books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, September 11, 2011

14 Do's and Don'ts for Introducing Your Protagonist

I’ll be teaching at California's Central Coast Writers Conference on September 16th-18th  (Yes, there’s still time to sign up!) One of my workshops will be on “Introducing the Protagonist,” so I thought I’d give a little preview here. This is a new! Improved! version of my post “12 Dos and Don’ts for Introducing Your Protagonist” from last year.

Suzannah at Write it Sideways gave that post new life last week by listing it as one of her 101 Best Fiction Writing Tips on the Web. (Thanks Suzannah, for putting THREE of my posts on the top 101 list!)

Introducing your protagonist to your reader may be the single trickiest job for a novelist. You have to let readers get to know your character in a very short time--then entice us go on a journey with this person into a brand new world. If you tell us too much, you’ll bore us, but if you tell us too little, you’ll confuse us.

Remember these are just guidelines. Opinions about what works in an opener can be very subjective. Just last week I had an agent ask me to lop off the first third of a book before she’d consider representation—and on the same day the same opener won first place—and a request for a full ms. read—in a contest judged by an acquisitions editor at fairly big publishing house

No. I didn’t take either offer. More on that soon. Stay tuned to this blog.

But this week an editor suggested I add a new first chapter to another book--which gave me a wonderful "aha" moment. For me, that was the perfect solution to an opener several beta readers had found difficult. We’re always told to start a book “in media res”—but there’s such a thing as starting in the middle of too many things. I was hitting readers with too much at once. And that can confuse and bore at the same time.

Writing the perfect opener is a balancing act. Not for the faint-hearted.

Thing is--when you’re first diving into a novel, you’re not introducing your characters to readers; you’re introducing them to yourself.

All kinds of information about your MC will come up. Maybe she lives in a noisy apartment building. Or her mom is a gung-ho Amway dealer. Or her next door neighbor is recuperating from a terrible accident. Or she feels a deep hatred for Smurfs. This stuff will spill out in your first chapters. Let it. That’s the fun part.

But be aware you’ll want to cut most of the information or move it to another part of the book when you edit, if you’re writing for publication.

It helps to remember this formula: first drafts are for the writer; revisions are for the reader.

Even if you’re not going the agent/publisher route, you need to keep your reader in mind. Self-publishers are judged, too, and reviewers and readers can be snarkier than any agent.

Here are some do’s and don’ts that should help in the revision process.

1) DON’T start with a Robinson Crusoe opening
. That’s when your character is alone and musing. Robinson Crusoe is boring until Friday shows up. So don’t snoozify the reader with a character:

  • driving alone in a car
  • sitting on an airplane
  • waking up and getting ready for the day
  • out on her morning jog
  • looking in the mirror

Especially looking in the mirror. It’s not wrong, but it’s a seriously overdone cliché.

2) DO open with the protagonist in a scene with other characters
—showing how he interacts with the world. Two or three is ideal: not too many or the reader will be overwhelmed.

3) DON’T give a lot of physical description, especially of the police report variety. All we know about Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice is that she has “fine eyes.” We don’t have to be told the color of Sam Spade’s hair, or Inspector Morse’s weight. The reader’s imagination fills in the blanks.

4) DO give us a few unusual physical markers that indicate personality. Interesting characteristics like Nero Wolfe’s size, Hercule Poirot’s mustache, and Miss Marple’s age show who these characters are and make them memorable. But if all you say is they have green eyes and curly red hair—you’ve only told us they’re identical to the MCs of 90% of all YA novels, according to one agent. We don’t need to know the hair/eye thing unless it's important to the story—like Anne of Green Gables hating her hair and dying it green.

5) Don’t present your MC as a flawless Mary Sue. A Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) is the author’s idealized fantasy self—an ordinary person who always saves the day and is inexplicably the object of everyone’s affection. A Mary Sue will make your whole story phony, because a too-perfect character isn’t believable (and is seriously annoying.).

6) DO give your MC strong emotions we can identify with in the opening scene. We don’t have to identify with the situation, but with the emotion: If the character is furious because his roommate keeps watching that DVD of the Smurfs—even if you’ve never heard of a Smurf, you’ll identify with the anger, because everybody’s been angry.

