Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Let's Talk About Prologues

The Prologue. The thing that every J.R.R. Tolkien novel must have, and must be at least 50 pages long. The thing that you - yes, you - do not need in your manuscript.

I'm calling you out. You know who you are.

Prologues have come under fire on Writer Twitter in the past year or two. Increasingly, agents are saying that they don't want to see them as part of a query package, and a lot of agents seem to be advising writers to cut the prologue from their work. I found that this was best summed up in an #AskAgent thread from earlier this year:
Writer Question: When querying, is it true you should never send a prologue as part of your initial novel sample? Should you start with Ch 1 even if you have a prologue?
Agent Answer: If your prologue can be dropped that easily, it sounds like you don't need the prologue at all!
The agent here has a point. If you wouldn't show an agent the prologue, why would you show it to a reader? And if you wouldn't show it to a reader, does it really serve a purpose in your manuscript? Maybe it really is better to just give it the old highlight-delete. And here are a few reasons why that might be the case:

Problem: It's world-building. 

A lot of prologues I've seen as a beta reader and a CP fall into this category. This is especially true for fantasy, where the writer has a lot of setting up the world to do. Sure, sometimes it feels like a prologue is the place to stash that information. I mean, how else are you supposed to explain to the reader that magic is illegal now because of that one Big Bag Guy who used magic wrong without interrupting the story? Isn't that the whole point of show, don't tell?

The best way to get around this is to gradually weave that background into the opening chapters. Some writers do it by having the characters go to school where they study the history of the Big Bad Guy, or with a campfire tale, or a bedtime story. Sometimes it can be done by having the main character consider an artifact - a fountain, a statue, a book - and rehash the history to themselves. Sometimes it's best to let the history be a mystery for a while to build up intrigue and curiosity.

Problem: It's background about the character(s).

This is another common one. This usually involves a scene where the main character is very young, and it's often a tragic story about how their parents died. If your first chapter starts with "X years later..." you fall into this camp.

Like the previous type of prologue, weaving the character's backstory into the manuscript is the way to go. Make the reader wonder! Make them wait for that tragic sob story! Build mystery about your character so that you can reveal the truth at the opportune time! Giving up all the good stuff in the prologue is showing your hand way too early. Let the main character open up to someone and use that story to explain why they are the way they are.

Problem: It's only tangentially related to the plot or characters.

While this is less common, it does happen. The prologue of THE BOOK THIEF falls into this category (in my opinion). I even wrote a prologue like this for the first manuscript I queried, where two side characters had a meeting that would only influence the plot much, much later. It ended up spoiling part of the story for the reader and let them in on things too early.

When it comes to this type of prologue, the most likely course of action is just to let it go. If the link to the rest of the manuscript is tenuous, then what's written there doesn't need to be said. Is it really that important?

If you're on the fence, or even if you're sure that your manuscript needs a prologue, really consider your prologue. Does it advance the plot? Does it impact the characters? Does it tell the reader anything they desperately need to know? If the answer to these questions is no, it's time for the prologue to disappear.

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