First, this cute meme to start us off with a smile:
I had a busy week, interspersed with bouts of pain that had me away from my computer for large amounts of time, so I thought I would offer some writing advice from Kristen Lamb on the blog today. I enjoy her posts on all aspects of writing, which she generously allows us to
steal er, borrow, and this one about prologues interested me, as I tend to write prologues in most of my books.
After reading Kristen’s blog post, The Seven Deadly Sins of Prologues, I was pleased to see that I do not have to seek absolution for any sins on my part.
Sin #1 If your prologue is really just a vehicle for massive information dump…
This is one of the reasons I recommend writing detailed backgrounds of all main characters before we begin (especially when we are new writers). Get all of that precious backstory out of your system.
Many new writers bungle the prologue because they lack a system that allows them to discern key details or keep track of key background details. This makes for clumsy writing, namely a giant “fish head” labeled prologue (which we editors will just lop off).
Sin #2 If your prologue really has nothing to do with the main story.
This point ties into the earlier sin. Do this. Cut off the prologue. Now ask, “Has this integrally affected the story?” If it hasn’t? It’s likely a fish head masquerading as a prologue.
Sin #3 If your prologue’s sole purpose is to “hook” the reader…
If readers have a bad tendency to skip past prologues, and the only point of our prologue is to hook the reader, then we have just effectively shot ourselves in the foot. We must have a great hook in a prologue, but then we need to also have a hook in Chapter One.
Sin #4 If your prologue is overly long…
Prologues need to be short and sweet and to the point. Get too long and that is a warning flag that this prologue is being used to cover for sloppy writing or really should have just been Chapter One.
Sin #5 If your prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story…
Sin #6 If your prologue is über-condensed world-building…
World-building is generally one of those things, like backstory, that can and should be folded into the narrative. Sometimes it might be necessary to do a little world-building, but think “floating words in Star Wars.” The yellow floating words that drift off into space help the reader get grounded in the larger picture before the story begins. But note the floating words are not super-detailed Tolkien world-building.
Sin #7 If your prologue is there solely to “set the mood…”
We have to set the mood in Chapter One anyway, so like the hook, why do it twice?
Then Kristen followed with the virtues of prologues:
Virtue #1 Prologues can be used to resolve a time gap with information critical to the story.
Genre will have a lot to do with whether one uses a prologue or not. Thrillers generally employ prologues because what our hero is up against may be an old enemy. This was true for the prologue I wrote for Boxes For Beds. A modern-day crime was tied to one that had happened 30 years prior and it was important that the reader know that.
I was pleased to see that Kristen acknowledged that prologues are common in mysteries and thrillers:
Prologues are used a lot in thrillers and mysteries to see the crime or event that sets off the story. Readers of these genres have been trained to read prologues and generally won’t skip. Yet, still? Keep it brief. Reveal too much and readers won’t want to turn pages to learn more.
That is the reason I kept the prologues brief in both of the Seasons Mystery Series books, Open Season and Stalking Season, as well as Doubletake, my other police procedural novel. As an avid mystery reader, I had come to like reading a prologue that introduced me to the crime and the criminal, without identifying the person, but giving me a sense of who he or she was.
Virtue # 2 Prologues can be used if there is a critical element in the backstory relevant to the plot.
The first Harry Potter book is a good example of a book that could have used a prologue, but didn’t (likely because Rowling knew it would likely get skipped). Therese Walsh in her blog Once Before A Time Part 2 said this:
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is told in a close 3rd person POV (Harry’s), but her first chapter is quite different, told when Harry is a baby and switching between omniscient and 3rd person POVs (Mr. Dursley’s and Dumbledore’s). Rowling may have considered setting this information aside as a prologue because of those different voices and the ten-year lag between it and the next scene, but she didn’t do it. The info contained in those first pages is critical, it helps to set the story up and makes it more easily digested for readers.
Prologues, when done properly can be amazing literary devices. Yet, with a clear reader propensity to skip them, then that might at least make us pause before we decide our novel must have one. Make sure you ask yourself honest questions about what purpose these pages are really serving. Are they an essential component of a larger whole? Or are you using Bondo to patch together a weak plot?
Not much space for a joke, but here goes:
Two factory workers are talking. The woman says, “I can make the boss give me the day off.”
The man replies, “And how would you do that?”
The woman says, “Just wait and see.” She then hangs upside down from the ceiling. The boss comes in and says, “What are you doing?”
The woman replies, “I’m a light bulb.” The boss then says, “You’ve been working so much that you’ve gone crazy. I think you need to take the day off.”
The man starts to follow her and the boss says, “Where are you going?” The man says, “I’m going home, too. I can’t work in the dark.”