Monday, May 12, 2014

Prologues: Not as Evil as You Think

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Prologues get a bad rap in the writing world, but they have their uses. What we write in a prologue is often important information we want the reader to know, we're just not sure how to get it in there. Next time you feel the urge to write a prologue, go for it. You might just be clarifying vital background material about your novel.

A Long Time Ago in a Story Far, Far Away...

I've written many a word that never made it into the final draft, not because they were badly written words, but because it was me figuring things out about the story or a character. Sometimes we need to let the ideas pour from our heads and see where they go, like brainstorming on paper. The trouble starts if we try to keep all those brainstorming words in the final text. While some might work just fine, most of them can usually be stuck in our NOTES folder.

When you write a prologue, look back and decide if you really need that actual scene, or if you were just clarifying your thoughts. Does it...

1. Show a critical piece of the protagonist's history that plays a vital role in the story?

If so, there's a a better than average chance that this is more for your benefit than the reader's. This is probably your protagonist's motivating secret, flaw, or past shame. This event shaped them as a person and plays a huge role in how they see themselves and the world around them. It's probably something they have to overcome or face, very likely part of their internal character arc. But it probably doesn't belong at the start of the story, even though you needed to write it to fully understand what's driving your protagonist.

Instead, look for ways to hint at this past that directly affect the opening scene:
  • What quirks or behaviors might have resulted because of this past? 
  • What fears can you show that are relevant to what's going on in the preset day?
  • What stimuli in the present day might trigger a past memory?
  • What memories might cloud the current judgment of your protagonist?
  • What single scar (physical or emotional) is your protagonist still carrying from that event you might show?

2. Show a critical piece of the world's history that plays a vital role in the story?

If you're writing fantasy or science fiction, you're probably fleshing out your world building and pinpointing that major moment that set the plot events in motion. While it's good for you to know these things, the reader won't really care. They're interested in the characters about to be slammed by these events.History only matters when it plays a role in something readers care about, and until they meet and bond with a characters, those details are just words.

Instead, look for ways to show the results of this history in the opening scene: 
  • What customs resulted because of this event?
  • What myths evolved that might be apparent in how people act?
  • Are there any foreshadowing details that can hint at what's coming?
  • Are there any forbidden elements that are still practiced today?
  • Did any slang term or common sayings result from this history?

3. Show a critical piece of information about a non-protagonist character that plays a vital role in the story?

Perhaps it's the antagonist, or the love interest, or some character that holds a key piece of information the protagonist needs to win. Writing out these scenes can help you understand who this key player is and how they fit into the tale. But seeing the scene probably isn't critical for the reader, and often spoils the surprise and kills the tension.

Instead, look for ways to build mystery about this person as the story unfolds:  
  • How does this person feel about your protagonist? Your antagonist?
  • What hints can you leave that would suggest this scene?
  • Where might this person's plan be used to complicate your protagonist's plan?
  • When would be the worst moment for your protagonist to find out about this person and their plan?
  • When is a good moment for this person to reveal that they're up to something and up the tension?
Prologues  are often filled with set up, backstory, and infodumping because we're still processing information in our heads. We know we need that information at some point, but most of the time we don't need to let readers know that information before the story even starts. Using what we learn from the prologue enables us to craft a better story and lay the hints and groundwork that will hook a reader and make them ready for us to spill the beans.

Try this article for more on determining if you really need that prologue or not.

How do you feel about prologues?

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. I see the value in this kind of self-test, and in any time writing about the world. Again, an unused prologue could even be published in the extras you suggested at the last post but one, or at a blog. I like the idea that all kinds of 'non-canon' elements of a fictional world could be kicking around, and this is very suggestive of the fictional polycosmos concept.

  2. There were great answers to ask yourself when it comes to a prologue. They can be a place for infodump and putting in all those worldbuilding details you slaved over!