7) DON’T start with a POV character about to be killed or otherwise eliminated from the storyline. (Ditto DREAMS, or putting the MC in a play or videogame.) If you get us intrigued and then say “never mind”, the reader will feel his time and sympathy have been wasted.

8) DO introduce the MC as close to page one as possible. Don’t waste time on weather reports or long descriptions of setting. (I did note in the thread last week that a large number of you are extremely fond of weather reports, but make sure you’re doing something emotional and original with them.)

Remember that modern readers want to jump into the story and get emotionally involved. Also, a modern reader doesn’t need the kind of long descriptions of far-off lands that Victorians loved.  Even if we’ve never been there, we all know what London, or the Alps, or rain forests look like because we’ve seen them in films and on TV. 

9) Don't start with a prologue.                   

Don't take my word for it. Listen to the experts:

From former agent Colleen Lindsay:
“In pages that accompany queries, I have only once found an attached prologue to be necessary to the story.” 

From agent Jenny Bent:
 At least 50% of prologues that I see in sample material don't work and aren't necessary. Make sure there's a real reason to use one.” 

From agent Ginger Clark:
Prologues: I am, personally, not a fan. I think they either give away too much, or ramp up tension in a kind of "cheating" manner.”

From agent Andrea Brown::
 “Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.” 

From agent Laurie McLean:
 “Prologues are usually a lazy way to give backstory chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”

Even usually ultra-tactful publishing guru Nathan Bransford says:
 “A prologue is 3-5 pages of introductory material that is written while the author is procrastinating from writing a more difficult section of the book.”


I know you’re all wailing. But try removing the prologue. Read chapter one. Does it make sense? Could you dribble in that backstory from the prologue into the story later—while the actual plot is going on?

A prologue is like a first draft—it’s for the writer, not the reader. It isn’t the overture: it’s the tuning-up. Like a character sketch, a prologue usually belongs in your book journal—not the finished project.

Go ahead and write one to get your writing juices flowing. Use it to get to know your book’s basic elements. It can be mined later for character sketches, backstory and world building, but try to cut it in your final revision.

10) DO put the MC in a place and time right away.  If the MC is thinking or talking to someone—where is he? As I said, we don’t want a long description of the scenery or the weather, but do give us a few sensory details and let us know what planet we’re on.

11) DON’T start with dialogue. Readers want to know who’s speaking before they’ll pay much attention to what they say. It’s just like real life: if strangers are shouting in the hallway, it’s noise. If you recognize the shouters as your boss and the hooker from 12B—you’re all ears

12) DO dribble in your MC’s backstory in thoughts, conversations and mini-flashbacks—AFTER you’ve got us hooked by your MC and her story.

13) DON’T plunge into action before introducing the characters. The introductions can be minimal, but they have to make us feel connected enough to these people to care

Example: If you hear some stranger got hit by a car—it’s sad, but you don’t have much curiosity about it. If you hear your neighbor got hit by a car, you want to know when, where, how badly she’s injured, etc.

14) DO give your MC a goal. All characters need goals in each scene. But the protagonist needs a compelling, over-arching goal for the whole book. He can’t be easily satisfied. He must want something very badly. This especially important for memoir writers: “I was born and then some stuff happened and I met some people and then I had a catastrophe but I pulled myself out of my misery and now I love life and God and multilevel marketing”—is not going to keep readers turning the pages.

A novel or memoir needs to be about one big thing, and the character has to have one big goal. Too many goals? You may have a series. That’s good, too.

So what about you, scriveners? What do you want to read about a character first off? What makes you want to go on a journey with this character? What do you find difficult about introducing a character?

Exciting things coming up on the blog. Next week, when I’m at the CC Writers Conference, we’ll have a guest post from the wonderful Michelle Davidson Argyle, one-third of the Literary Lab triumvirate and author of the novella CINDERS and the new thriller, MONARCH, which debuts this week. She’ll give us the skinny on the small publisher alternative. It’s an increasingly attractive route for writers who don’t want to get squashed in the Big Six machine and don’t want to spend the time and upfront cash it takes to be a self-publisher.

