Friday, October 19, 2012

How to write a prologue people won't skip

There are many different parts to a book - middles, endings, beginnings, climaxes, that train station scene at the end of the last Harry Potter - but no slice of the novel engenders quite as much derision and outright hatred as the prologue. Agents don't want to see it, readers skip it, editors cut it, yuck.

With so much open hate the pressure to just forget about a prologue can be intense, but just because prologues are tricky to pull off doesn't mean you can't have one. When used correctly, a prologue becomes an invaluable tool and an indispensable part of the story. The secret (as always) is that you have to know what you're doing. 

The Prologue's Purpose
As a writer, I never, ever, EVER want to write something readers can skip. A good novel is like a well tuned race car, every piece has its purpose within the whole. If a reader can skip a part of your book without consequence, then you have to ask yourself does that part really need to be there. But prologues are even more sensitive since they come at the very beginning. Mess up the middle of your novel and you'll get a bad review, mess up the opening and the reader will put the book down and forget about it forever. 

With stakes like these, it may seem safer to just skip the prologue and save yourself some trouble, but I say prologues can be a huge help to your novel so long as the writer understands that the purpose of a prologue is to improve the reader's enjoyment of the book

Your prologue is not your first chapter, it's not even the beginning. It's what comes before, the set up, the before dinner cocktail that eases you into a wonderful night. The most successful prologues fall into two types: prologues that exist to feed the reader information they otherwise couldn't get, and prologues that set the mood.

Past as Prologue
The easiest (and my personal favorite) prologue is one that serves as a vehicle to give the reader information they couldn't otherwise obtain within the structure of the story. For example, in my second Eli novel, The Spirit RebellionI open with a scene from Eli's past showing how he ran away from home and came to be the Shepherdess's favorite. 

This was perfect prologue material. It was something Eli himself would never talk about and, since it happened several years in the past, I couldn't show within the constraints of the novel's timeline without resorting to a flashback. More importantly, by showing this scene to the reader at the very beginning, I was able to foreshadow and set up several events that happened later in the book. I gave my reader information about what happened in the past in order to make the events of the present more powerful. In other words, I used my prologue to set up context, and then I used that context to twist the knife.

This sort of one-two set up is incredibly powerful, and you don't have to limit yourself to the past to make it work. In The Spirit War (Eli book 4), I show events that are happening in the present, but on the other side of the world. Again, I used the prologue to feed the reader information the characters couldn't know in order to create tension. Eli and company had no idea what was going on across the sea, but the reader knew exactly how big a shit storm was coming, and that knowledge created a ticking time bomb that twisted the tension in the novel to heights I couldn't have achieved otherwise.

By giving the reader inside information, I was able to drop subtle hints that the characters didn't notice, but the reader did. This let me create a "don't open that door!" situation to keep the reader on the edge of their seat without having to resort to gimmicks. Thanks to the prologue, the hooks were already there, buried deep in the reader, all I had to do was pull.

That said, I have to admit this sort of prologue works much better in subsequent novel than it does in a first book. The prologue for The Spirit Rebellion I mentioned earlier wouldn't have worked nearly as well if I hadn't been able to rely on my readers' built up curiosity about Eli's past to pull them in. This isn't to say you can't use the "show a hint of the past to put the present into context" prologue in a first book, but there are more hurdles. In a first novel, your readers aren't yet invested in your world or your people. They don't care about what happened in the past yet. Hell, they don't even know it is the past unless you tell them. You have to make them care right off the bat, and that can be a difficult trick to pull off, especially if your prologue jumps around between times and characters. 

As with everything in writing, it all comes down to execution. If you can pull it off, a good Past as Prologue can take your novel to new heights. By giving the reader inside information, you can tighten your story's tension to a cutting edge with very few words simply by leaning on and hinting at what the reader already knows. It's showing the maid hiding a body before you spend the novel with everyone else wondering whodunit while the murderer is pouring their tea and your reader is going out of their mind waiting for her to strike again. It's tension through revelation, and with the right treatment, it can be magic.

Setting the Stage
The second type of prologue is more nebulous, artistic, subjective, and, consequently, much easier to mess up. I'm talking about the atmosphere prologue which, rather than flat out revealing plot information, focuses instead on setting the stage and preparing the reader to enter your world. A good (and very famous) example of this kind of prologue would be the opening of Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
In this prologue, Dickens sets his stage. Though the novel is in third person, the author here speaks directly to the reader, describing the context of the story and the political situation of the time. Simultaneously, the exalted language and sweeping statements gets us in the mood for an epic tale of revolution so that by the time the plot actually kicks in in the next chapter we are 100% on board.

