Monday, January 10, 2011

Start With the Protagonist, or the Circumstance?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A reader asked...
My protagonist was kidnapped as a child and I wanted the first chapter to be about that. He was a baby then so will not be speaking and won’t have much of a personality. The cast in the kidnapping scene will be saying and doing stuff that will be significant to the rest of the story. I need these things done and said early because in the next chapter my Protag is 15 years old. Can I start a book this way, and if not, how/where can I place this important scene in the book?

Note: I asked this because everyone who writes about writing says to introduce your protagonist right away. Well, in my story, I’m sort of introducing you to his circumstances first.

It depends. (Yeah, I know, lousy answer, but it's true)

I don't actually see this as a protagonist first situation, because the protagonist is in the opening, even if he's just a baby. You're not really introducing readers to another character and making them think that's the protagonist and then yanking them to another person. Those are the false starts you have to be wary of. This is more of a "do I use a prologue?" situation. You have information you feel needs to start the story and you're not sure if you should.

In most cases, prologues that set up the protagonist's situation are usually a bad idea. That information is better shown slipped into the actual story. But this is a special circumstance and it might be a good idea to start with the kidnapping. An event that changes how a reader sees the story is a good reason for a prologue. I can't say yay or nay based on this small bit of information, though. You'd have to look at several factors and then decide how this chapter would serve your story.

1. Is the kidnapping a secret to the reader?

If the boy doesn't know he's been kidnapped, and revealing this secret at some point in the book is meant to surprise the reader (and the boy), then telling the reader right away would steal your tension. If a big drive of the book is to find out what happened to this boy, I'd probably skip the kidnapping chapter. Don't give away the big secret, even if your kidnapping scene is "you don't know who the boy is." Readers are smart and they'll figure it out fast.

When to reveal a past secret can be tough in any story, because if the whole point of the story is to uncover that secret, then as soon as the reader figures it out, the story can drag. That's why movies with huge one-shot reveals are hardly ever re-watchable. Once you know the secret, who cares? It's even worse if the reader figures it out long before the characters does. Then there's no tension to keep the story moving and the reader might get bored and start skimming. So...

2. Do you want the reader to be surprised that the boy was kidnapped?

If yes, skip the chapter. If no, maybe keep it.

3. Is the kidnapping a secret to the boy?

If the reader knows about the kidnapping, and the drive of the story is to show the boy discovering this, then having that information from the start could also sap the tension. However, starting with a kidnapping chapter could work well if the reader is looking at everything from a different perspective and that changes things, such as, if it's a "raised by his kidnappers" type situation.

Dramatic irony is when the reader knows information the characters don't, and half the fun is the anticipation of what will happen when the character finally discovers the truth. It works great when the character is acting on bad information and the reader knows something horrible is going to come as a result. "Learning a horrible truth" usually isn't enough to carry the plot in this situation. It's the results of learning that truth. And what is done because of the lie or misinformation.

If the reader knows something from the start, and a good portion of the book is spent on getting the protagonist to the point when they learn it, there's a risk that everything up to that point can feel like set up. The story hasn't actually started yet in the reader's mind.

If the point is something else, and knowing the boy was kidnapped makes everything that happens mean more on multiple levels because of the truth/lie, then you can create some really great conflicts. 

4. Does knowing the boy was kidnapped make the reader see the story in a new and compelling way, seeing the real meaning to otherwise benign situations that add to the overall tension? 

If yes, keep the chapter. If no, skip it.

In the end you have to look at it and decide if it adds to the story or not. You can do anything you want, break any rule you want, if it serves the story and makes it better. If it hooks the reader and keeps them reading and wondering what will happen next, then it's a good idea.

What do you think?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Back story should be merged in here and there. It's boring when a book starts with a long prolog of back story

    Cold As Heaven

  2. I like these considerations, because there are novels that have a backstory prologue that works. It's the classic structure of a fairy tale, for instance.

  3. Awesome post Janice. I got the answer I was looking for. It seems like the chapter can stay! Yayyyy!

  4. Choosing when to revel a secret to the reader is a tricky one. The dropping of hints and the actual revel.

    In my current WIP I revel the secret in the scene directly before my final scene. I'm hoping it will make the final scene more powerful.

  5. Cold As Heaven: Yeppers. I'm sure there's someone out there who did a good job of it, but there's always that exception that proves the rule, right?

    Chelsey: Right. I think prologues are like adverbs. Nothing wrong with them on their own, and they can be very effective when used well, but they're something that are often used poorly so they get a bad rap.

    Norman: Excellent! Glad I was able to help.

    Sam: Good luck, I hope it works :)