The following week, on Sept 25th, Ruth Harris will bring us some inspiration from a writing superstar—the man who was chosen to step into the shoes of mystery writing icon, Robert B. Parker. Michael Brandman is the television and film producer who, along with Tom Selleck, wrote and produced Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone movies for CBS. Production was recently completed on an eighth Jesse Stone CBS movie, BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. After Mr. Parker's death, Michael, who had a long association with the author, wrote a new Jesse Stone novel, KILLING THE BLUES, which debuts with Putnam this month.


  1. Great article! I rarely bother with a prologue unless it's completely and utterly indispensible (and they're never more than about a page long anyway)
    However, have you ever read Game of Thrones? Bestseller with very irritating prologue - though it did intrigue me into the rest of the tale. Is there a time and place for prologues, do you think?

  2. Beginnings are hard. I always go back and rewrite mine when I'm "finished."
    I must have written the 1st chapter of Decades 50 times. Seriously. And I recall Dennis Lehane talking about how many times he had to write & rewrite the beginning of Mystic River until he got it right.

    I agree with Spook about prologues. Husbands & Lovers has a brief's a long, multi character book & there needs to be a way for the reader to understand from the beginning that the characters can and do interact—there's a gun in a Tiffany bag involved so boring it's not.

  3. Well, I didn't do too bad. My second book does begin with my main character alone in his shuttle, preparing for passengers, but they show up quickly. And would you believe my publisher asked for a short prologue to my first book?

  4. That's wierd that so many people have hate for prologues. I have to say that I read a lot and I read every prologue and have never once thought the things that you are pointing out here.

    I have a question...all of your sources on prologues come from industry professionals and none of them from people that just pick up a book and actually read? Is it possible that industry professionals similar to college professors are out of touch with the normal everyday Wal-Mart reader? At the end of the is not the industry professional and the college professor that make you money as a writer. It is the woman with three kids at Wal-Mart, it is the guy (me) that walks past the Barnes and Noble and grabs the latest book written by George R.R. Martin and reads everything in it happily from "Prologue" to "Author's notes" and says to himself..."what a good book" and then puts it away.

    I guess I'm challenging the hoity toity snootiness of this because all you have here are testimonies from an elite who are giving advice on how to market a book to sell to the masses? How does Nathan Bransford, Stanford University graduate, know what I, University of Idaho graduate who works in a state job making a middle-class salary want to read?

    I respect your opinions on most of this, however, I think you're suggestions are aimed at writing that will make the elite happy and have no real clue as to what will make a middle-class shmoe happy. Maybe that's why all books that are being pumped out by the Big Six sound the same.

  5. Michael, I see what you're saying, but I have to agree with Anne here. The first six or seven drafts of my MS had a prologue at the beginning, and though I loved it, it didn't bring the reader directly into the action. The reader starts off separated from what's going on, instead of being a part of it. Part of this is writing for the masses--though I personally have no problem with prologues, with the attention span of most readers these days the action needs to start right away.

    I noticed that as soon as I took my prologue out of my book, my betas (who already liked my MS) were much more engaged with my MC because I started in the middle of her finding her family murdered, instead of prefacing that with her thoughts. Prologues can definitely work for some people, but the majority of the time the information can be put right into the action instead. It's not wrong to have a prologue, but it is easier to catch most (emphasis on 'most') readers' attention if you just start with chapter one.

  6. I just love-hate these lists—Love when I’m not guilty, Hate when you touch on one of my weaknesses (okay, well, I really don’t mind that either, ‘cause then I can give it some attention!)

    When I’m reading, the first few pages are important when it comes to ‘meeting’ the main character, but here’s the thing—I will already have ‘met’ the character by reading the back cover blurb before I even begin the novel! Therefore, I’m already acquainted with the protagonist’s gender, age group, maybe what world she lives in, and her general dilemma. Now, I just need to know if I can relate. I’m most interested in seeing how she feels about her circumstances. A vague sketch of what she look like is fine, but I don’t need all the details. I want some bearing in her physical surroundings, but only in how they relate to the story or character. I DON’T like reams of description, as you mention.

