Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
June 2014

Prologs and First Chapters

I recently picked up a book that had a very short prolog that was (I think) an attempt on the part of the author to clue the reader into the fact that the book was going to have paranormal content even though the first chapter was pretty much set in the realistic world of our present. It was also an attempt by the author (I suspect) at writing poetically. By my standard, neither of these objectives of the prolog worked. This is one of the reasons I usually strongly recommend against writing prologs, even though I am very well aware of the fact that many of my own fantasies have prologs.

It's the same reason that picture book editors tend to recommend against writing rhyming picture books or against writing alphabet books. They see so many of them, and almost all of them are done badly. I think the reason they see so many of them in the slush pile is that so many people buy them. Rhyming picture books and alphabet books are big sellers, and beginners gravitate especially toward books that look and sound like the ones that sell big. This is often because beginners tend to read only the top layer of best-selling books. If they read even that much.

More veteran writers will have read a lot more than the best sellers, so they have more tools to work with and a wider sense of what an alphabet book is, and how rhyme is done well besides just "well it sounds like Dr. Suess."

Similarly, if you're a fantasy writer who is a beginner, you're often going to be reading only the top tier of best sellers, and you will see a lot of prologs and think that they are necessary, so just stick one in. You might think you have to have one to draw readers in. You don't, actually. That doesn't mean you can't have one. It just means that you've got to do a good job of making the prolog feel like part of the story, even if it is also acting as a reminder to the reader that the beginning of the story isn't where it's going to stay.

So, some rules of thumb about prologs:

1. A prolog should tell a story.

If your prolog is only a page or two, I'm going out on a limb here to say that I don't think it's worth including. It needs to tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs characters in it. I won't insist they are named characters, but they should be more than stereotypes.

2. A prolog should be necessary.

Obviously, everything in your book should be necessary or it shouldn't be in your book. But your prolog actually needs more justification because it's placed so prominently. I know there are some writers who say that readers may skip the prolog, so you shouldn't make it necessary. I strongly disagree with this theory. If readers skip my prolog, well, they get what they deserve and I suspect they will have to go back and reread it at some point to figure out what is going on later in the story. I'm not saying the prolog is necessary to understand the first page of the book. But there are things later on that are going to depend on the reader understanding the hints in the prolog.

3. A prolog should not be backstory.

This means you should never ever use the prolog as an excuse to tell your reader all the information about a character's birth, growing up years, etc. It should also not be used to tell the reader about the history of the kingdom or the universe. Just don't. If you write like this, you are the reason that readers get trained to skip prologs. If you need the reader to know backstory, fit it into the story like everyone else, bits and pieces here and there. Don't give it all in one lump.

4. A prolog should probably not be about the protagonist.

I'm not saying this is a hard and fast rule, but if you're writing the rest of the book in one or two other main points of view, the prolog needs to justify itself by being from someone else's point of view, someone you likely will not hear from again -- at least not this closely.

5. A prolog should be gripping and intense.

You don't have time in a prolog for a lot of worldbuilding. You are going to leave lots of questions in the reader's mind. And that's fine. If you find yourself stopping and explaining things, you're prologing wrong in my opinion. It should be fast and furious, and you can leave worldbuilding stuff for the first chapter and beyond.

OK, now some rules of thumb on first chapters, and how they are different from prologs:

1. A first chapter should introduce a sympathetic character.

I strongly recommend having the sympathetic character be the viewpoint character. Whoever is the character who is most active should probably be your pov. It becomes really tricky to do someone like Dr. Watson. Obviously, I'm not going to say that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got it wrong. He didn't. But he was using a special exception to this rule that has to do with genius characters and how it is difficult for the average reader to find them sympathetic. Don't try to do a genius character as a pov unless you are yourself a genius.

2. A first chapter should give a few worldbuilding details.

This means not everything. I generally recommend not going off for more than a paragraph, especially in a first chapter, about anything that has to do with worldbuilding. And any worldbuilding you do use should be done in the voice of your pov character. That means that if the pov character isn't going to notice it, you can't write about it without it sounding really weird.

3. A first chapter should raise questions.

The questions should be things like:

a. I wonder if this character will get what s/he wants?

b. I wonder if that is a clue about what will happen in the next chapter (it always should be)?

c. Who is the villain?

Make sure you as the author know what the questions you want the reader to ask are.

4. A first chapter should have action.

You don' t necessarily have to start with the big action sequence in the first chapter. In fact, you probably shouldn't. You've got to let the reader have a chance to care about the character and the world before you put it in jeopardy. But make sure that something happens that has some small amount of danger at stake.

5. A first chapter should be concise.

You should tell what happens in as few words as possible. Of course, this is true for all your writing, not just the first chapter, but the first chapter is a good place to practice.

6. A first chapter should be different.

Ideally, everything in your book is going to be a new take on old clichés. Or possibly so new that it's not even thinking about clichés. But make sure that you start with some of the new, daring things in that first chapter.

7. A first chapter should make the reader care.

This is part of the reason why a sympathetic main character is important. But the last thing you want is to build a careful world and an interesting character and then leave the story without any threads the reader needs to pull on, so that there's no need to turn the page. Your reader should have to find out what happens next. So write your first chapter with that in mind. Don't be shy about some cliffhangers at the end of chapters.

8. A first chapter should make sense.

I have a rule that you shouldn't use more than one made-up word per page in a first chapter (or anywhere else in the book, really -- maybe in a long montage sequence where your wizard is explaining the magic, but be careful!). The more difficult you make it for the reader to understand what is going on, the more likely they will close the book and never pick it up again. Also, the more likely they are not to buy it.

9. A first chapter should ideally have a great first line.

Or something quotable early on. A great bit of dialog would be nice, something poetic. Don't go over the top of this. Make it feel organic to the story.

10. A first chapter should connect to the next part of the story.

Scenes should be thematically connected as they move through the story, even if they aren't immediately connected in a way the reader understands. Your pov character may be the one who is guiding the reader through the story or you may have a narrator who is doing that. Either way, the book must feel like a cohesive whole.

11. A first chapter should feel both like the most important moment of your pov character's life and part of the everyday routine.

Good luck balancing these two, but the best books manage it. You can't have characters dying right and left and make the reader care. But if you can show the character in a regular world, and then in the same chapter show the character being vaulted out of that world, you will have your readers right where you want them.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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