Prologues have come up time and time again in discussions, not only in my writer’s group, but in the various forums that I check out. Time to discuss it once again.
The big no-no for a long time at the writer’s conferences amongst agents and publishers were prologues. Some agents said absolutely not, while others kind of shrugged their heads and gave wishy-washy answers, leaving their take more ambivalent. Over the years, things have backed off a bit. While some agents, to this day, absolutely despise prologues, more and more are willing to consider them under certain circumstances.
THE FIRST PAGE READ
To understand why agents and publishers don’t like prologues, let’s take a look at the Las Vegas Writer’s Conference’s very popular special event, which we now have as a regular happening, the First Page Read.
This “contest” that isn’t really a contest is where for a $5 donation (that goes to the student sponsorship program), attendees can submit the first page of their novel, short story or whatever. They can submit as many first pages as they want for $5 apiece. The pages are randomly selected and read at lunch on Friday and at dinner time until time runs out, usually an hour. If you’re “lucky” enough to be selected, a panel of agents and/or publishers will listen while it’s read and shown on a large screen. They’ll raise their hand the moment they’d stop reading.
After either everyone raises their hand, or the narrator gets to the end of the page, whichever comes first, the panel each gets a chance to say why they did or didn’t raise their hand.
There can be many reasons why they raise their hand, but the biggest reason is the author starts with backstory and nothing happens on that first page.
I repeat: Backstory and nothing happens on the first page.
A BIG REASON WHY AGENTS AND PUBLISHERS HATE PROLOGUES
When these people sift through hundreds if not thousands of manuscripts and writing samples a month, they usually get the start of each story. Right?
When an author sends the prologue and the first few chapters, which is of course, the start of the book, what often happens with the prologue?
The prologue starts with backstory! Nothing happens! The prologue is a setup that doesn’t need to be there. There’s no action, nothing that can’t be told later by other characters.
Now, think back on the first page read. What do you think these agents and publishers do when they see Prologue plastered across the top of the page and then nothing happens?
Sure, it’s bad enough when it says Chapter 1, or just as bad, it just starts with no heading at all and nothing happens. However, they just as often see Prologue or did for a long time. It’s hard not to develop a bias.
PROLOGUES ARE NOT ALL BAD
As many of you know, I read mostly thrillers and icky bug. They very often have prologues. In my own writing, I use prologues in both my adventure/thrillers and icky bug but don’t in my fantasy. It just doesn’t feel right in fantasy to me. It’s a matter of personal taste.
The prologue needs to be relevant. It needs to be something that cannot take place within the story without throwing the timeline or rhythm of the story out. It also needs for something to happen. It should be an action scene that takes place sometime in the past that explains or sets up something taking place in the timeframe of the present story. Or, it can be something that takes place right as the story begins to set it up. Pro-logue, something that previously happened, versus epi-logue, something that happens afterward.
Back to what I just said, the prologue needs to be relevant and should only be there if it’s the easiest or best way to tell that part of the story. It’s a tool just like plot devices. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s all in the execution.
One more thing, the prologue should be short and to the point. A bad one, in which I won’t name the author, was seventy pages long. That’s a bit excessive! It’s like, come on! Is the story from the back cover ever going to take place or what?
Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t use a prologue. Just make sure you do it with a bang.