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PROLOGUES REVISITED

June 8, 2021

            For those of you that have been with me for a long time, you may wonder why I have so many “Revisited” articles. It’s not necessarily that I can’t think of nothing new to talk about. It’s that the subjects I choose to revisit are topical again and again. While I may wait a while to bring them up again, 2016 in this case, a revisit to me is warranted.

            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. In this case, the more Facebook forums I join that have to do with writing, the more stuff like this comes up from new writers. Plus, more new writers join my site and may not want to slog through 300+ articles, or may have the time. So, time to discuss the subject of prologues 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, called 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 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. Since the last two conferences have been Zoom meetings due to you know what, I’ve heard they still do this but in a slightly different format, which I can’t speak to since I didn’t attend.

            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 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 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.

MY SOLUTION

            I no longer use prologues.

            No much on backstory to begin with, I much prefer to just start the story where it begins. That’s it. If I need to have any background, I much prefer to leak it out a little bit at a time. Let me emphasize that. I like to leak out background a little bit at a time.

            Why?

            Backstory bogs down story movement. It jerks the timeline out of sequence. It throws the entire flow off.

            As a reader, that annoys me to no end, so as an author, that’s the last thing I want to do. Instead, if there’s any backstory I want to clue the reader into, I leak it out in a sentence, maybe a paragraph or two. Mind you, a short paragraph or two so as not to bog down story momentum.

            Back to the prologues.

            We, as in me and the publisher, came up with a better solution for my prologues in the adventure/thriller series. Instead of calling it the prologue, it just became Chapter 1 with a subtitle and date from somewhere in the past. Then Chapter 2 became “Present day.” Because something actually HAPPENED in my prologue, problem solved. The timeline was not interrupted and I was able to go on my merry way!

            That’s all you have to do. The reader isn’t jerked around and everything works out. Let me tell you, this is also a very annoying plot device often used on TV. The show starts in the present, then jerks us to “3 days before” or some such stuff. That always annoys me. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather the damn story just start at the beginning!

            Happy writing!

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