Merry Christmas, dear readers and writers! It’s hard to believe, but we’re almost to 2018. For my last post of 2017, I’m delighted to share with you a guest post written by Meghan Tomlinson, a fellow writer I met on Twitter earlier this year. Meghan writes NA Fantasy and will hopefully be sending her debut novel out into the world soon. You can find out more at her website, Elusive Story, or by contacting her on Twitter at @ElusiveStory.
Without further ado, here’s Meghan:
To write a prologue, or not?
It’s a question I never thought I’d ask myself. Yet the prologue question is often kicked around writing communities, social media, and writing blogs.
As a reader I’ve always leaned toward the anti-prologue side of the debate. Just seeing the word “Prologue” at the beginning of a book can make my eyes glaze over…
(Look I made a list)
- Prologues are often written from the point of view (POV) of a minor character. Sometimes even a character you’ll never meet again and has no other impact on the story. As a reader, I want to connect with the main character(s). I don’t want to get emotionally invested in a minor character—at least not before I even care about the main characters.
- Prologues can be long and (sorry) boring.
- The events in the prologue sometimes don’t make any sense until much later in the book. [After writing this post, I saw a tweet on Twitter about this EXACT problem, where the prologue was a scene that didn’t take place until the middle of the book. It left the Tweeter very confused.]
- Some prologues give too much information away. I borrowed from the library a highly recommended fantasy novel. I never finished it because after reading the prologue I felt like I knew the ENTIRE backstory of the main characters. Rather than entice me, I was bored. There was no mystery for me to unravel (there probably was but I had zero questions at the end of the prologue). I actually wish that I had skipped that prologue entirely. The rest of the novel is probably a fantastic read.
So for all these reasons and because I often *gasp* skip a prologue, I never contemplated writing one.
But one night, a few weeks ago, a scene came to me, running in my head like a movie. I had to jump out of bed and write it down before I forgot the dialogue coming out of my characters’ mouths. My anti-villain kneeled before my villain, and the tension between them was palpable.
Trouble is, this scene takes place a few months before chapter one. And worse, my main character (the novel uses her POV exclusively) was not there and could not be there. It was clearly a prologue.
The whole scene put a new spin on the novel. It makes readers privy to information that they wouldn’t otherwise know. Info that will cause readers to see certain characters in a different light. And as much as I have difficulties with prologues, I loved it. (Yes, I was fangirling to myself about this scene.)
So what’s a writer to do? I typed up the prologue and sought advice from my writing peeps and Twitter.
The most helpful advice, and good rule of thumb I think when it comes to prologues, is the question: is the prologue absolutely necessary? If not, cut it.
But how do you determine if it is necessary, right? Ask yourself these tough questions:
- Would the story change if you didn’t include the prologue? No? Then you don’t need it (and this goes for any chapter in your novel. If you can delete it without changing the story, you don’t need it). If the prologue does change the story, examine how and what those changes mean to you.
- Can you include the information from the prologue elsewhere in your novel? If yes, do so and get rid of the prologue.
(If you can’t answer these questions, don’t panic. Take a deep breath. You can analyze it later once you’ve had some time to digest the questions and apply them to your WIP. If you haven’t finished writing the WIP, then concentrate on that. You can always delete the prologue in editing if needed.)
If after answering these questions, you feel your prologue is necessary, you still want to make sure it won’t have readers putting down your book.
This is a checklist I made for my own reading preferences. Some may not mind prologues that do things differently! And that’s okay. Think about what YOU enjoy in a prologue, and make your own list.
- Do readers meet these characters again?
- Is it short and sweet, or long and b-o-r-i-n-g?
- Is the when and where clear in relation to the first chapter? Give readers clues like dates or approximate ones!
- Does your prologue leave your reader with questions? (No synopsis of the backstory, please!)
- How are prologues treated in your genre?
So am I keeping my prologue?
Right now, yes.
The story would not change if I had no prologue BUT the readers’ experience of the story would. The prologue slants the story in a way that will make readers worry more for my main character when she meets the anti-villain in chapter eight. He’s in almost every chapter with her after that, and readers will (I hope) be on the edge of their seats wondering *when* and *if* he will betray her.
If I want the readers to know this information, it has to be in a prologue. (Dramatic irony can be soooo delicious.) And I can’t include the information in this scene until the end of the second act, when my MC learns the villain’s agenda.
The feedback I’ve received has been positive, and it seems to leave readers wanting answers to the questions it raises. And I’ve met all the conditions of my own Prologue Checklist.
I’d also suggest taking a look at novels in your book’s genre and target audience. How often do prologues appear? Why has the author included one, in your estimation as a reader? Was it effective?
Fantasy loves a prologue, though I’ve found YA/NA Fantasy to be more wary of a prologue in a first book. (So strike against my prologue.) But often a prologue will pop up in a second book in a series. Sometimes even disguised as a first chapter! This works better in a multi-POV novel because the reader will be used to switching POVs. So that might work for you, too.
I hope reading about my own experience grappling with a prologue has helped you with your own. Do you agree with me about prologues, or do you have different point of view? Have you written a prologue before? Why or why not? Any advice?
I’d love to hear it and discuss prologues with you on Twitter. Find me @ElusiveStory.
Image credit: Pexels.com. CC0 License.
5 thoughts on “Prologue Pros and Cons: A Guest Post by Meghan Tomlinson”
I usually dislike prologues for the same reasons as above, but I wrote one for my latest work in progress. It just seemed necessary to set the scene and set up my characters 🙂
I know, sometimes a prologue just seems necessary. I guess that’s where beta readers can be so helpful with feedback.
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I find the ‘To Prologue or Not To Prologue’ questions fascinating – some work and some don’t and some are there for the wrong reasons, but still add something anyway if your reader is the curious type. I’ve definitely read a lot of duds in my time, but if you think you have a good one then run with it for as long as you can and see where it takes you!
Agreed. As writers, I think we often have to go with our “gut” feelings about whether something works, and then look for feedback from good beta readers or an editor.
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Good beta readers are worth their weight in gold!