  7. Spook--I did a poll on this blog last year asking how many people read prologues. About 50% said they skip them. But you're right that George RR Martin loves them. They're more accepted in high fantasy, I think.

    Ruth--Nice to hear that even you and Dennis Lehane do 50 rewrites of chapter 1. Now I don't feel so bad. And yes, of course, sometimes a prologue is necessary. People are more likely to read the short ones.

    Alex--Ha! Shows how subjective it all is, doesn't it?

    Michael--I don't think a fondness for prologues is class-specific. (And Nathan B. comes from humble small town origins.) As I said to Spook, prologues are more acceptable in some genres than others, like high fantasy. Also literary fiction as it happens--which I think is what you mean by calling those agents "elite." Actually, most of them rep genre fiction (the kind that sells in Wal-Mart.)

    Tiffany--you've said it well. A prologue makes the reader start the book twice.

    jb-Good point that the reader is going to get a lot of this info in the flap copy. But with ebooks, it will be on the Amazon page, but maybe not on your download? I don't have a Kindle yet, so I don't know.

    And of course one of the great things about rules is that you get to break them. If you don't know what they are, where's the fun?

  8. Anne, I'd say number 11 is plain wrong - it's fine to start with dialogue, as long as it's snappy and informative.

    And I'm not just saying that because A, I have an aversion to Rules Of Writing, and B, I've started two books that way.

    My YA fantasy begins, "I wish to acquire a dragon." Most readers read on.

  9. "There is no right way to write a book; therefore, every way is wrong."
    — Lester D. Crawford

    The current draft of my current project has a 92 word prologue that contains the first mention of a recurring theme, sets an ominous tone, and foreshadows what is about to happen within the first few pages of chapter one.

    A prologue seems to begin many of the books I have read. Why do prologues seem so common if they are so despised?

    When I read the prologue to Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, my reaction was that my work would never compare, I am a fool for thinking I can write, and I need to find a real job. (However, regardless of how Mr. Cline made me feel, I am charging ahead.)

    I like rewriting, experimenting, exploring, and looking for possibilities. My prologue and opening chapter are places where I am doing a lot of trials and tests as I seek the perfect combination of words.

    I jump straight into the instigating incident as triggered by a bird who then returns at the end of the story to bring the story full circle. My protagonist is heavily flawed; I created a character sheet for him by answering the questions based upon me. When I was finished with the character sheet, I read what I had written. My reaction was, "This guy is pitiful!" When he reunites with the bird at the end of the story, the protagonist has changed. He becomes what I wish I could be.

    I think I will begin chapter one with dialogue:


    Overhead, in the pine tree, sat a beautiful black bird. I ignored him and returned to musing over my map.


    "What do you want, Mister Crow?"

  10. I read a lot of commercial crime thrillers, and it's noticeable that the likes of James Patterson and Michael Connelly, with sales figures to die for, regularly use prologues.

    When in the UK last month I went into several bookstores and randomly selected from the plinth best-sellers and found pretty much 50/50 books with and without prologues.

    I concur with Lexi about writing rules. When you get to specifics like "don't have a prologue" or "don't open with dialogue" that's a world apart from a general guideline about writing long descriptive scenes or weather reports reports.

    As for agents as "experts"... That's a debate for another time. Suffice here to quote Michael: "Is it possible that industry professionals similar to college professors are out of touch with the normal everyday Wal-Mart reader?"

    A third of the Amazon top sellers are indie, because the gatekeepers are out of touch with what readers want to read.

  11. I'm not a fan of prologues either. Its rare the info isn't repeated in the middle of the book, or even scattered throughout the writing, including some during the opening pages.

    I've started my novels with a few of these Don'ts, but usually its just a place to start. As you say, and introduction for myself as the author. I'm very bad at beginnings, and have to just start somewhere, and work up to the "actual" introduction. Yep; I have to revise a lot before I get out of the "draft" phase.

    Thanks for sharing these insights. I sure wish I was going to this conference and taking your class.


