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Once Before a Time, Part 2

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Wanted:
A Few Good Authors.
Last week I tackled the Great Prologue Debate, citing a few instances when I thought it would be all right–even beneficial–to use a prologue. (Click HERE [2]for a refresher.) Today, I want to focus on when using a prologue might not be the best option and why.

It’s a little Jeff Foxworthy-ish to do it this way, but what the heck:

You may not want to use a prologue when…
…the prologue doesn’t compel.

Flogging the Quill’s Ray Rhamey made a good point in comments the other day: If the prologue isn’t raising questions, if it doesn’t compel, if it’s just plain dull, then cut it; it is an albatross around the neck of your story. (Read some of his recent Flogometer entries HERE [3] for examples.) Find the inciting incident instead, start there, and weave whatever else you need in later.

Jodi Picoult in her novel My Sister’s Keeper [4]begins with a two-page prologue; on the first is a simple poem about war, and on the second is this text: In my first memory, I am three years old and I am trying to kill my sister. Compelling? Huh-yeah! Why does she want to kill her sister? What’s going on with this family?

And how about this line in Deborah Smith’s On Bear Mountain [5]: I vowed to embarrass Quentin Riconni if he died in my arms that day, there on that Georgia mountaintop under a cold winter sky. Someone is on the brink of death; that’s pretty compelling. The fact that Quentin dies on the next page works, too, because we wonder how his death changes things for the protagonist.

Wanting answers to these story questions is what makes turning the page irresistible.

You may not want to use a prologue when…
…the information contained in the prologue is critical to your story

AND

…the style of the prologue is in sync with the rest of the book.

P.J. Tracy’s short first chapter in the novel Monkeewrench [6] could’ve been a prologue–it set up a critical murder scene in a setting we didn’t hear about again until much later in the book. Still, all of Tracy’s scenes were short and commanding, so it didn’t feel different. And by putting that scene in the position of chapter one, we understand it will be relevant – eventually. We’re not given the choice to skip over it, to toss it in the Cemetery of Unnecessary Extra Info. So it worked.

Some prologues might be better off as the first chapter. For example, Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm [7]begins with a two-scene prologue that contains critical information. The scenes aren’t handled differently than scenes in the rest of the book, and text glides smoothly from prologue to chapters. Why risk a reader pass and not just opt to make the scenes the first chapter?

You may not want to use a prologue when…
…the prologue is overstuffed with information.

I’ve read stories with prologues I considered painful. I loved David Eddings’ epic fantasy The Belgariad [8], but time and again I felt my brain jam while trying to read his prologue, and had to put the book down. I eventually did get through to chapter one, and then all was fine. Better than fine; I loved the five-book series. Later, when recalling the length of that prologue, I thought it must’ve been twenty pages long at least. Nope. Four and a half. But reading those pages felt like traveling down the ever-expanding hall in Poltergeist (30-somethings and beyond know what I’m talking about). So please don’t tell us about the war of the seven Gods and Belar’s eldest brother, Aldur, and the Lord of Lords and sorcery and the Will and the Orb of Aldur and Angarak and dissembling guises in the first half-page and expect continuance. Lucky for Eddings, readers turned the page anyway to discover his story.

You may not want to use a prologue when…
…the prologue is overlong.

I don’t know about you, but I feel resentful if a prologue is more than a few pages long. Get to the journey already! I read a prologue recently that had more than a dozen scenes in it. It’s true! If your prologue is the length of a chapter, step back and ask yourself why. Does it have to be so long? What job are you asking of your prologue? How much are you asking of your readers? Can the scene, if it’s a critical and compelling one, become chapter one instead of burdening readers with the weight of a prologue?

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone [9] 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. And it’s 17 pages long.

Phew. That was a lot of info on prologues, wasn’t it? But I think the bottom line is actually pretty simple: For a prologue to work, it should provide insightful and compelling information–in a concise, digestible way–and make your story richer than it would’ve been without it.

Have a prologue you want to chat about? Feel free. And don’t forget to send us a list of your favorite unboxed books!

Write on, all.

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About Therese Walsh [11]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [12], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [13] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [14], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [15] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [16] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [17]). Learn more on her website [18].

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