Prologues – this side of hell

December 21, 2010

I understand why readers hate prologues and skip them. Since December is my Madcap Reading Month, I’m shuffling through requested partials and fulls until my eyes are bloodshot and I’m begging to mainline good gin. So far, we have one contract offer – not bad to my way of thinking. But the rest? Well, they have this little problem…

Prologues.

They can be a lovely thing or the blight upon all who read. This batch appears as though many authors drank from the same watering hole and collectively decided their stories needed prologues. I’ve never seen so many of the little blighters, and it’s worrisome because not a single one of them belongs there.

Not. One.

My little red pen has slashed through virtually every single one with these words: WHAT’S THE POINT?

And that is exactly the point. You don’t write a prologue because it feels good or your elbow itches. You write one because it belongs there. Prologues have to adhere to the same rules of good writing and story organization that your entire manuscript does – meaning that there is a reason for its existence.

Prologues, party of one

All too often prologues behave like the author’s private playground, and she is the only one who understands how to get on the monkey bars and everyone else is standing around, scratching their heads wondering how she did that.

What do I mean by this? Let’s say your story takes place in New York and centers on Character Jane finding a job in a tattoo parlour, but your prologue is about Character Jane as a mere infant and her favorite nanny used to read Playgirl. Holy Helvetica, Batman, what does this have to do with the main story? What on earth was she thinking?

Now if I ask the author, she can actually tell me. But her real problem is that she’s too close to her story and can’t see how unnecessary it is. She understands her Character Jane’s backstory and feels compelled to include it because she believes this information is integral to understanding the character. But what about the reader? Do they feel that same need to read it? No.

And that’s why readers skip prologues.

Calling Mr. Info Dump

I remember this guy in high school who ate whatever was left sitting on the lunch tables. Needless to say, he didn’t exhibit a svelte silhouette. He was the school vacuum cleaner. And that’s another problem with prologues. They’re often a book’s vacuum cleaner. Don’t know where to put all this errant information? Hey, no problemo…let Mr. Prologue eat it.

So before Jane or Joe Reader can get into the meat of your story, you toss all the leftover food that you couldn’t eat and stick it in the most vulnerable place in your book – the BEGINNING. So Joe and Jane reader are filled up to their back teeth with so much garbage that they need to purge. And they do this by putting YOUR BOOK back on the shelf.

And that’s why readers skip prologues.

Prologue info dumps are classic among new writers because they usually haven’t developed the art of intertwining information with the narrative. It takes practice and experience to seamlessly introduce information and keep the action going. And when you’re trying to show that you’re an experienced writer, this particular foible will expose you faster than the beagle can fall asleep.

So…?

So what do you do? Well, the safe bet is to simply not use a prologue. Just like surgery, a scalpel is a dangerous thing in the hands of a neophyte. Be safe and avoid them until you’re further along in your writing career. Will a prologue result in instant death rejection? No, but I’ll sure be scratching my head, AND I’ll be looking at your pages with a much tougher eye.

If your writing sings, then I will suggest that you ditch the prologue and sprinkle the information throughout your book. Or maybe you’ll read this and do it yourself.

Necessary

There are times when you need a prologue. My novel, Donovan’s Paradigm has a prologue. I wrote one because I needed to explain why one of my MCs reacts the way he does when confronted with a certain situation that is pivotal to the plot. It’s information the reader must have so that the story makes sense. If I had sprinkled that scene into the main story, it would have come out as backstory, which would have killed the emotional impact. In a word, I consciously wrote the prologue because it had to be there.

Brevity

Chapter length prologues is something I’m seeing fairly regularly. Prologues were never meant to be that long. Dictionary.com defines Prologues as, “a preliminary discourse; a preface or introductory part of a discourse, poem, or novel.”

They’re little precursors to the main story, with heavy emphasis on little.

Expectations…Say, huh?

