Everyone tends to like things to be done a certain way, generally their way! That’s not necessarily problematic, it’s a matter of placing your own mark on what you’re achieving. Some of the best novels have broken the rules, some of worst ones have decimated the rules. Fashions governing what is acceptable also change over time, leaving writers sitting in the middle of raging arguments, wondering which direction they should be taking and what it will do to their sales.
One of the debates I’ve been reading up on, is “forget about writing prologues, no one reads them anyway. They are just a frustrating delay.” I can see the point, but I am still scratching my head and considering that to be a sweeping generalisation, rather than solid advice. Could prologue bashing be part of the reason why are turned off them? If we keep seeing them reported as bad writing, the force of repetition can lead to us adopting the same negative view, whether it is biased, erroneous, or not. We need to think for ourselves.
A well-written prologue can be an effective story hook. I always read the prologue and epilogue. I’ve always liked them. They can set the scene for a story and contain gems of information I can’t understand the book without. I particularly like the ones which talk about a future event, that motivate me to dive into the novel to see how it comes about. My curiosity is aroused. Please note the words well-written. Actually, note them again. Poor writing is the entire basis of the prologue problem.
Have a think about this further. Television programs, such as The Big Bang Theory, are structured to include parts that act very much like a prologue and epilogue. If you are an avid television watcher, you are being conditioned to expect that structure. There is a ‘prologue,’ or teaser at the start; the front credits roll and then the body of the episode begins. At the very end, there is a small, comedic part you never want to miss, which works as an epilogue. Every episode is the same. You expect it to be.
The quickest way to determine the effectiveness of a prologue, on a fair book-by-book basis, is if you can give just your prologue to a reader and they start to care about the characters and want to read more to see what happens or happened, it’s working for you.
Below is a summary of all the arguments about prologues so you can determine your own fate.
- You can put specific events under a spotlight to emphasize their importance.
- You can talk to the reader from a different point of view than the rest of the novel is written in. For example, instead of third person, you may speak from first person as an onlooker, or one of the characters.
- You can start to build solid characterisation, motivation, suspense and plot with a focus on one pivotal element.
- If, like me, you are a science fiction and/or fantasy writer and need to world build, a prologue can familiarise your reader with place, science and customs. Just keep it interesting and adding benefit to the story. Don’t info dump! If there are parts of the world you can’t introduce through dialogue, this may be an effective way to set the scene.
- They can be used as lazy information dumps, rather than building proper story. For example, you can write far too much about a character’s past, bypassing show don’t tell and boring your reader. Try a glossary or build these elements into your story properly.
- If it doesn’t make you care about the characters or get you interested in the story, cull it!
- If you can understand the story without the prologue, you don’t need it, you are wasting time and paper.
- Due to the abuse of prologues, many traditional editors may reject your work as you have included one.
- If you put in plot points which leave the reader hanging for a very long time before the answers are revealed, you can divide their attention and frustrate them.
- Keep it short and write in active voice, not passive terms. Prologues can be a single paragraph or a single sentence. Length is up to you.
- It must be written in the same spirit and style as the novel, or it looks out of place.
- It was stated in one article that it should read like a short story, but without an ending. The ending is your novel.
- Both the prologue and chapter one must hook the reader in, just as powerfully. Both have to work hard, or they don’t work at all.
- It must be distinctive from the rest of the novel in terms of time or point of view, otherwise it’s a chapter you stashed in a silly place.
So what parts of a novel do I skip? Prefaces, Forwards, Dedications, Acknowledgements and most Introductions, especially lengthy ones. They have no story value and unless I adore the author and they can teach me more about them, I skip over the pages. I’ve always seen them as the part that is written for the Author’s benefit or as a courtesy. But that’s just me…
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