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


Timothy Fish said...

You state that suspense readers want havoc wreaked now. I think we can generalize this and say that all readers want conflict to begin on page one, even if the inciting incident doesn’t occur until several pages later. By this token, a good prologue will have conflict as will a good first chapter (even if it is a fight with a pencil sharpener).

It isn’t a book, but the movie Miss Congeniality provides a good example of a prologue. It begins with a girl fighting on the playground at school, defending the honor of a boy, who then makes it clear that he doesn’t want a girl fighting for him. There is crisis in the scene, which helps, but what makes it great is that it deals with the central conflict of the movie, a tough as nails FBI agent trying to find her place in a world that likes women to be beautiful.

A good opening to a story, whether with a prologue or otherwise, helps us see the current status quo and why it has to change. When a prologue is used, it may tell us a little more about why the status quo is what it is, but it still needs to show us that the status quo creates conflict for the characters.

Cathleen said...

I wonder if the reason aspiring novelists often want to use a prologue is because movies make such frequent use of them. There is an opening scene--such as the one in Miss Congeniality--and then the action flashes forward or flashes back and the plot begins. Would you address the difference between the two forms of story telling? Why is it such a common device in movies and to be approached with such caution in novels?

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Cathleen, screenwriting is an entirely different medium. For one thing, someone who pays to see a movie won't tend to walk out after the opening scene. Whereas a reader can easily put a book down and not continue.

Timothy Fish said...

They are different mediums, but there are many similarities in all types of storytelling. All stories are about change, and the early scenes of a movie or early scenes of a book must show the situation the character is in prior to anything changing. The “prologue” for Miss Congeniality works because it helps show that Sandra’s character has always had a romance problem. I would hate to think that authors include prologues only because they see other people using them in movies or otherwise. I believe every author should have a justifiable reason for the decision to include, or not include, a prologue rather than doing it because it is cool.

Anonymous said...

Extremely helpful. I've got a fantastically cinematic opening scene that I just love, for Book II of my quadtych. But the scene began life as a prologue that just never seemed right. And then the other day it became the opening scene. It still didn't feel right. The next scene was going to be my Lead in the fight and crisis of his life. He was then going to basically ask "wha' hoppen?" to cause all this strife in his about-to-end life. And then he was going to go back and pick up the story and tell it in first person. He would then eventually wend his way back into the crisis scene that prompted him to ask "wha' hoppen?" And then he'd be back in his present, and finish his development into his denouement. However, I now believe I see agree that the opener must absolutely reflect organically what the story and the Lead are all about---right away. After the cover, the blurbs (and my cool portrait), the reader will Expect to see certain things. This is the hardest job I ever had. It was easier getting shot, or beating that train to the crossing. But, Yeehaw!