Bloody Good Writing Volume 3: First Pages & Prologues, or What Matters Most to Start Your Story
Written by: Tom Leveen
When I ask you to send the first page of your manuscript, and only your first page, for me to critique, it’s for a very simple reason:
Most of what I—and any editor or agent and many readers—find wrong or missing in that first page is likely to plague the entire manuscript.
Poor character development, shoddy grammar or spelling or punctuation, clichés, trite writing . . . if they’re in the first page, I guarantee that 9.7 times out of 10, they will be found in the entire story, because those things are endemic to the author. They are voice and craft and style things that can take a long time to train out of yourself if no one points them out.
Here’s one example from a question I recently got from a student. When I asked for the first page, her immediate response was, “Well, do you mean the first page of the prologue, or the first page of the story?”
Full stop! Do you see where we’ve already gone off the rails, and we haven’t even seen the manuscript yet?
Far be it from me to reignite the old Prologue vs. No Prologue War that is probably still smoldering somewhere in the fiery bowels of the internet. But here’s my opinion on the matter, and I’m sticking by it:
I have never read a prologue that couldn’t have effectively been wrapped into the story proper.
I admit, there are some readers of some genres who genuinely like a nice, engrossing prologue—
but “engrossing” is the key word there, and most prologues simply aren’t. There’s no real reason I can think of to use a prologue, when any information in it—an info-dump, as they’re called—could be conveyed in a scene, with action, between characters. Those three things are what we fall in love with in our favorite stories.
It’s revealing when a student asks if I want the first page of the prologue or the first page of the story. It sort of shows that prologues are, by their nature, not part of the story. They are little dumps of information authors think their dumb readers need to know up front. It’s simply not true. Readers are smart; they’ll follow you. Parcel out the info in a prologue throughout the book as needed. It will keep readers engaged right from the beginning.
The other reason I advise against them is that prologues are often a cheat. By their very nature, they put distance between the reader and the characters. They don’t allow for the reader to jump right into their protagonist’s head, and the protagonist and her problem are the reason we picked up the book in the first place. But otherwise, they are as bad as using dreams to start a novel: misleading readers and refusing to let them have access to the star of the book.
(You . . . don’t start your story with a dream, do you? Whew. Good. Avoid that.)
(At all costs.)
So are there effective, engrossing prologues out there? Sure. My point is simply that the information contained in the vast majority of them could have been sprinkled throughout chapters 1, 2, 3, and even beyond as needed.
If you find yourself saying (as this student did), “But I have to catch everyone up to speed!” then you’ve started in the wrong place.
I’ll make allowances for, say, the original Star Wars prologue-crawl. For one thing, obviously, old George was starting with Part IV, so we did need a little background. Second, it’s not easy to get exposition into scenes! I understand that. Often when we try—in film or fiction—it comes out hackneyed and forced. (HA! Forced! Get it? …Sorry.) So in this case, I think a prologue was maybe the right way to go.
Also Highlander (the original 1986 film) has a pretty decent prologue, and here’s why: It’s narrated by Sean Connery, so that’s bad-ass. But ignoring that for the moment (because he won’t be narrating your prologue), the best thing about it is it’s about 45 words long. If you can accomplish either of those things in your prologue, then Godspeed.
But even then, it’s kind of overwrought and totally unnecessary.
To my point: Sean Connery notwithstanding, there is nothing in those 45 words that we don’t learn eventually over the course of the film. If the opening sword fight doesn’t hook us right off the bat, what good will 45 words help? (Also, it is punctuated horribly. What is that, like, six ellipsis dots? Come on.)
So be careful with prologues. I never say “never,” but really stop and consider if there is a better way—with character, action, and scene work—to get the information delivered to the reader. It’s almost always the stronger choice.
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Bonus marketing tip (and you’ll appreciate this when it’s your novel that’s coming out):
My sixth novel, SHACKLED, is released August 18, 2015. But it is extraordinarily helpful to have a ton of pre-orders on Amazon. It helps the novel get traction on Amazon’s algorithms and results in more visibility on their site. If you’re enjoying the Bloody Good series, do me a big favor and pre-order SHACKLED today. Thanks, everyone!
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