Unfortunately, these type of prologues are often the ones agents/readers/editors are talking about when they hate on prologues. When done well, atmospheric prologues can be the most memorable part of a book, the lines people can still quote years later, like the first line of the Dickens quote above (which most of America can quote even though a very small percentage of those people have actually read the book).  When done badly, the atmospheric prologue becomes a long winded, boring, and disjointed from the story it's supposed to be introducing. When done very badly, it can become a cosmic info dump (more on that below).

This isn't to discourage you from trying an atmospheric prologue. As I said, some of the best writing comes from this sort of work. But because it is so easy to mess up, you have to be extremely careful and self critical when writing an artistic prologue, especially if you're trying to sell your novel for the first time. Trust me, nothing makes you come off as a pretentious, boring doofus like a badly done art prologue.

At its best, an artistic prologue is the beautiful beginning, the gorgeous credits at the opening of a movie where, by the time they finish, you just know you're going to love the film even though it hasn't yet begun. But the atmospheric prologue is an all or nothing deal with an extremely high bar. If you can't knock it out of the park, you're probably better off just starting on chapter 1.

What a Prologue Isn't
So those are the two large classifications of prologue, and though I'm sure you can find outliers if you look hard enough, the vast majority will fall into these two camps. That said, perhaps the most important part of writing a good prologue is understanding what makes a bad one. So, to make things a bit easier, here's a list of shit that doesn't fly in prologues:

1. The Cosmic Info Dump 
In the beginning there was darkness, and then Gaia the Earth Mother created the light and the waters and...zzz...

Ahh, the creation story opening. This little gem is almost exclusively a fantasy trope, but can you see it in other forms all through fiction. In Science Fiction, it can be the history of how people got into space, in mysteries, it might be how your detective got into business solving murders, whatever. The point is that this sort of industrial scale info dumping does not belong in a prologue.

The very worst thing you can do to a prologue is to treat it like a chute to shove setting information down a reader's throat. If background details are really important, they'll come up naturally in a story. If they aren't important enough to be woven into the novel, then why the hell would you put them in your prologue?

To be fair, there are plenty of big, successful authors who have done this kind of info dump prologue successfully. To this I say hooray for them, but just because someone else got away with it doesn't mean you get a free pass. No matter how beautifully you write it, dumping information on your reader in huge blocks is lazy writing plain and simple. Maybe you can get away with it, but for my money, if you're going to do all the work it takes to make an info dump like that palpable, why not just not be lazy in the first place? Background info belongs in the background, not at the front of the book.

2. The Action! Prologue
Have you ever picked up a book and opened the first page to find yourself dropped unceremoniously in the middle of the action? Right off the bat there's dramatic stuff going on you and all these characters are dying or doing seemingly very important things, but there's no context, so you flip back a page to make sure this is actually the beginning only to find out that yes, this is the start of the book, and you have no idea what's going on.

This is the Action! prologue, also called in medias res, where the author dumps their reader smack dab in the middle of the action in the hope they'll stick around to see what happens. This sort of thing is a very powerful tool that can be used to great effect. It's also just enough rope to hang yourself.

With so much emphasis being put on hooking your reader from paragraph one, the Action! prologue can seem like a good bet. You get to start right in with the big explosions for a flashy opening and then go back to cover all that boring, "why this stuff was blowing up" paperwork once chapter one begins. (Of course, if the why of the blowing up is too boring to start your book then you've got bigger problems than your prologue, but you get the point.) Even if your why is very cool, though, starting in the middle of the action can be problematic. Sure you get immediate tension and interest, but it's all just dazzle, smoke and mirrors with no context and, thus, no depth. And unless you dig that depth very quickly, your reader will quickly see through the ruse.

Unfortunately, digging in to build that depth brings its own problems. Full throttle starts tend to throw a lot of information at the reader very quickly, and that puts a lot of pressure on your audience to keep up, especially if you're asking them to remember stuff while you're setting off explosions in their face. Readers can handle pressure, but at the very beginning of a book with no context or investment, some might not see a reason to try. If you're lucky, they'll simply skip ahead to the actual beginning of the book. If you're not, they'll put the book down entirely.

This isn't to say an Action! beginning can't work. There are plenty of novels, especially in the thriller genre, that get right to the shooting and worry about the details later. However, just like driving a high performance sports car, writing a high octane opening takes a surprising amount of skill and practice. It also has to be right for the book in question. If your the rest of your novel doesn't eventually match the boom at the beginning, even the best written Action! opening can feel jarring and out of place.

Like everything in writing, it all comes down to execution. If you can pull off an Action! prologue, bully for you. But as a general rule of thumb, if your opening has your reader wondering if the publisher put chapter 5 at the the beginning by mistake, that's bad.

3. The Wha?
Have you ever read a book where the opening just seemed to make no sense at all. Like, there's action taking place, and it's clearly important, but you have no idea why or what's going on? Maybe the prologue opens with a woman standing on a hill and then she opens a box of sand and pours it to the wind, after which we jump to a child in England during the Blitz eating a stolen ice cream cone while the narration waxes poetic on the ephemeral nature of life. Through it all, there's the implication that this that this is all actually very deep and you should be moved, but you're not, because just don't know enough yet to care.

