craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman
As middle grade writers, we don’t have a lot of time to hook the reader. We can rarely start with three pages of setting, or with a lot of backstory. We need to start in the middle of things, but too much in the middle of things and readers get lost or don’t care. If there’s an explosion at the beginning of Chapter 1, but readers don’t know anything about any of the people involved, they might be shocked, but they will rarely be moved. Making that incident cause a powerful emotional response requires the reader knowing the character.
Coe Booth’s middle grade novel Kinda Like Brothers starts in an effective place because she intrigues the reader in the brief prologue and then starts one tick before the main inciting incident in the first chapter.
On the interwebs, you’ll find a lot of conflicting information about prologues. Many agents say never start with a prologue. Some say you can start with a prologue if it’s necessary to the story. Whichever advice you take, a prologue should never confuse the reader or simply provide a long backstory.
In Kinda Like Brothers, the prologue is half a page long. It introduces the main character, Jarrett, through his narrative voice, and it shows us Kevon, packing up to leave while he thinks Jarrett is asleep:
September 4, 1:05 A.M.
He’s in the corner of the room throwing stuff in that stupid army bag he got, trying to be real quiet. It’s, like, after one o’clock in the morning, and he probably thinks I’m asleep. But I’m not. Never was. I’m wide awake, watching every move he makes.
Kevon starts looking around the room like maybe he forgot something. Real fast, I close my eyes so he won’t see me spying on him, and I don’t open them till I hear him leave the room.
And I’m, like, good.
If it was up to me, he would disappear and never come back. (1)
The reader might ask a few questions: What is the relationship between Kevon and the narrator? Why is Kevon leaving? What has Kevon done that the narrator hopes he never comes back?
We clearly know how the narrator feels about Kevon in this moment. He’s suspicious of him, and he despises him. We also know that the narrator doesn’t have a say in whether Kevon stays gone. The final sentence qualifier “If it was up to me” makes the narrator’s ultimate powerlessness clear..
Chapter 1 immediately answers the first question, what is the relationship between Kevon and the narrator? The prologue scene comes back late in the book (page 233), right at the opening of the climactic scene. So we don’t know why Kevon is leaving until near the end of the book, and we don’t know if the narrator gets his wish until the very end of the book. The bulk of the story is concerned with the final question, what has Kevon done that the narrator hopes he never comes back? Because Booth answers the first question so quickly, readers can be patient to know the answers to the other questions the prologue raises.
The Inciting Incident
In Kinda Like Brothers, the inciting incident occurs when Kevon arrives in Chapter 2. One could argue, however, that the inciting incident is when Jarrett finds out that Kevon is coming; that moment occurs two-thirds of the way through Chapter 1. Either way, Kevon’s arrival is the thing that kicks the story into action.
Preparing for the Inciting Incident
If a nameless Jarrett had answered the doorbell, buzzed up nameless guests, and called out, “Mom, they’re here.” We’d have more questions than we did in the prologue AND none of our initial questions would have been answered before we had new ones.
Instead, Booth starts one tick before Jarrett arrives, establishing the setting, characters, and relationships before we get to the moment Kevon arrives. And because of this preparation, we know how Jarrett feels about Kevon’s arrival, and we have some idea of why his arrival is significant for Jarrett.
Chapter 1 starts by drawing attention to when the story starts: “If this was a movie, it would start the night he got here, back at the beginning of August.” Readers can assume the “he” is Kevon, because the narrative voice is the same in the prologue and the opening of chapter one, and Kevon is the only other character who the “he” could possibly refer to. Booth also establishes the timeframe of the story–from the beginning of August until the prologue events at the beginning of September.
Next, Booth establishes the time of day: “I was trying to sleep when I heard, ‘Jarret. Get up.’ We can assume it’s night time, and we know there is another speaker–who remains mysterious until the next paragraph, allowing us to slip into Jarrett’s groggy state.
The next two sentences clear up questions we might have about the time and speaker: “It was still the middle of the night, and I probably hadn’t even been asleep for more than an hour. But my mom’s voice was getting louder and louder.” We know a specific time, about an hour after Jarrett’s bedtime, and who the speaker is, his mom.
Soon we find out that Jarrett has to get his room ready because a caseworker is coming over. Jarrett’s mom takes in foster babies, and they often arrive in the middle of the night. He’s initially confused about why his room needs to be cleaned. We also find out that something happened that day that made Jarrett think he’s stupid; he has overheard a conversation between a teacher and the principal that makes him think he’s “officially stupid.”
Finally, four pages into the chapter, we–and Jarrett–find out why this night has been unusual.
“Can’t you at least tell me what’s going on? And can you tell me what this has to do with my room because I don’t get this.”
“The agency called and they’re bringing over a baby,” she said. “A little girl. She was injured this evening and those poor kids have been in the emergency room all night.”
“There’s more than one?”
“The baby has an older brother. That’s why we need your extra bed.”
“No way!” I said. “Why does he have to–?”
“Calm down, Jarrett.”
Easy for her to say. Why should I calm down? She wanted me to sleep in my room with some little kid I didn’t know who was probably gonna cry all night and pee in the bed. “How old is this kid anyway?” I asked.
My mouth flew open. “He’s older than me? That’s not even fair!” (5)
This section conveys pivotal information: they’re getting a baby and her brother, and that brother is older than Jarrett. We also know how Jarrett feels from his tone (“Why should I calm down?” “That’s not even fair!”). Because of the prologue, we know that Jarrett will go from this sense of unfairness to deeply despising Kevon. The intensity of feeling changes, but the quality of feeling stays the same (though there will be variation and change to Jarrett’s emotions through the story).
The “in the moment” feel of both the prologue and the first chapter, along with the first person narration and interiority, helps us connect with Jarrett–he is resentful that he his mom is always “pushing me to the side for one of the babies,” and his is shocked and resentful that there will be a kid older than him sharing his room. But we also get a sense in this first chapter that Jarrett doesn’t have a lot of say in what goes on in his home. That sense of “If it were up to me” from the prologue carries through the first chapter.
Why it Works
Booth effectively draws the reader in with her short prologue, and it works because it raises some specific questions, one of which gets answered right away in Chapter 1, and because it shares a narrative tone with the first chapter.
Chapter 1 effectively draws us into the story itself because it starts one tick before the inciting incident–really only about 30 or 40 minutes before Kevon arrives. But those 30 or 40 minutes, and the six pages it takes to get through them, establishes the setting, characters, relationships, and timeframe for the entire story. And most importantly, those pages draw us into Jarrett’s story so that when Kevon arrives we know why it matters.
Action: In your work-in-progress, examine your opening. Do you start too close to the inciting incident? Too far away? If you have a prologue, does it make the reader ask specific questions that get answered in the whole of the book (one or more of them right away)?
Read the openings of a number of books in your genre. Examine where those stories start and whether the opening is effective in both drawing the reader in and setting up the novel as a whole.
Anne-Marie Strohman (editor) writes picture books and is working on a middle grade novel. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She lives in the mostly-sunny city of Sunnyvale with her husband and two children. She is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.