    I have a prologue in my WIP, but it's only a paragraph long that describes the aftermath of an event that is key to the story. I didn't want it to be pages long (because those types of prologues really turn me off!) but give the reader just enough to get ready for the story.

  3. Porky: It would be good for a website treat. I might have to look into adding some once the whole series is out there.

    M.McGriff: There are prorogues out there that work very well. Shorter does seem to be a key factor in the ones that work.

  4. You put this so well. Great exercise. So much of what we write in the first draft is for ourselves--introducing the character to ourselves. But for beginning writers, it's hard to let go of any words they've actually got down on paper. This might help. Thanks for another great post.

  5. Nice! Helpful. I just finished my WiP so now I'm contemplating that fantasy novel I wrote the prologue to, then ditched for greener pastures/ideas. I don't think I need the prologue, really. Like you said--incorporate the ideas in later. :)

  6. Anne: It's not always easy for experienced writers either, LOL. Thanks!

    Carol: Exactly. But they do get the wheels turning sometimes. As they say, no writing is ever wasted.

  7. I wrote the world's longest prologue during Camp Nano last month. I wrote 102K words which I thought was my novel, but when the month was done and I had the chance to look at what I had done, I realized my novel actually started just after all that stuff! Imagine my surprise.

    But I don't regret it, and I definitely have a lot of material to draw from in those 102K words. And I got to know my characters much better than I otherwise would have, and some of the things I had planned for the novel have changed based on the characters' growth going differently than I thought it would.

    I'll never publish all that as a prologue, but if my book gets picked up, and popular, I would go back and see if I can work that beginning into an actual "coming of age" fantasy story (I mean the genre is fantasy). Otherwise, it was an incredible month and I've got all kinds of stuff at my hands for future use of one sort or another.

  8. I never encountered the idea that prologues were bad until I started reading about writing! I always read prologues, and I don't understand why people skip them. Some say they do so as a matter of course. If the prologue is connected to the rest of the story, then that's where the story begins...

    I'm saying this with my reader hat on: maybe liking prologues has to do with wanting more of the story? I like epilogues too! Readers often want to know more about the world of the novel, more about the characters - what happened after the final page? And so on. TV-series get spin-offs, YA writers publish "companion" texts to their main story line, and when world-building notes from authors such as Tolkien are published, lots of people want to read them to learn more about their favourite story world. These things could be shuffled off to the non-canon "extras", as Porky suggests above, but if a prologue is tightly connected to the plot/characters in one particular book, then I think it is canon.

    While there are those who don't think prologues part of the "real" story, I think there are many who simply expect them to be and appreciate them as such. Or, if not part of the real story, then as part of the "behind the scenes" before (or after, in the case of epilogues) it. A teaser?

    Your tips are welcome, though! They all make the writer know the characters better, and that can only be a good thing:)

  9. I, like Linda, also find this a little confounding, and reading this piece (days ago) has interrupted my writing because I have *always* had the prologue in mind as the beginning of my present WiP. I remain open to being convinced otherwise. But, I cannot help wondering what Star Wars would have been like without the opening of Leia's ship being captured

    My prologue is deliberately exposition-free, expressing the key points through a single, lengthy action and dialogue scene, during which the villain is established, the threat made clear and the protagonist is firmly established as the last hope. Sure, most of the characters are killed off, and we begin again with the protag', ... why is this so wrong?

    1. It's not wrong at all. There's nothing inherently wrong with prologues. If they do everything a strong opening needs to do, they work just fine. They just happen to be something that is done poorly a high percentage of the time. This is why so many advise not to use them. Far too often they're huge infodumps or world building backstory that only work if you already know the story and understand what it all means.

      If your prologue works and makes the novel better, that's great and you did it right.

      I never saw the opening of Star Wars as a prologue. It follows the main characters (Lucas has said that the droids were the protagonists' in this tale), is the inciting event (if this didn't happen there'd be no story), and gets the action moving right away. It's a solid opening scene. Now, if it had opened with someone from the Phantom Menace, that would have been a prologue to me (grin).