Story Building Part 1: The Early Chapters

All stories have a beginning, pretty obvious huh? But the better question to ask is: How are those stories started? An obvious answer is well you start with Chapter 1, introduce your characters, etc…

But what about prologues? Prefaces? Introductions?

How do I hook my readers into the story? Should I sacrifice the first chapter to have more action? Bump up the second chapter? My answer to that tries them all. Don’t feel afraid of trying out different ideas. My reasoning behind this is that each story is unique, there is no cookie-cutter way to approach. Though I believe the true difference is in the type of story you’re trying to tell and the impact you want with the readers. Simply try both, and go with what works the best.

There has been a push in the writing community to cut the pre-chapters (prologues, prefaces, and introductions) and even cut the first chapter to help accelerate the story. Though this idea can work, it does rob the writer of a valuable tool of their craft. That being able to set the table of the story. If used correctly the pre-chapters can help draw in readers, give early investment in problems that occur later in the story and even help set the overall tone. These benefit the story and the idea of having pre-chapters really shouldn’t be discounted as heavily as they are now.

I do have to give a warning though, using the pre-chapters and the first chapter as exposition dumps is the wrong way to start your story. Nothing screams: ‘put this book down now!’ than scraping past a massive information dump where an author takes far too long to get to the actual story. This was something that I struggled with in writing Ascendance, and only recently was I able to find a workaround.

This workaround consisted of 2 things. (Not getting too specific, don’t want to spoil too much)

  • I kept the first chapter, I liked its pacing and really enjoyed how it introduced my characters
  • I put in a prologue (shock!), but I did a couple of things different. I worked in a crisis that had to be responded to, through that crisis I was able to show how the world worked. The second was I kept the pacing tight and very fast. I wanted readers to not only be sucked into the story but to get to the first chapter as quickly as possible.

I think the biggest issue with pre-chapters and the first chapter that many writers face is that you need to get to the story as quickly as possible, while building the story, introducing world details (magic system, technology system, other unique elements), and giving reason why the reader should care at the start.

It’s challenging to think about, but many times the answer is to just cut away and start where the action begins. This workaround can work, but I believe in building stories in the best way each writer can. For me, I needed my prologue to help get people into the world without info-dumping on them. One of my favorite examples of this is what George R. R. Martin did with A Game of Thrones. His prologue helped not only introduce the world of Westeros but give warning to the broader threat to his readers. This duality helped in creating the wide world that Martin was working toward and had enough room to hold all the different story arcs to be told. If Martin can pull off a good prologue to help set the table for his story, then its something to consider for everyone. Just like any other tool, its only as good as its used.

What do you guys think about the early and pre-chapters? How do you all use them to get your readers into your stories? Let me know in the comments below!

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