books with Athena

books with Athena

Monday, January 25, 2010

DON'T SHOOT YOURSELF IN THE FONT: KILL THAT PROLOGUE!

Beginning writers love prologues. My first novel had one. I’ll bet yours does too.

And why not? Prologues are the quickest way to set the scene and establish the mood and tone of your novel. They allow us to snuggle into a fictional world and get comfy before the action takes over, like listening to the overture of a symphony. We’ve read lots of good novels with prologues.

Although maybe we kind of skimmed them. Or skipped them. At least until after we got into the story. Or never read them at all. A recent poll of my writers’ group found only one person who actually reads the prologue first. What about you? Be honest.

Here are some reasons why prologues aren’t such a great idea.

1) People skip them. (See above.)

2) The reader has to start the story twice. Just as she’s getting into the story, she’s hurled to another time or place, often with a whole new set of characters. This is annoying. Annoy a reader at your peril.

3) When an agent asks for the first chapter, you’ve got a major dilemma. Send the actual chapter one—where the plot starts—or that gorgeous, poetic prologue?

4) Agents hates them, Precious, they HATES them. Here are some recent tweets on the subject:

From Colleen Lindsay:
“In pages that accompany queries, I have only once found an attached prologue to be necessary to the story.”

From Jenny Bent:
“At least 50% of prologues that I see in sample material don't work and aren't necessary. Make sure there's a real reason to use one.”

From Ginger Clark:
“Prologues: I am, personally, not a fan. I think they either give away too much, or ramp up tension in a kind of "cheating" manner.”

And in an article for Writer’s Digest earlier this year, Chuck Sambuchino quoted two agents who gave their opinions even more bluntly.

From Andrea Brown:
“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”

From Laurie McLean:
“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give backstory chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”

Even the usually ultra-tactful Nathan Bransford blogged this:
“A prologue is 3-5 pages of introductory material that is written while the author is procrastinating from writing a more difficult section of the book.”

Ouch.

“But I spent like, months on it!” you wail. “It explains everything. My book NEEDS that prologue.

Does it really? Try removing it. Read chapter one. Does it make sense? Could you dribble in that backstory from the prologue into the story later—while the actual plot is going on?

Here’s what I’ve finally figured out. The prologue isn’t the overture: it’s the tuning-up—a warm-up for the WRITER. Like a character sketch, it belongs in your book journal—not the finished project.

So go ahead and write one to get your writing juices flowing. Use it to get to know your book’s basic elements. It can be mined later for character sketches, backstory and world building.

But EDIT IT OUT of the final draft.

Yes, I know it hurts. But you want agents and editors to fall in love with your work. So why—as Miss Snark was wont to say—shoot yourself in the font?

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Cutting out the prologue will make your novel stronger, too.

And it might just get you some literary representation.

24 comments:

  1. Love the post title, and love #4. You rocks, my precious!

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  2. I skipped the prologue in my first - I just used three chapters of backstory! ;) Doh!

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  3. Funny and interesting :-). I'm apparently in the minority that likes to read the prologue. However, it has to be short and sweet. Those two-pagers shout "book avoidance" louder than a lame cover pic.

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  4. Thankfully I took my prologue out before I started querying this round. Maybe I'll get an agent read this time instead of a form rejection.

    Great post as usual.

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  5. Great collection of agent thoughts on prologues Anne. I never thought of actually USING prologues to tune myself up. I don't use them in my story as a rule but as a tune-up device...kind of neat. Thanks for a great post.

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  6. well i always read prologues. They don't typically bother me.

    Also i almost always write one as well. But then, i cut them out. You're completely correct - prologues are like training wheels, useful when you're getting to know a new story, but at some point they need to come off.

    Unless you're writing a frame story. Then you need that prologue and epilogue.

    #4 was also my favorite - what's taters, precious?

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  7. Kill the prologue? Amputate the scene setter: the parasitic twin leeching on the larger, more complete, sibling?
    The anti agents do present a united front. :)

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  8. Guilty here. I started with a prologue. But I read prologues! I didn't realize other people skipped them.

