Avoid the unnecessary prologue

I took a week off for the Realm Makers conference. Had a fabulous time with all my fellow SpecFic writers, and got some good feedback on my class about representing multiple languages in speculative fiction. Based on that feedback, I’ll be putting the information into a white paper later this year.

The winners of the awards for Christian Speculative Fiction were announced, with the Clive Staples Award going to Patrick Carr for A Cast of Stones. In the Parable Awards for cover design, second place went to Kirk DouPonce for the cover of Amish Vampires in Space by Kerry Nietz, and first place to Alexandre Rito for the cover of Numb by John Otte.

OK, enough about Realm Makers. Where were we?

Ah, yes, we were talking about structure. Next up on the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist:

Prologue, if used, is necessary and engaging.

On a recent episode of the Writing Excuses podcast, the hosts were asked whether a prologue should be included in one’s proposal when the agent or editor asks for “the first three chapters.” The short answer is yes. The long answer is — if you could omit the prologue and still have your story make sense, then what is the prologue doing there in the first place?

cutting prologues
© Alexey Ostrometski • iStockphoto

Too often, the prologue exists only as backstory. These are the kinds of prologues editors are talking about when they say “don’t use a prologue.” It’s a history lesson at the beginning of your book. The tale of old long ago is no way to hook a reader. Unless, you know, you’re actually writing a history text.

For example, see the prologue in every volume of the Dragonriders of Pern series. I love Anne McCaffrey, but in the early books, the “old long ago” prologue exists only to move her fantasy novels into the science fiction realm by explaining that Pern is really an Earth colony and the dragons are genetically modified. There’s a reason writers are told to resist the urge to explain. It’s because explanation is not story. It’s a lesson. It’s a great whacking chunk of boring narrative. The kind of thing readers skip.

The hero’s origin story likewise does not belong in the prologue. If his background is really an integral part of the story, it will come out gradually, in bits and pieces, as the story progresses. Harry Potter is a good example. You get just enough at the beginning of Book One to understand why he’s living with a mean aunt and uncle, and what you do get is mixed in with some very engaging dialog and narrative. But you don’t really get the full story of his parents until the end of the series.

A good prologue reveals information the reader truly must know, but that must remain unknown to the POV character to heighten suspense. Chapter One of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire could rightly be called a prologue, even though it’s labeled “Chapter One.” That’s because although most of the book is written from Harry’s viewpoint, that sequence is in the omniscient point of view so you can learn things about the villain that Harry doesn’t know. When the reader knows things the POV character doesn’t, that can heighten tension. If it’s not heightening tension—if it’s just explaining stuff—why bother?

Please don’t take this advice to mean “don’t write prologues.” As long as your prologue is necessary and engaging, go for it. Just do all you can to make sure it’s both. For an example of a great prologue, see Chase the Shadows by Brian Reaves. This is a prologue that hits every point. It sets the tone for the book. It reveals information that the protagonist, at the outset, doesn’t have. And it is brilliantly written, full of astounding imagery and visceral sensory details.

To sum up: history lessons, no; engaging drama, yes.

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