Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
November 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.

Often, prologs can feel like over-attempts on the author's part to speak directly to the reader, or to fill in background details that the first chapter won't and can't do. But whenever you are tempted as a writer to stop telling your story and start explaining, it's a bad sign. I'm not saying that you never use backstory, but it should be part of the story. When it goes on too long (usually more than a couple of paragraphs), it has stopped the flow of the story and I recommend you reconsider. A prolog that feels like an author shouting "Look at me!" is also generally a bad idea. Readers are already looking at you. Make it worth their while without self-consciousness.

Think also about the reality that when an editor or agent opens your manuscript and sees a prolog on the first page rather than a first chapter, you are tagging yourself as a certain kind of writer. You may not wish to be in the same category with other writers who also do this. Consider sending the first chapter instead of the prolog and see if it's strong enough. If it isn't, then a prolog isn't going to save your story. If it is, then maybe you don't need it. You can talk it over with your editor or agent once the manuscript has been acquired and you no longer seem like every other writer of fantasy who starts with a prolog.

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 remember reading Dr. Seuss when they were children themselves. But consider how this marks these writers as people who haven't kept up on the market in the last fifty years of publishing. I'm not saying Dr. Seuss doesn't stand up, but I'm not sure that he would sell today. People are doing new, different things with rhyme. Sure, current rhyming picture books and alphabet books are big sellers, but look at them more carefully. If you're a beginner, don't imitate the best sellers slavishly without seeing the subtleties of what they do.

I am well aware of the fact that many fantasies begin with prologs. But look carefully to see what they are doing and why. Also, be aware that you want to stand out. You want to make sure that you have a fresh voice, a new angle on fantasy telling in order for your publisher to pitch you properly to booksellers and for readers to believe that they need to buy you specifically, and not just any other fantasy that happens to be on sale at the moment. Our unique voice is the only thing we have to sell these days. No one has to read a book if they don't want to.

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.

6. A prolog needs a strong voice.

People argue a lot about what "voice" is. I have been known to argue that voice is you breaking the rules on purpose, in terms of grammar, reader expectation, or anything else. But voice is what makes your story sound like you and only you. It's not necessarily a narrator's voice, though it can be. Voice is a bit like you taking off your clothes and looking at yourself in the mirror. A lot of people are afraid of being this honest, but if you're not, you end up hiding yourself and your voice is blunted. You don't work at making a voice better so much as stripping away at the layers of pretense that society works really hard to make us invent to interact with others. Voice is the opposite of that.

7. A prolog should provoke wonder, not boredom.

If you're writing the prolog because you think that your world is too confusing or you want to do just a little bit of an encyclopedia of what your reader might find in a library on your world, no. Don't do it. This is one of the oldest reasons for a prolog ever, and I think it's served its purpose and it's time to give it up. We have better ways of fitting in information like that. Your prolog should not sound like a boring lecture that a teacher would give to a group of students who are throwing spit balls at each other -- and at him. If any of your characters would be tempted to start droning, "Bueller" during your prolog, take it out.

I don't much believe in the idea that you need to have a first line that sells the rest of the book. I've seen too many first lines that are gimmicks and where the rest of the book doesn't live up to the first line -- and was never intended to. When I read a little more, I end up feeling like I've just bought something from a lousy, lying salesman who didn't care about me being happy with my purchase, only about his bottom line. I won't be buying from that salesman again, I can guarantee it.

But think about the prolog as a whole before you send it off. It should sing. I'm not saying it needs to be poetry. But it should work almost as a short story, something you might be able to sell on its own -- it should be that good. It should not sound like anyone else's prolog. It can be a little different from the rest of your book, but be wary of making it so different that it feels like someone else wrote it. You don't want to do a bait and switch on the reader. If that sounds like a contradiction, maybe it is. If you can't figure out your way around it, don't write a prolog.

Okay, 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 and expectations such as:

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. I hope that the challenges I see are ones the character will overcome (some should be overcome, and others shouldn't be).

d. Boy, something big is coming, and I don't know what it is, but I can feel the weight of it in every movement and every character.

e. Is this the way the world really works and if so, can no one change it?

f. What will we lose in order to gain what the ending will bring?

Make sure you as the author know what the questions you want the reader to ask are. You should be holding the reader in the palm of your hand, well aware of what their reactions will be to every paragraph and every snippet of dialog. You want your reader to be afraid when it's the right time, to be rooting for the hero all the way, to be searching for clues to every mystery you've planted, and to never, ever, be bored enough to put the book down.

4. A first chapter should have action. But not that kind of action.

I feel like a lot of writers imagine that having a big battle scene in the first chapter is the way to draw in the reader. Often, the opposite is true. A big battle scene where people die that the reader didn't know beyond a name and a brief description, and an attempt to show the emotions of those who survived is a very difficult thing to pull off. I don't recommend it. I also don't recommend an explosion, a car chase, or any of the big tricks that movies tend to do. Because you know what movies have to do to make those scenes work? They spend the next thirty minutes catching the reader up, and I think that is a cheap trick. Start where the story legitimately starts. But it should start where there is action, where something happens that initiates the movement the rest of the book is targeted toward.

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. I tend to dislike authors who try to make their first chapter different in obvious ways, like telling it in second person or with a dozen different povs or by making the language use so obscure ("authentic") that I don't know what is going on. Telling a good story is more important than bells and whistles, and in my experience, a good story is often a unique one to begin with.

7. A first chapter should make the reader care.

This is part of the reason why a sympathetic main character is important. But you can also make the reader care about a relationship between a group of people, about a building with a history, about a really good wine, about a perfect piece of music, and a whole lot of other things. When you tell a story with emotion and with vivid details, that draws the reader in and holds them firmly there.

8. A first chapter should leave some threads hanging.

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 cliff-hangers at the end of chapters.

9. 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.

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 at the same time.

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.

Now, after having said all of this, I've probably made half of you feel like you might as well give up. You're never going to accomplish all of this in a handful of pages, right? Well, not on the first draft. And maybe not on the twentieth draft.

A writer friend of mine, Cassandra Clare of the Mortal Instruments books, often tells people that she writes chapter two first, and chapter one last. I think this is a useful piece of advice. I don't follow it, because I have a hard time not writing what I think is chapter one first. But I am well aware of the fact that what I write first rarely turns out to be the correct chapter one.

It's one of those circular conundrums. I don't know what chapter one will be until I write all of the other chapters to the end. But I don't know what the end will be until I write chapter one and all of the other chapters before it. I keep revising and changing. But I will say that chapter one is probably the part that I change the most, even more than the final chapter. I suspect I write mostly because I want to get to this really good ending that is the whole reason for the book in the first place. The first chapter is more of a placeholder to get there. Though hopefully it doesn't feel that way to readers.

The first chapter is very important in every book. If someone doesn't like the first chapter, they won't read the rest of the book most of the time. It's your trailer, in a way. And like a movie trailer, you need to pack in the good stuff. But you need to pack in the good stuff everywhere, not just in the first chapter. Look carefully at it and see if you have chosen the best starting off point.

I frequently read books where it feels like the first fifty pages or so are all a series of first chapters strung together. Usually, the right choice is the last one because that's the one that propels the momentum for the rest of the book. There is only one right first chapter for the story you are trying to tell. If you can't figure out which one it is, you may have this problem. Try taking a chapter out at a time and see if the story makes sense. A first chapter sets everything in motion. It's where the change begins.

Prologs are not in every book and I feel like if you doubt whether your prolog works or not, you should leave it out. If you're going to include a prolog, do it right. Which means do it differently than anyone else has ever done it. And make it a good story.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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