Tuesday, September 8, 2009

SAVE THE PROLOGUE! Making Your Prologue Do Its Job

3 full book covers for print books.
And a new, exciting ending for FAERIE.

MOOD: Goal-oriented and focused.
UPDATE: Kitty is doing very well after her surgery, and a cooling fan/laptop stand has saved my crashing laptop. Unfortunately I will be too broke for awhile to buy the bigger hard drive I need so badly.


Saving Prologues can't come close to the importance of fighting fires and saving lives, but I chose this photo to symbolize my topic today, mostly in honor and awe of the amazing fire-fighters who are battling the dangerous blazes in California and around the country right now.

So, what do I mean by 'Save the Prologue? I've told so many authors over the years to ditch their prologues. Why? And why, in spite of that, do I write prologues in my stories?

Prologues aren't bad things. They are just frequently mis-used. They, in fact more hinder a stry than help it. And truthfully, I've mis-used them myself, but always for what I considered a good reason. Not the first one I wrote, though. It was beautiful. Fabulous. It also got in the way of the story. And that right there is the one most important reason to not keep a prologue.

The real question, then, is what do I mean about getting in the way of the story? How does a prologue work, or not work? How can you tell if it is good for the story or not?

By definition, a prologue comes before the story. That makes it the dreaded "backstory". Once upon a time when reading was one of very few forms of entertainment available, people liked long, sometimes slow-paced books. That meant longer time could be spent enjoying them. Much of earlier fiction is like this.

If you pick up THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, for instance, you'll go through 17 pages in the beginning that elaborate history, characters and how they came to be in the area, family trees, and so on. There might be more- I don't know. That's as far as I got with the book on two separate tries. I know there's a great story there. I just didn't have the patience to get to it.

Contrast that with today's action movies and TV, or fast-paced adventure stories. Think of THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER by Tom Clancy. Movie or book, it was gripping from the outset. The book did it better than the movie, in my opinion, but that's because a movie actually needs a little bit of time to get the audience settled in their seats and transported into the movie's world. The audience is captive simply because they went to all this trouble and expense to get there, and they aren't about to walk out. But a book can always be picked up later, so it's easier to put down.

Back story isn't story. Simple as that. If it's story, it isn't truly a prologue. If a book starts out with the history behind the story, not only is the reader getting restless in her seat, she's often being told ahead of time something that can be withheld and create suspense, and therefore be much more intriguing if revealed later, possibly as a secret unveiled. If you tell me in the opening of the book the one thing that makes the story a story, why would I want to read the whole book just to see that unfold? Maybe I would in some books, but I honestly can't think of any.

But when does a prologue work?

A prologue must be intriguing, so much so that the reader simply must continue reading into the story. That means a story question is set up, not aswered. It can be a short history lesson for the story, but only if it fulfills this requirement. It must contribute something valuable to the story, and it must not block any other part of the story.

I used one in APHRODITE'S BREW, first because this is a light, humorous book and I needed a humorous opening. I did need to explain why such a brave and dauntless hero, not to mention loyal, clean, reverent and dutiful, could be driven to hide in Bath just at harvest time when he loved most being home. And the reader needed to see for herself just how scheming and determined his match-making mama was that he could be caught off guard and have to flee to save his hide from matrimony. And the reader needed to know why and how much he detested scandal.

Backstory. Every bit of it. But it's full of action and decision, and character development, all of which lead directly into the story. I didn't want to hide this information and reveal it later because unless the reader knows these things, she might see the hero as a silly wimp. She'd know better later, but that's too late.

In my current work, FAERIE, which is a medieval paranormal romance, I need the prologue to help develop the interface between fantasy and reality. Building the world in a fantasy sometimes takes up more room, but it's still a romance so I can't take up much. The scene takes place between two secondary but very important characters who are deciding something about the hero, who stands close by, unsuspecting that his entire life is about to be changed by a promise broken and another fulfilled. The reader may get the feeling of suspense, and when the old crone leaves by walking through the wall, the paranormal theme is firmly set.

It's backstory to the true plot. But it fits in directly with the next scene, the first chapter, which ties hero and heroine, plus the two secondary characters, the king and the crone, together.

