It is with great trepidation that I am about to publicly disagree with a cultural icon.
I am talking about Sound of Music – one of the most awarded films of all time. Five Oscars and The Golden Globe for Best film can’t be wrong. And there were many, many more accolades. It’s one of those films you either love or hate. Most people love it. It’s very dated now, but watching it at Christmas has become a family tradition. Everyone sings along with Julie Andrews and the kids.
Ok – so where do I disagree? It’s with Do Re Mi… and the first line of the song.
Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.
(Go on – admit it… you just sang that, didn’t you?)
Of course, I’m talking here about where to start a book. I’ve done a lot of critiques for emerging authors who do just what Julie Andrews suggested. They start the book at the very beginning and give the reader time to get to know the characters and their backstory. Then do something to launch the story.
I was guilty of the same thing myself when I started out. A book is a character’s journey and therefore, I thought, we need to really explain and understand the starting point before we set out. I no longer think that.
I think it’s more important to be presented with the characters challenges and fears and conflict as early as possible. The reasons for them – the backstory – can be drip fed into the story at various places throughout the book. Sometimes seeing a character reacting to a situation can work better if we don’t know the backstory. It we haven’t started at the very beginning.
When I was starting out, someone once told me to remove the first three chapters of a book I was writing. I was horrified – but now realise that person was right. I had started the book in the wrong place. And do you know how I knew? I had written a prologue.
Now – prologues are a cause for much debate. In or out?
I tend to think prologues are of two types. One is a genuine flash back to a time and/or place outside the main part of the novel – to an event that will shape the novel. I think this sort of prologue can work.
BUT – I’ve also read prologues that are a flash forward… to an event or action later in the book. The book then builds to that prologue. I’m far less happy with this idea. We all look for the ‘hook’ to drag the reader into our story. If we have to steal a scene from later in the book to be the prologue, that makes me think the book has started in the wrong place. Maybe that prologue should simply be chapter one—and the story can just move forward from there.
Possibly the most famous prologue is the crawl from the opening titles of Star Wars – the first film, which was later re-titled as Episode four.
In the crawl, George Lucas tells us everything we need to know to be in the right head space for the film. He originally wrote six paragraphs of four sentences each. This was edited to the final sequence as seen in the film – three paragraphs. 83 words.
He didn’t start at the beginning. In fact – when you look at the Indiana Jones Films, and American Graffiti and probably others, you see that Lucas never starts at the beginning.
Stars Wars won seven Oscars – The Sound of Music won five. And now I think of it, The Sound of Music didn’t start at the very beginning either. It could have started when Maria entered the convent to find it was the wrong place for her. But it didn’t. It started as she left the convent.
So – what do you think? Is the very beginning a very good place to start? Do prologues work for you?
Are you a Sound of Music or a Star Wars kinda person?