Avoid making an editor reach for a bottle of tequila by always being clear about what your prologue is saying. I’ve read many prologues that forced me to re-read them because I was convinced I’d missed something. If I can’t figure it out, then I know the reader won’t either. The reason they weren’t clear is because it had zip all to do with the author’s pitch. If your book is about vampire cleaning women, then a prologue with were-beagles makes little sense. It’s a “say, huh?” moment. There needs to be a tie-in to the story that the reader can follow.

Parting Gift

As I said at the beginning, I really do like prologues because they can be delicious in the hands of a gifted writer. Before you succumb to the urge to write a prologue, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the point?
  • Is this information vital to the reader in order to understand the book?
  • Is this the only place where I can impart that information?
  • Is it short – two or three pages?

If you go into writing a prologue with clear intent, then you can avoid resting on this side of hell. To do otherwise is to invite red pointy pitchforks and eternal flame…and bad margaritas.


Prologue abuse

July 24, 2009

There is often a lot of confusion about prologues and the service they perform in books. As an editor who doesn’t mind prologues, I thought I’d give my two cent’s worth as to what flips my Vickie Secrets.

A prologue, as defined by Dictionary.com is:

“a preliminary discourse; a preface or introductory part of a discourse, poem, or novel.”

This is important to remember because I’ve seen many prologues over the years that don’t come anywhere close to this definition. A prologue is the beginning of your book, so it should never be a head-scratcher.

Raison d’être: The first order of business is to determine whether a prologue is even appropriate. Just like everything else in your story, your prologue should have a reason for being there. What I find is that most prologues don’t serve any purpose, or they’re info dumps, and that’s why so many readers tend to skip them and most editors tend to scream.

I look for prologues to contain information that absolutely cannot be put anywhere else and is integral to fully understanding the plot. For me, there is nothing worse than reading a prologue and saying to the beagle, “Gee, I wonder what that was all about.” If I feel that way, it’s a sure bet readers will as well, and that’s a reaction an editor can ill afford. Logically speaking, it’s not a good idea to open a book with something that doesn’t make sense or lead to a logical place because it won’t sell books. Because of that, any editor worth their salt will either toss a prologue of this nature, or make the author rewrite it.

Many prologues I’ve read have an artistic or philosophical bent that did nothing to create that all-important set-up. Or they teased. Depending on how the teaser is written, this can either hook or irritate. I’m usually irritated.

Logical: I look for prologues that have a beginning, middle, and an end. Something that just hangs there like a wet booger won’t make an impact because it’s incomplete. The ending of your prologue has to make sense. I’ve read prologues that didn’t make any sense until I got to the end of the book. By that time, I’d forgotten it, so whatever impact the author had hoped to make with that prologue was reduced to a dull thud.

Show vs. Tell: Yes, I always yammer on about this little beast, and I do so because there’s so much abuse. I look for prologues that show because these prologues can be elusive enough without adding to the problem. Remember, this is the first face of your book, so a prologue must hook your reader. Tell keeps readers at arm’s length.

Tell: He was angry seeing her again.

Show: His organs singed from the same noxious fumes that burned in his gut every time he saw her.

If you have an entire prologue that’s nothing but tell, readers are going to fall asleep because there are no tactile references that align us with your character and whatever information you’re trying to impart.

Length: I look for prologues to be short and sweet – a couple pages. Many aren’t, and they go on for pages and pages. These shouldn’t be chapter length. If they are, perhaps that is your first chapter – or they need to be edited down with a scalpel.

Tool or Artistry? As I said before, I feel prologues must be essential. If they aren’t then what purpose do they serve? I don’t view them as places where the author should take artistic license or be arbitrary. I view them as a tool. Many authors use prologues as their own private playgrounds that make little sense to their readers, and that’s another reason why many agents and editors abhor them and many readers skip them.

So if you’re inclined to write a prologue, be mindful of your intent and what you’re trying to convey. Otherwise, I have to give them to the beagle for her angry time-out corner.


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