Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Writing the Prologue--Part 1
The "P" word. Prologue. It tends to have a bad reputation in fiction. For good reason. Too many poorly used prologues find their way into published novels. Readers know this. They've been burned too many times. The result--they don't even read a prologue. They'll skip right over it, believing they haven't missed a thing. Many times they're right.
As for aspiring authors, most agents/editors tell them to avoid prologues altogether. This is because 95% of new authors who use prologues do so wrongly.
Prologues--written by both aspiring and published authors--too often are seen as fixes for a weak first chapter: "Readers won't understand chapter one/empathize with my characters without it. I have to set the stage."
If you think you need a prologue in order to get your story moving, don't use one. Find the weaknesses in your first chapter(s) and fix them instead. When I tell aspiring authors their prologue isn't "necessary," this is what I mean. By the time we finish discussing how to strengthen their first chapter, they usually see that the prologue should be nixed.
However--here's the oxymoron. The best prologues aren't necessary to start the story.
You'll hear many state the "necessity" rule: "Don't use a prologue unless the story absolutely requires it." That's the wrong approach, for it leads to the problem mentioned above. Far too many authors will argue their story does require a prologue. I advocate the opposite: Don't even consider using a prologue until your first chapter is a strong opening on its own. Most of the time, when you've accomplished that, the temptation to add a prologue goes away.
The best prologues don't explain or set up the main story, they enhance it. They add some sort of intrigue or emotion. Or they set the tone in a unique way.
When you do use a prologue, here are two basics:
1. It should be (A) compelling, and (B) short .
2. It should be removed from the main story by either time or space.
Think of a prologue not as explanation or exposition of what's to come--but as what it is: the opening for your novel.
"Well, duh," you say. But we forget just how critical that opening is in selling a novel. When we sit down to write a story, we should picture the reluctant buyer in the bookstore who's never heard of us. That's the most critical person you're writing the opening for, not the readers who already know you and like your work. Here's the typical browser scenario:
1. Spots your novel. Something about the cover/title makes her pick it off the shelf. (This is why covers and titles are so important.)
2. Turns book over, reads back cover copy. (Better be written well.) If she likes it ...
3. Opens book. Reads opening line. (This is why you want a strong one.) If it's good ...
4. Reads paragraph. If that's compelling ...
5. Reads first page. If that's really good...
6. Buys book.
This whole browsing time? Around 30-60 seconds. 30-60 seconds.
Is the opening to your prologue compelling enough to sell your book to that browser? Is that critical first page really where you want to dump a bunch of backstory that "sets up" your first chapter(s)?
If you use a prologue, it needs to thrum with excitement of some sort. It can be a high action scene. It can be an outwardly quiet scene, but intense in emotion. It can even be mere character narrative, but the voice has to absolutely grab the reader's attention and not let go. The point is to capture the reader's imagination--not give information. Don't think in terms of answering questions in your opening. Think in terms of raising questions. Questions keep the reader turning pages. (For more on this, check the archives for the teaching on "Backstory.")
The very word "prologue" tells the reader this isn't part of the main story.
Let's say a browser buys your book. Major victory! Now he sits down to read it. The back cover has laid out the premise. The premise contains the inciting incident--the first major point of conflict that kicks off the story. Your reader begins your novel knowing this incident is going to occcur--and he's waiting for it. He also knows, simply from reading novels over the years, that the prologue isn't likely to contain this incident. He's gunning to see the real story kick off--and he may not wait all that long. (Some readers have more patience than others. Womens fiction readers in general will allow more time. Suspense readers are notoriously impatient--they want havoc wreaked, and they want it now.)
If a prologue stretches on for pages, the reader is thinking, "Sheesh, and I haven't even started the first chapter yet. What if that first chapter takes awhile to get to the inciting incident?" He could find himself bored enough not to continue. And even if he does keep reading, he's likely to be thinking, "Man, slow start. Sure hope it picks up."
You may have read some long prologues that you liked. That's fine. Doesn't mean you should try it. It's tricky enough writing a prologue that works in the first place. Gets even trickier when you write a long one. I'm starting my 19th book, and I haven't tackled a long prologue yet. Maybe after I've written 50 ... But I doubt it.
Tomorrow--Time and Space (which may not be as obvious as they seem), plus some examples of when I've used prologues and why.
Read Part 2