory consider doing it with flashbacks. Used carefully, flashbacks can add information, motivation, emotion, and characterisation to a story. You can reveal something at the precise moment you, the author, want to. It can add greatly to the reader’s understanding. Using flashbacks you can show rather than tell what happened to motivate (or terrify) your protagonist.
But don’t overdo it. Sometimes you can pare down a ditched chapter or a whole prologue to a visceral pivotal paragraph.
I took an early version of my first published novel, Empire of Dust, to my first Milford workshop week where a bunch of published SF authors kindly took it apart and made constructive suggestions. One of those suggestions was, ‘I think you’ve started in the wrong place.’ I later surmised that this was author speak for: ‘There’s something wrong but I’m not sure exactly what it is,’ but since I didn’t know that at the time, I took the comment to heart, went away and wrote close to twenty thousand words of backstory. Eventually I realised that I didn’t need the backstory. I needed to know it, but I didn’t need my audience to read it. I did however, get three short flashbacks of a few hundred words each, which I inserted into the book at a much later stage.