  12. I like prologues if they give us a piece of the story that will never be in the rest of the book - say the murder of the college co-ed and the rest of the book is about finding the killer and pointing fingers. If it's done well, I think they're fine.

    I have written them, and pulled them out, and put them back in again. Sometimes I think a story warrants one. Sometimes not. It all depends and as we all know, this business is very subjective.

    Best of luck at the conference!

  13. "It was a dark and stormy night." Just joking. Thanks for the great tips in this post.

    Next week comes at a good time for me since I am about to send out my first novella and need some tips about the "little" guys out there who still value them.

    Ruth will have all my attention. Robert Parker was a talented and decicated mystery writter, producing two series in books; Spencer on TV and Jesse Stone moview made for TV. It's good to know his work will continue.

    Thanks as always, Anne :)

  14. Lexi--That is a very cool opening line. It says a lot. Still, I think most people would rather have an emotional connection with the MC before they're really interested in what he/she has to say.

    Lester--Yours sounds like a very edgy book. Sometimes breaking all the rules works as well as following them.

    Mark--I repeat what I said above. I LOVE breaking rules. Especially if I can prove they're stupid. But what's the fun in breaking rules if you don't know what they are?

    Donna--I'm with you. I don't read prologues. An old prejudice from childhood. They always seemed murky and pointless. If I'm into the book, I usually go back and read a prologue at some point, but only when I want the answer to some story question. Often it's not in the prologue, and then I'm even more annoyed by it.

    Wouldn't it be great if we could all meet at a writers conference somewhere?

    Anne--Lots of times that could be the first chapter. People are more likely to read the first chapter than a prologue.

    BTW Thanks for your encouragement. It's been a while since I've been in front of an audience, so I'm a little nervous.

    Florence--I'm a huge believer in the small press. I think the nimble small publisher is the future of publishing. Has been for a while, actually. If JK Rowling hadn't been first published by a small press, YA would still be dominated by politically correct "message" books.

    E. Arroyo--Glad it's useful!

  15. I recently chopped a prologue and the first two scenes off my Chapter 1. Thank goodness I let the thing sit a looong time before I came back for revisions. I had been attached to my opening words. They are thankfully gone now. I appreciate your helpful insights. I now start with my MC arriving in town (driving her car, I know...sigh) but immediately gets a flat tire, and has to interact with nasties. Anyway, I feel like it jumps into the story right away now, and so does my first reader. Yay!

  16. Great post - especially the last point... the character's goal is sometimes the hook that keeps the reader reading...

  17. Great points.

    I agree with all of them, so there is not much to comment.

    I like intense, action starts in a book, depending on the genre though. I agree with the prologues issue. Although, some times they are adequate and necessary, most of the times they are redundant & boring.

    Very interesting post :)

  18. Great reminders. I often hear unpublished writers defend their prologue as absolutely

  19. I know you won't care, but I love prologues in fantasy novels. Every single fantasy novel that I love most has a great prologue in it. Any reader who skips prologues...well to me they aren't true readers.

    1. I think fantasy is the one medium where a prologue is acceptable. But if you're in other genres, probably shouldn't have one. But Fantasy is almost as much about the world building as it is the story, and the prologue can both introduce the themes and threats of a fantasy story as well as give some interesting world building.

    2. Reed--I've learned about fantasy prologues since I wrote this post three years ago. I never read much fantasy, and epic fantasy isn't big with agents/big 5 publishers, but now that self-publishing is so common, writers can write for readers and not agents. So if you write fantasy, go ahead and put in that prologue. Your readers probably expect it.

