May 23 2015

Write That Prologue

Prologue - Dragonmount: The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory...We hear it all the time.

“Agents hate prologues.”

“My editor cut the prologue.”

“I always skip prologues; they’re boring.”

“I never made it through the prologue.”

Some people consider them the kiss of death; others don’t go so far, but when you speak the word their lips bend into a frown, and they begin a lengthy explanation of why writing a prologue for your novel is a Bad Idea.

I’m going to tell you why they’re wrong.

First and foremost, never let someone else tell you what you can and cannot write. The only way to become a good writer is to practice writing. Whether you get that practice as part of an English degree or while scribbling fanfiction on your lunch break, every word you write is progress. The only time you’re not improving as a writer is when you’re staring at a blank page, afraid to put words onto it.

Rant over; back to the topic. Why should you write that prologue? Because you need to. You, the writer, need to get it out of your brain and onto the page. Once it’s there you can inspect it, play with it, and search for the value in it. Like panning for gold, you may find only a few precious nuggets among the sand and gravel, but you’re still a few nuggets richer than you were before. Or you may discover an entire scene which, while it may or may not end up at the forefront of your novel, might fit in better elsewhere, maybe in an entirely different book.

Let’s consider each type of prologue, and the value each one has to offer by writing it.

1: The Infodump
This is by far the most vilified (and most frequently skipped) of all prologue types. It’s easy to see why; with few exceptions, nobody likes a history lesson. They’re dry and boring and can’t we just get on with the action? I’m never going to remember that the Evil King of the Distant Empire kidnapped the Raven Princess with the help of the Wizard Potentate and was slain by the Helmed Hero with the Sword of Might after a Great War that destroyed the Lost Kingdom, unless I have some context to put it in.

The infodump is rarely a good place to start a novel. But in my experience, it’s one of the easiest places to mine for story. Write it out. DO IT. Then go through with a red pen and circle every key piece of information that your reader needs to know in order to understand what’s going on. This becomes your Foreshadowing Checklist.

Now, work the important details into the story, making sure that you mention each point well in advance (I prefer a chapter or more ahead) of where it becomes relevant, but in a place where the context can hook that fact in the reader’s mind. Let Penny Protagonist compare her romantic rival to the Raven Princess, whose beauty caused a war between the Lost Kingdom and the Distant Empire. Have the village boys argue over who will play the Evil King and who gets to wear the Hero’s Helmet. Make them sweat when their routine is interrupted by a visitor from the Wizard Potentate. You may or may not mention the Sword of Might when Penny finds the rusty old falchion in her uncle’s attic, but you certainly need to make sure you do it before she awakens the weapon’s full power. Now that these ideas are fixed in the reader’s mind, your wizard can unveil the history to convince Penny that she is the Child of Destiny. You might even get to reuse some of that prose you wrote!

2: Character Backstory
Your readers might not need to know from page one that Penny Protagonist lost her parents in an avalanche while fleeing the Distant Empire, but you, the writer, do need to know it. It is perfectly acceptable to write this scene out, because you might learn some important details about the incident that you wouldn’t have considered before you wrote it.

In addition to character backstory sketches, I often write a scene from two different perspectives before deciding which is the best to use in the final version. I have one scene in particular that I rewrote three separate times–I ended up still using the original perspective character for the final version, but doing the other two perspectives taught me vital things about the other characters in the scene, and made it stronger in the end.

The important thing to take away from this is, you shouldn’t be afraid to write a scene that you know won’t be part of the finished draft. Let your characters teach you about themselves–and then use what you’ve learned to make the story stronger.

3: The Flashback
Closely related to the Character Backstory prologue, the Flashback delves into history, often for the purpose of hooking the reader with action which may or may not be related to the main plot. While your editor will most likely axe this if you forget to take it out, there’s no reason not to hone your skill by writing it, and just as many opportunities to learn about your setting. (And just think; if you ever become really famous, some editor might take all your little deleted scenes and publish them anyway.)

One of the easiest ways to write yourself out of a plot hole is to take little pieces of your world and just freewrite about it. Your characters have history, but you’re not sure exactly what happened? Jot it down, hammer it out. It’s still a part of your novel, even if the reader only ever sees the distilled version of it. And if you write something that truly has nothing to do with the story you’re working on? Well, maybe that idea needs a novel of its own.

Have you ever written something for your own benefit, knowing it wouldn’t be part of the finished version?

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