In my vampire story, DAMNED AND DANGEROUS, though, the prologue became a first chapter because it is the true beginning. It's when my "Hero's Hero" protagonist meets the vampyr and the dilemma my hero must resolve begins.

That's the clue: A story begins when the story's first conflict is set forth. I like my romances best if hero and heroine can meet in the first chapter, but often when the secondary plot line is very strong, that doesn't work out as well. In adventure stories, or strongly paranormal stories, those other elements have to fit in well, and this can slow down the romance. Sometimes establishing the story world in a prologue can accomplish this. It's a trade-off, and sometimes a very difficult balance to achieve.

It's best if a prologue is very short. A maximum of three pages. And yes, I broke that rule too. I'd say, if you're having trouble deciding whether the beginning is a prologue or a first chapter, go for the first chapter if you can. If you can't be sure to re-evaluate it, in particular asking yourself if you're giving away anything you can withhold and reveal later for better effect.

In other words, a successful prologue must do one thing: move the story forward, not explain the past. If it does this, and especially if it propels the story better because of it, that's when you should keep it.


  1. My current WIP has a prologue. It's alternative history, and the prologue shows the point, 25 years before Chapter One, where my world's history takes a different path from the real world's. I've argued with anti-prologue types who either say it doesn't *matter* where/how my timeline diverged, or that I should find a way to work it in without a prologue. I think they're wrong on the first point, that alternative history readers *do* care what made the story world different. And there's no good way to work the information into the main body of the story, because from the characters' perspective, the event that changed the timeline is a trivial incident none of them would have even known about, much less had cause to remark upon twenty-five years after the fact. So my prologue stays, and I just took care to make Chapter One's hook at least as strong as the prologue's in case some readers skip it!

  2. That's what I had in mind, Susan. There are some very good reasons to have a prologue. First, you are dealing with an alternative world, and only you know the parameters of that world until you tell the readers what they are. You have to do that somewhere. And second, you're speaking of, as you say, a trivial incident, something too obscure for most readers to know.

    It sounds much like what I did with the king and crone. One thing I did that helped me justify my choice was, unlike my usual story format, I added the king's point of view, not just hero's and heroine's. The king's viewpoint appears three times, along with his own sub-plot, although the sub-plot is mostly seen indirectly though others.

    So mine stays, too! And I can't say everyone will agree with me, or even that I'm right. But I do know I believe this is the way this story has to be told.

  3. Susan, I'm currently reading a book for review, Lisa Hendrix's IMMORTAL OUTLAW, which reminded me of yet another way to do an effective prologue. She doesn't call it a Prologue, but The Legend. This is the second book in the series, which creates another problem: how to relay the past that was revealed in the previous book without being tediously repetitive. I'll be interviewing her hero next week, and say more then.

    Another author who used this technique beautifully is Shana Abe, in THE SMOKE THIEF.

    This is in a way what you are doing.

  4. And second, you're speaking of, as you say, a trivial incident, something too obscure for most readers to know.

    Well, I'm hoping it won't be trivial to my readers--what I did is kill off a significant historical figure years before he became important. But there's no reason for my characters to know or care about the death. They don't know anyone is missing from their world, as it were.

  5. It sounds to me like a vital part of your world-building that must come before the story. For example, a world where Napoleon died at age 5 would have become vastly different in the next half century. I can't see any other way to start a story without that setting being explained to the reader, who would comprehend the very difference that would make no sense to the characters in the story.

  6. It's not Napoleon, but I've thought about that one! I think by the time he rose to prominence, France had passed the point where it could've become a stable republic or constitutional monarchy along American or British lines, so there still would've been a dictator...but who, and what would his kingdom/empire have looked like? Maybe I'll try my hand at that one someday if alternative history turns out to be my niche...

  7. If you do bump off Napoleon, be sure and read FOUCHE: THE UNPRINCIPLED PATRIOT by Hubert Cole, published in 1971. I agree, France would have disintegrated to a dictatorship anyway. I'd put my money on Robespierre to grab the reins if Fouche hadn't seen to his downfall, but I don't believe Fouche wanted to take the helm, himself.

    I'll be dying to read your story, and one of these days I'll get pushy about it!


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