  20. Anne: You do the best posts on the internet. Clear. Clean. Confident and - best of all - Actionable! Thank you. I don't mind a prologue - but I hate it when a prologue is a jazzed up scene from later in the book to hook you (ie: Water for Elephants). It works but is dishonest (imho). I'd also like to add that everyone of my favorite books has NOT had "hooking start". (ie:The Help and one no one's heard of: The Heaven Tree Trilogy (best ever book) But then, I love literary fiction and am willing to invest some chapters to build a relationship. What I look for first is good writing.
    Here's my current books Opening paragraph.
    Squatting on the crescent of rock jutting out from the creek’s edge, six-year-old Celeste released onto it her bundle of forest treasure while staring into the soft flowing gray-green water. Sniffing deeply, her nose filled with the scent of mud and new green as she wiggled her toes inside her shoes and looked up at grandmother with hopeful eyes. “May I today, Gamma?” she asked.
    Glancing at the houses on the hillcrest overlooking the creek, Gamma winced. News traveled fast in small towns. No doubt those glassy eyes would report them on the grassy slope, shoeless, sockless, skirts pulled up to their knees, splashing their feet, prompting another lecture from Myrtle on dangers to her daughter’s health. But none of that had ever stopped Gamma before, so she wrinkled her nose like a rabbit and nodded. ***

  21. Amalia--I think most writers tend to start the story a little too early in rough draft, so chopping some off is often a good way to start revisions. (Then there's my WIP, which I started too far into the action. I have to be different :-)

    tf--In my first version of this list, I forgot the "goal". Probably should be #1.

    Jacqvern--Thanks. Yes, sometimes prologues are necessary.

    Jubilee--That's the trouble. Prologues are something every beginning writer adores, because they make things easier for the writer. But not necessarily for the reader.

    Ted--High fantasy does have a tradition of prologues. I said that in the thread, but I probably should have said that it in the body of the text. But it's still good to question yourself about them.

    Funny. Most of the prologue defenders don't seem to have read the um, prologue to my list, where I said, "Remember these are just guidelines. Opinions about what works in an opener can be very subjective."

    Laura--Thanks so much. This is me blushing. Looks like a good opening scene. No time to critique here, but I'd vary the sentence structure a little. And watch those "ing" words. We all tend to fall into repetitive patterns.

  22. Anne, these are all excellent tips! And you're so right about leading with emotion. I love an opening where I instantly care about the character and what happens to her.

  23. Anne I seem to be strangely like you because I started to far into the story with my current project. It all made sense to me as I'd been basically dreaming the whole thing fro a month before I started writing it down. Of course I didn't really know much about my MC's past until after I was through with the first part.

    Thankfully after reading these tips I think my writing of a new first (and probably several chapters) is better on par with your rules.

    She does start dodging rain drops on the way home to her apartment and lets down her long braided hair, but she soon greets her fiance and they get into an argument over something he read in her diary...

    I'm opting for no prologue with this fantasy to allow the reader to explore and learn about the world she ends up in with her.

    I have a prologue in another 'old' work of mine and I can see how it was for my use and would probably allow the reader to figure out what's going to happen pretty quickly.

    Anyway enough of my ramblings. it's bedtime for me on the East Coast. I really need to start page marking these awesome tip blogs of yours.

    :} Cathryn Leigh

  24. "First drafts are for the writer; revisions are for the reader."
    Dang! That's why I like writing so much...and tend to get stuck on subsequent drafts. Again and again you make so much sense regarding this writing stuff.
    On the prologue controversy, I don't write them, but I like to read them. Just goes to show it takes all types.
    Keep on blogging because we need these opinions/ "rules" to think about and try on for size.
    And bask (or would that be basque?) in your terrific and well-deserved success.
    Yours, with love forever,
    ---Rrrandy Wurst
    P.S. If I ever get my butt out of this sling, maybe I'll have some success, too.

  25. As an unpublished writer - well, a couple of short stories in the local newspaper when I was a BA student last year - I find your posts very interesting - thank you:)

  26. Anne, Susan Quinn suggested I follow your blog, and I'm glad she did! Looks like you got a great understanding of the craft of writing.

    Nice to meet you!

  27. Hi Anne, I just found your through Elle Strauss's blog. Ditto what matthew said!

    Beginnings are my Waterloo. I've rewritten mine a dozen different ways and still worry that I'm throwing too much at the reader at once. I'd love it if you'd post sometime on what it looks like to open well, especially how to create an emotional connection between reader and protagonist.

  28. Hi! I rewrote the beginning of my first novel that is currently with my agent like 15 times because I kept writing it for me, instead of the reader.

