Posts Tagged ‘Should you have a Prologue? The problems with Prologues’

Welcome to this week’s Craft Post. We are still in the beginning of our new series on First Drafts. You can catch up on the first two posts here. Today we are going to be talking about the first chapter. We aren’t talking about prologues, we are talking about the first actual chapter. Prologues are still seen, but it is usually but established writers. Beyond that, they are considered by editors and agents as a sign of an amateur writer.

“Why are prologues seen as a sign of an amateur? I have one, and it is where I establish my world so they know what it is like.”

You answered the question for me. The reason why prologues are seen as would-be-authors. You are establishing your world in it and not the story to come. If it is the background on the world, it can easily be fitted in later in the book. There are other reasons.

I have heard literary agents say that 90% of prologues are unnecessary. This means that the vast majority of aspiring fantasy and sci-fi authors who have a prologue at the beginning of their book need to cut it. I can tell you from first-hand experience that they won’t like hearing this, even as a small part of them recognizes the truth to it. –Dan Koboldt

You may think you need the prologue, but your best bet is to just make it the first chapter. If you want more reasons why they are looked down upon.

  • Only serve as an excuse to drop into the action of a key conflict or world-defining event
  • Offer unnecessary backstory that could be worked into the novel
  • Often show the POV of secondary characters

While those reasons why editors and agents don’t like prologues, they are some of the reasons why readers love prologues. A lot of prologues serve no purpose to the story of the book, it is just events that take place way in the past. Usually, references a war that may have a very small importance to your story, but not really at all. That information can be added later on. I will talk another reason which I will talk about in a few minutes about why just make the prologue the first chapter. But lets here advice the king of Prologues, Brandon Sanderson who always has a prologue.

Prologues have been done so often in fantasy books that they’re almost a cliché. – Brandon Sanderson

I don’t think I have to say this, but I will anyway. Cliché aren’t good. Before we move away from Prologues, let me give this last bit of advice. If you are dead set on having one, write it as part of your first draft. Polish it as part of your second draft, and then give it to people to read. See what people think, if you get people saying cut it or take the information and put it elsewhere in the book, listen to them. In the end, it is your book and you can do what you want. However, if you refuse to cut your prologue and people have told you to cut it, don’t be surprised if you only get rejection letters from agents and editors.

Moving on. The first chapter. Long gone are the days where you could spend chapters showing the main characters normal life. No longer can you spend endless pages on describing the scene. While I am not sure if it is true, I once read that in the original Moby Dick, Herman Melville spent roughly 95 pages solely describing how white Moby Dick was. I not sure where I read that and it was a good source. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The thing to get from this is that times have changed and wordiness is not a good thing.

If you google What is the goal of the first chapter of a novel, you will get many pages of what the goals are. The things you need to achieve in are pretty simple.

  • Introduce the main character (another reason why not to have a prologue)
  • Give the reader a reason to care about them and their journey
  • Setting
  • Hook us.

There are many other things people suggest like, introduce the antagonist, tone, and theme. All good ideas. Sometimes you need to write to find your tone and your theme. This is the first draft remember, everything beyond the four I listed you really don’t need to do yet. It helps if you have others, to begin with.

Let’s look at the four things I listed. So the most important thing is to introduce the main character. Before moving on, how are you going to do this in a prologue that is set thousands of years in the past? Or if the focus on another character? Look at Harry Potter. The first chapter of The Philosopher’s Stone is essentially a prologue. Harry is only in the last quarter of the chapter. The purpose was to introduce something his horrible family and that something has happened. We then find out and Harry is introduced as a baby. However, that is the first chapter, not a prologue.

The first chapter hits everything I listed. It also gives us a reason to care about Harry. He is a child that lost his parents, did something no other Wizard could do and as a baby and is rewarded by going to live with horrible people. It also hooks us and gives us the setting of modern day London. If you find other lists that first chapters must accomplish, then that chapter checks them all off.

The first chapter must give us a reason to care about this character. I say care not like. A lot of characters aren’t really likable. Harry is one of them. In later books, though you can make an argument for book one as well, Harry is an ass. However, we are rooting for him.

You think going over setting should never have to be discussed, but you will be surprised how often that is wrong. If we don’t know where we are and when, how are we suppose to know what is acceptable and not. In the case of a fantasy world or science fiction futuristic or post-apocalyptic world, we will learn that as the story moves forward.

Then there is the hook. You must hook the reader by the end or they will place the book down and never pick it up. First, let me say this, your hook doesn’t need to be an explosion and giant aliens burst into the scene out of nowhere. It just has to be something that makes us go what, wait a second what is going on. Having some kind of conflict helps or an action scene does this, but it has to make sense quickly or the reader is going to see it for what it is, something just to get them to keep reading and has no real bearing on the story.

Most authors, agents, editors, publishers, the list goes on start your story at close to that exciting incident as you can. While we want to see the everyday life of the protagonist, the quicker you get to the hook the more the reader will be willing to learn about your world and characters. In Harry Potter, we actually get two hooks. One at the end of chapter one that we already discussed. The second is when his ten and about to turn eleven. He is at the zoo with his horrible family who treats him like he is a slave, and out of anger makes the glass vanish letting out a snake that then talks to him thanking him for letting him out.

This is where we are going to end. This is just the first draft, everything else that professionals in the industry say you need to have in the first chapter can be something to focus on in later drafts. Now, the purpose is to write this draft. While we want to focus on writing, you do want to have at least some of the things you need already in place now. It saves time when it comes time to revise and rewrite.

Be sure to check back on Monday for my Weekly Writing Wrap-up post.