News: I’m going to start trying to post more than once a week, maybe Wednesdays and Saturdays/Sundays if all goes well.
Also, I’m starting a series called “The Seven Secret sins” that highlights seven sins most writers commit without ever knowing it. My entry Dialogue Tags was Secret Sin #1. Today’s article is Secret Sin #2. Keep checking in for more of these.
As a writer, you often hear the same bits of advice: Show, don’t tell. Write every day. Perfect your first chapter. But one of the things you don’t hear much about are prologues. And this is where the secret sin part comes in. The average prologue stinks.
I can hear you gasping. But think about it – when was the last time you took your time reading a prologue? When was the last time one swept you off your feet? Now, contrast this with how often you rush through prologues, bored with all the description and musing, tired of wondering how what you’re reading now connects with that you’ll read later.
I know this sounds like I have a thing against prologues. But they’re not bad in and of themselves. They’re a tool, and you can use them the right way as well as the wrong way. Let’s talk about this difference.
A good prologue…is short and to the point. It describes one moment in time that directly affects the rest of the story. It reveals something that a reader must know later on. It is the skeleton in the closet, the gun on the mantel.
A bad prologue…spends too much time cultivating a scene, describing the setting and the characters, dwelling on mundane facts. It’s filled with musings. It’s melodramatic. It’s clogged with backstory, telling, or infodumps. It’s a dream of the future or a nightmare of the past. Essentially: it is bad writing.
I know that hurts. But please, think about it. You’ve probably heard that a novelist has to hook the reader off the bat – in the first sentence, first paragraph, the first five pages. The prologue tops all of these. It is the most important part of your story. So go read your prologue, and ask yourself…
If you cut it out, would the rest of the story make sense? The average prologue is as necessary as the average infodump. A writer wants feels they are necessary, but in reality, the reader can manage without.
Can you weave your prologue into your narrative? Go through your novel and look for places to add clues from your prologue. These clues can be very subtle – a snippet of dialogue, an odd reaction by a dependable character, urban legends, town gossip. The trick is making the discovery feel natural.
Can you make a new scene that says the same things, while being part of the real-time action? If you can’t disperse all the clues throughout the story, make it part of the story. Change the heading of your prologue to Chapter 1. Revise the plot, and let a main character be privy to the action. If your prologue is in place to help readers figure out your ending, put it near the end where it belongs.
Did you start to story at the wrong time? This happens. If you’ve written a prologue that can’t be used in any of the ways I talked about above, then maybe your story needs to start earlier. Or maybe you started too soon, and your prologue explains an unimportant part of the story. Try messing around with these options and see where it gets you.
How could you make it read better? If your prologue is still intact, give it a harsh edit. Shorten it. Cut out as much of your description as you can without loosing the reader. Treat this like a flash-fiction piece: what is the core message here, and how can you get it across in as few words as possible?
A bad prologue can go stale in a reader’s hands. A good prologue can kick in the readers knees, throw them into the trunk of a car, and squeal off into the night with them in tow. I want to be kidnapped. If you think your prologue does this, then keep it. But make it work. Make it deserve to stay.