    I think you listed some good tips, but sometimes the rules are meant to be broken. The first line in my novel is actually a line of dialogue. At first, I was against dialogue, for the reason you listed above, but then a contest judge recommended I move it up to immediately make the reader intrigued about the MC. Later contest judges loved it so I kept it.

    I loved your one sentence pitch from your contest. Sounds like a book I'd enjoy.

  29. Great stuff as always!! I'm linking to you in my next post. :)

  30. Great post! :) I'm going to add it to my Friday mash-up.

    I made the cardinal sin of putting a prologue in my book 2. My agent didn't cut it but I'm waiting for editor feedback. I kind of heart it. *pets shiny prologue* But I figure if my editor nixes it, then I can at least use it as bonus material on my website. *pats prologue on the head*

  31. Julie—It’s true. We just naturally care more about somebody we know than a stranger.

    Catherine—I think a lot of us who learn too many of these rules tend to start the story too late. We’re so worried about giving the reader action, we forget they have to get to know the MC first. BTW—dodging raindrops is great. The point is to let the reader know who’s doing the dodging.

    Mr. Wurst—Aw shucks. Thanks.

    Christine—Always good to know the rules when you’re starting out. Later you can break them.

    Matthew—Thanks for stopping by. I’ll have to thank Susan.

    Laurel—I’ll have to thank Elle, too. It would be fun to do a post on good openings. Maybe I could get people to post their favorites.

    Isis—Doing rewrites for agents can be infuriating. Sometimes they’re going for the market, not what works for your book. But I'm glad to hear you found the right opening. As I say, these are just guidelines and rules are made to be broken.

    So glad you checked out the opening of my contest winner, Sherwood, Ltd. Hoping to have some good news about it soon.

    Veronika—glad you found it useful. Much appreciate the linkage

  32. Roni--Thanks. It's an honor to make your Friday links. Great idea about putting the prologue on your website if it gets nixed by your editor!

  33. Excellent blog! I do a lot of the do's, so that's good. I have, on occasion started with my MC talking, but only if he/she is saying something interesting.

  34. This has got to be the most thorough list I've seen yet. And I love the quotes from the agents. Nice supporting evidence.

  35. As usual, really great advice, Anne! My openings always stink and it takes multiple drafts to get it right.

    "Robinson Crusoe is boring until Friday shows up." BWAHAHAHA - so funny, and so true!

  36. That's great that you're turning this into an opportunity to teach, Anne! And it was my pleasure to share such a great article (and others) from your blog. Good luck with your workshops!

  37. Aubrie--I used to start all my books with dialogue, and I still feel the urge, but you're right that it needs to be really compelling.

    Stina--When I started reading all those comments, I decided to collect them. I actually have a lot more. Didn't find any pro-prologue ones.

    Jennifer--What's important is starting somewhere. Second draft is when you get to decide where.

    Suzannah--Thanks for sharing the my blogposts! And thanks for the encouragement. I'm starting to get nervous now...

  38. Thanks for the informative, practical post, Anne! Have a blast at the conference. I look forward to following your insight.

  39. Interesting post, as always. I'm glad I learned the rules, so I knew what I was doing while breaking them. I've done a couple of the Don'ts listed here and it hasn't harmed me in terms of publication.

  40. These are wonderful. I try and follow them. All of them except the prologue bit. In the genre I write, usually the murder happens first chapter, it's not really a prologue (although my publisher is insisting I call it that) but it's the chapter before my main character is introduced.

  41. Great stuff here. I'm going to copy it and paste it in a separate document for future reference. =D

  42. Great topic! I especially liked your advice in #9, "Don't start with a prologue." I hope that everyone who is in the planning stages of their first novel reads your post. I wish I had read it before I wrote the first draft of my women's mystery/suspense novel, "Mixed Messages."
    I did eventually omit the prologue and the epilogue (yes, I had one of those too) and it definitely improved the novel.

  43. Fantastic article! Thank you. Time to look at my opening pages again, side by side with your points. I heartily agree about prologues. I don't write them and have never enjoyed reading them.


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