This is what I call the Wha? opening, because by the time you've reached the end, that's all you can say. Wha? In theory, a Wha? opening is supposed to be confusing, an artistic mystery to draw the reader in while also planting a question in the reader's mind that the novel itself will then proceed to ruminate on. These sort of openings are mostly found in literary novels and are part of why I have a hard time taking lit fic seriously. Even the best written ones can't help coming off as pretentious.

I will freely admit to some bias here. The Wha? prologue is my absolute least favorite way to open a book. I get how it's supposed to work, I've even read some that were quite lovely, but I have never, ever seen one of these that actually helped the novel it was attached to.

For me, these are the ultimate skippable prologues. Even in the hands of a master, it's almost impossible to make these sort of beginnings meaningful because meaning requires context and the Wha? opening lacks context by its very definition. Actually, I've found these kind of openings much more enjoyable after I've already read the book, and while I'll admit that has its own merits, do you really want to open your novel with something that doesn't get good until the end of the story?

As with all the "bad" prologues I've mentioned, I'm sure there are exceptions out there. As always, you are the only one who can decide whether or not this kind of prologue works for your novel. That said, however, I think prologues like these--the giant info dumps, the jarring, no context action, and especially the nonsensical disconnected arty openings--are the type of extremely hard to pull off, usually terrible openings that give all prologues a bad name, and I would think very, very carefully before putting any of them in one of my novels.

What a Good Prologue Can Be
When setting out to write a prologue, or anything really, the most important thing to remember is your audience. Your reader is your partner, the one you must entertain. As such, they can be your best friends and greatest champions, climbing mountains just to hear the end of your story. Readers are the ones who make your story come alive and support your career, but before any of that can happen, you have to earn their trust.

Readers picking up a new series for the first time (or agents looking at a new novel in the slush) owe you nothing. They will not jump through hoops for you, and they certainly won't extend you the benefit of the doubt. It is your job as the writer to entertain them, to make them love you. As with all romances, first impressions are vital. You have to be very, very careful to start on your absolute best foot if you want them to stick around. This is why getting your prologue right, especially on a first book, is so important. It's your opening shot, maybe your only shot, and if you flub it, your book may be done before it even begins. But if you nail it, a good prologue can hook your reader even better than a fantastic first line, because a good prologue hints at everything a novel can be, and if you can sell the reader on that, you've got them right where you want them.

At its very best, the prologue is the perfect augment for the story it begins. It is the icing that takes a cake from delicious to gourmet, the overture that deftly plucks you out of the real world and prepares you to fully appreciate the symphony to come. A prologue should never exist merely to hold information you want the reader to know but couldn't be bothered to work into the main story, nor should it be treated as an optional extra for those readers who want a little more. Like every part of your book, a good prologue must be necessary, a vital piece of the whole. It should be unskippable, a joy to read all on its own, and if that sounds hard, it's because it is.

Remember, the reason so many people hate prologues is because most of them are bad. Even good writers fall victim to the bad prologue because prologues are really freaking hard to pull off. It's like a gun: incredibly powerful, but it can shoot you in the foot if you don't treat it with proper respect.

I hope this post helps you prologue responsibly. Maybe if we all work together we can end the prologue's exile to the butt of bad writing jokes and restore it to its proper place of honor among the author's tools. Or at least keep agents from wincing when they see the word "Prologue" at the top of the page. Baby steps, people, baby steps.

I hope you enjoyed the post! Do you have a prologue in your novel? Has it given you problems? Let me know in the comments!

As always, thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this post, I hope you'll check out my new book on writing, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. It's less than a dollar, so give it a try!

Thanks again, I couldn't do this without y'all!

<3s and="and" p="p" ponies="ponies">Rachel


Chihuahua Zero said...

Thinking about it, the book by a bestselling author which had a "Action!" prologue was the novel I ranted about--because the rest of the first part was too slow.

I think the prologue was there because the author, despite having years of experience, couldn't make Chapter One hook.

Laura Stephenson said...

I don't have a prologue, having been taught through various sources when writing my book that no one wanted to read one. Perhaps a scene from the bad guy's perspective might be helpful there, though.

Ken Schrader said...

I've considered the idea of a prologue in my WIP and I've also discarded it several times. The problem is that the idea keeps coming back. It's like the prologue that never dies.

After reading this post (and others) I think that the reason why it never dies is that the information might be good, but a prologue isn't necessarily the best place for it.

The story is the boss and I'm sure (well, as much as I can be sure about anything) that it'll show me where to put it.

Thanks for taking the time to share your experience with all of us...especially as we wait for November 20th to quit dragging it's lousy heels and get here.

