The author S.A. Joo's Writing & Editing Advice & Tips

A professional Editor and YA Writer, represented by Black Hawk Literary Agency.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Where To Start A Novel-Prologues

This is a very broad yet a simple topic to cover. I'm pretty sure there are loads of ideas, advice, and techniques on this topic alone. Why? Because the first 5-10 pages of your book will be the deciding factor when it comes to being noticed by agents or readers. One of the most common mistakes a writer makes is starting their books in the wrong place. So let me try to explain this to you in the best way I can. I think I'll take the layman's approach to clarify instead of cluttering your brains with pretentious words. Here it goes.
In the last few days, I've ranted about my discontent toward prologues on Twitter. Probably because they make me shudder and/or send a chill up my spine. But not in a good way. In the publishing industry, especially among literary agents, prologues are frowned upon, to say it mildly. I've seen some agents who flatly refused to read anything with prologues. So I always advise my friends to not just to shy away from it but to avoid it at all cost by setting it on fire and running the hell away from it. 
And yes, there are published books out there that have prologues. But out of all the books ever published world-wide, how many of them were absolutely necessary? In my opinion, and I'm not alone in this, prologues are not necessary UNLESS your novel is some kind of high fantasy with big world-building or a historical type fiction for example. Actually, one of my friends just encountered a book where it was necessary to draw a Venn Diagram and take notes on the funky, extra-consonant-filled names of the characters. In that case, I said a prologue was probably warranted. That way, the pace wouldn't have slowed down in the middle of the first chapter.
Having admitted to that, I'll give you some bad examples or the misuse of prologues. If you're using it to "introduce" all of your characters, everything about your MC, or everything about the world you've built, you should delete it immediately. That's called info-dumping. That's very bad on so many levels. Think about meeting someone for the first time. If at the first meeting that person rambles on about everything including the boyfriend who dumped her 12 years ago on a hot summer night in small town Georgia for probably wouldn't ask her for any more questions. Readers are the same. Give them time to get to know your character and fall in love with the story. Don't bombard them all at once. Work it into the story, gradually.
In conclusion, make your first few pages the "hook" that grabs the readers. Try to get the story moving, starting from the first sentence. Chances are, if your story doesn't move along by the middle of the first chapter, it won't be read to the end. Okay, that's it for now. My eyes are beginning to glaze over again. I'm guessing it's due to my pure stabby feeling toward....I don't know...prologues!!
P.S. If you're so inclined to leave a comment because you know one or two fabulous books that had prologues? Don't. I know them. They're not what I'm discussing here. I'm discussing the current trend and what didn't or will not work in future books. xoxoxo <3333(If you followed my tweets, you'll understand why these were placed here.)

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  1. I've even learned that starting in the right place can even apply to the first few chapters. I've cut the prologue from two of my novels and I love them much more now.

  2. Um... While I do understand about not starting your novel in the right place (done it myself a number of times), and normally I do NOT write prologues and I had the same view of them as you did. BUT recently I had an editor at a Big Six publisher tell me for one particular novel: "This needs a prologue".

    Really. He had a good point and a solid reason for wanting it, and I wrote the prologue during my next revision. The beta readers have all liked it (one absolutely loved it) -- and I've read some prologues that needed to be cut for various reasons. It CAN be done, but there's got to be a really, REALLY good reason for it. Don't use it as a crutch, but it can be useful.

    And I learned that there are no absolutes in writing.

  3. If the prologue is strong enough (eg.still has that hook), then i don't really mind reading them. It's when they bombard you with events that they become tiresome. Most of the time they can be avoided, but if you must use them (and i agree with Christine here, in that sometimes they are needed), then make them entertaining. After all, surely that's the most important thing.

  4. Even if a book has a good prologue, I won't know unless a friend who read the book and recommended it to me, told me there was a good prologue to read. Other than that I skip it. Why? Because I have seen too many bad ones.

    It's just like the manual of something you buy in the store. Sure it's there and you can go through it, but I'd rather start making margaritas with my blender right away vs. learning from the manual that I need a 120VAC outlet...stupid and redundant stuff, just like a prologue.

    But if the writing is good, I might go back and sneak a peek at it just to see what I missed.

  5. I totally agree about prologues. Most of the time, I hate them, because either they serve as info dumps or they're about other characters who don't really matter. Sometimes they can work, but most of the time I find them uninteresting and unnecessary.

  6. For the most part, I agree with prologues. Unless they are absolutely necessary and really get the action going, dropping you right into the world, then I don't really see them working.

    Even for epic and high fantasy, lately, the prologue has been dropping out unless it is action packed. It used to be that there would be info dumps and maps and family tree diagrams and character profiles, but now there is usually just the map and actual prose that draws you in, very quickly, to the heart of the conflict.

    That being said, I am trying that new kind of prologue, which I feel is absolutely necessary-- which is strange for me, since I tend to hate all prologues. And introductions. And other things which come before the story starts. For all intensive purposes: get on with it or get out is my opinion on storysmithing.

  7. Prologues can be great if done well and in the correct setting. I am one of those people who will keep reading a book no matter what, so a bad prologue isn't a deal breaker, but I agree that they are necessary on very rare occasions. Perhaps a good way to make sure that the prologue isn't necessary is to write it without the prologue first, and see if you can make it work. And then if not use the prologue as the last resort.

  8. In books that I have loved that have prologues, I have found little use in reading them until I am re-reading it (mainly, these are high-fantasy novels or series). Most often, the info they provide is either tangentially related to the story (and may be good, but only when you have a grasp of the world already), or the payoff comes when you get to the end of the book (ie. the prologue, however well-written, doesn't tell you enough about what is going on for it to carry into the first chapter, because the first chapter usually starts fresh).
    Far more important on page 1 than the story setup (which is better served as we get to know the characters) is the hook that draws us into the story.
    "Chances are, if your story doesn't move along by the middle of the first chapter, it won't be read to the end." <-- I totally agree with this.