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  9. Whenever I come here I am reminded of how much I have to learn. Sometimes I think my life and views are all prologue and summation.

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  10. Excellent post! I have a prologue but now i'm sort of wondering if i just have a short chapter 1? In my 'prologue' there isn't an infodump and basically what happens is essential to the plot (and happens chronological/linear too)

    What are the characteristics of a prologue?

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  11. I always read Prologues! And I'm gulity of writing them too. Sometimes.

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  12. I'm also an "always" prologue reader. The author wrote it for a reason, I figure. Forewords, acknowledgments, sometimes I skip. But a prologue has always seemed like part of the story to me.

    My first novel had a prologue. Except not really, because eventually, after some editing, I realized it was just my first chapter with the word 'prologue' instead of 'chapter one'.

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  13. Emily, it sounds as if you can easily call your opener "chapter one," which is what agents suggest if your "prologue" is essential to the story.

    Nothing wrong with a short opening chapter. Short chapters are reader friendly, which is why James Patterson, Inc. and his stable of co-writers always write 3-page chapters. The man may not be a great writer, but he knows what a reader wants.

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  14. Teebore, your comment came in just as I was writing the one above. Your realization is just what I was talking about to Emily: A prologue that is essential to the plot can usually be made into a first chapter, so it's way easier to call it that and make the agents and editors happy.

    But it sounds as if there are a lot more prologue readers out there than editors realize.

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  15. I have never liked reading prologues, so I don't write them. As a reader, I want to get right down into the story, and simply can't be bothered with the prologue if there is one.

    In fact, usually I'll skip it and only come back later to read it if I start to get confused. Usually I don't, which means the prologue is non-essential.

    Why would I want to write something readers would generally skip over?

    Thanks for this!

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  16. @Falen I think there are lots of other ways to write a frame story without doing a prologue.

    Also, I think it's not so much that prologues are bad, just that we have a fixed idea of what they are: thickly written, slightly mystical/cryptic, almost always too cheesy for its own good. Personally I always read prologues, but I'm usually not happy with them.

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  17. I read this a few days ago and really enjoyed it. I read some of the points to my husband who suggested I put a prologue in my novel. He just smiled and shrugged. :)

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  18. Lots of food for thought. I also always read the prologue, but then I also read the foreword, acknowledgments, everything. Can't seem to help myself. I will definitely have to reexamine the prologue for my current work to see if it can be incorporated elsewhere.

    I did tiptoe over from Nathan Bransford's blog... I loved your guest blog, and came to see what other interesting tidbits I might find. Glad I did! :)

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  19. Thanks Anne :) I think your right! although my WIP is so rough draft i'm not even sure i should use the term 'chapters' lol

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  20. I am in the minority of those who love prologues. I read 'em and I write 'em. Don't always use them in my books, but when I do analyze them and find them necessary to the book, I just call it Chapter One. Problem solved! (But it HAS to be necessary to the story, not just backstory...)

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  21. OMG Anne; I'm your 100 follower. That's way more than cool to me because you were my ver first commenter way back when.

    And I can't believe it took me this long to wander over here again.

    I saw your guest blog at Nathan's, and it was quite humorous. I didn't comment - I get home from work and start browsing blogs so late everyone seems to have moved on to more recent posts and I always feel a day behind. But I loved how you described the "Am I crazies", and the part about skittles - that was pure genius. Even though I can't call myself a writer because I've never read Vonnegut (lol).

    Distracted . .

    This was a most helpful post. Actually, I've been scrolling through the last several days worth, and really enjoying the content. Thanks for the info.

    ..........dhole

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  22. Donna, welcome back and a big thanks for being my 100th follower!

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  23. Great post, Anne. The more I write, the more I realize that a good portion of the first (or second, or third) draft is just me figuring out my story.

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  24. But why are there SO MANY prologues in published fiction? I hate them, and I can't think of a single example of a good one!

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