Tirzah Duncan said...

I don't know whether to call it an action opening or not-- there's plenty of action happening, but the main character spends much of time fuming over the fact that he isn't allowed to join it.

My prologue is vital to the novel, and it's set 18 years before the opening. It's a type of prologue I'd like to call "The Buried Time Bomb". It's one of my favorites to read: The prologue explains why some thing(s) in the novel proper are as they are, and then (you may or may not have been able to sense it coming)it blows up in a dramatic/problematic manner at a point anywhere from a quarter of the way through the book to the climax.

Feedback so far says I've pulled it off. I hope feedback is right. *Crosses fingers*

Rachel Aaron said...

So glad yall liked the post. I'm also very interested to see how many people have also heard of the prologue's bad rap. Poor prologues, we need to write some good ones!

Katie said...

There's another form a prologue, too - the sneaky one that's disguised as the start of an opening chapter. Fortunately, it only tends to occur in long-running series where it is apparently vital that all the major characters must be introduced in a long line of paragraphs that contain far too much information to take in all at once.

I don't think I used the prologue that much but if I did, it would most likely be the "step back in time" one. At the moment, I'm contemplating the sort of prologue that is similar to the scene before the credits in a TV show. Maybe it'll work; maybe it won't. There's only one way to find out!

I enjoyed reading my way through this post; it has given me plenty of things to think about and plenty to watch out for, too. Thanks!

Paul Weimer said...

Hi Rachel.

As a reader, I want a prologue that sets up the main action in a indispensable way. Events that do not connect, even thematically, to the main plot and main characters is worse than useless--that's not worldbuilding, that's indulgence.

Frank Dellen said...

Clive Cussler writes the best prologues I know: The Important Treasure gets lost in epic ways.

I think not naming a prologue prologue will do wonders. For example, your novel is set in the present day and you call the prologue "April 3rd, 1978", readers will expect to read some set up.
The word "prologue" tastes of pretentiousness.

Alex Writer said...

Thanx. This was helpful... but I still don't get how to start my novel.

Lisa said...

Thanks for this! I've been debating on my prologue and after reading about the Action! prologue I now know how I should move forward. You're right in that it's too much information at first and it should be woven into the story rather than dramatically thrown at the reader. Thanks again!

joseph schembri said...


I believe that my prologue is important to my autobiography as I try to give the reader a bit more information about my past-self My prologue is not chapter one as it is not even related to the story but about myself in different time and the built up of my story (sort off)

February 24 2015 at 0754

that kid said...

I write short Action!prologues sometimes (despite never finishing a novel before), and I currently have this one which I think is good because it's not so much "random action" as a more mood set sort of thing and it's also short, which is good (at least to me anyway):
The little gray dragon threw himself forwards with a hoarse roar, just as the much bigger emerald green one moved to eat the greenish yellow lizard dangling precariously from my pointed talons.
“You can’t do this!” the little dragon said desperately. The big one fixed an angry golden eye on him and smiled the toothy smile that only a dragon in sight of a prize could manage.
“Why not? It looks tasty,” he said slyly, popping the lizard into his mouth—and shortly thereafter, grimacing.
“Eesh! Guess you were right, useless,” he spat at the gray one and pulled the struggling lizard out of his mouth. The other dragon breathed out a sigh of relief that the lizard wasn’t injured, although it was thoroughly slimed with dragon spit. But the green one wasn’t finished speaking. He snatched the little dragon by the wings, digging deep into it’s vulnerable skin for the sole purpose of hurting his little adversary, and smiled even wider. Murderous. “I’ll just have to eat you instead.”

I mean if you can I would totally appreciate it if what's wrong with it and pointed it out because you're literally my favorite professional author...but of course you're a professional author and you might not have time so I get it if you wouldn't or even if you don't see this. :) thanks anyway

Lucia Bevilacqua said...

Honestly, a prologue might not be a wise choice these days. Readers are split between reading it and skipping to Chapter One. So if it has crucial information, some readers will be lost and have to flip back, but if it doesn't, you're (as you said) subjecting some readers to a pointless ramble, turning them off from the start. As far as I've seen, merging a prologue into Chapter One (or outright making it the first chapter) wouldn't hurt.

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I prefer the 'origin' short story at the beginning of the novel. Now the reader is getting a 2 for 1.

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This advice is exactly what I was seeking as I labored over a troublesome media res prologue. At first you convinced me to abandon the idea, but the more I mulled your excellent points, the more the challenge called out to me (plus I'm certain the story is better with it than not). Thanks for a great article!

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Unknown said...

Very true. I've read a few book like this where they set scene and mood or maybe use the wha? effect without putting "prologue". Seriously... as a reader when I see "prologue" I heave a sigh and prepare to be bored. 80% of the time that's what happens: it bores me or makes no sense.

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