The Sufficient Prologue

A novel tends to be more slowly paced in the first third of the book. That’s because you have to introduce the major characters and give us some idea why we should care about them. Knowing their novel needs a compelling opening, many writers resort to an action-filled prologue. A deranged killer stalks an increasingly frightened young woman, or the like. With the scene-ending murder or other high point of drama, the reader is forced to turn the page to see how the novel will resolve the injustice.

If you want to do this, though, you can’t skimp on the effort. I see prologues that are a half page, a page, or maybe two pages long. Some action is instantly foisted upon me, and some terrible thing happens to a character I don’t know at all. Then the chapter’s over. I’m left wondering: Who was that masked man? Why in the world should I care about the perp or the victim?

Worse, I feel like the prologue has been dashed off, then stuck up front. I can almost hear the writer saying to herself, “Okay, I did what they said.” The problem is, the worst example of her writing has been placed at the most crucial juncture of the book, right at the beginning. If that opening half page doesn’t grab me, odds are good that I’m not going to bother reading the rest of the book.

The author has realized the imperative but then failed in the execution. A prologue needs to function as its own little story. You give us someone to care about, placed in a precarious situation that is developed fully enough that we feel nervous, and then something bad happens. Beginning, middle, and end. Can you do that in a half page? I never say never, but why don’t you give yourself a break? Think in terms of a minimum of five pages. That’s about how long a typical action scene is. Why should a prologue be different?

Exercise: The longer a bookstore browser holds your book in her hands, the better the chance she will buy it. If you have created a very short prologue, think about ways that you could fill out what the affected character does before you crank up the tension to ten. What is he thinking, at a dozen different points, before you kick into high gear? Think of it this way: the reader needs a reason to care about the victim in order to want justice for him.

“Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.”    
—W. C. Fields

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Show, Don’t Talk

As any reader of commercial fiction knows, dialogue dominates the proceedings. Up to 90 percent of the content of bestsellers consists of characters discussing the charged situation they find themselves in. Dialogue is a frothy form of narrative, and that suits the mood of the weary commuter or squinting beachgoer just fine. Light reading to pass the time: that is a tried and true formula for success.

When that same reader decides to write his own book, it is not surprising that he emulates that style. Dialogue is easy to write, after all. It suits the time needs of many hobbyists, since a few pages can be ripped off in a matter of minutes. It also can be produced even when a person is worn out after a day of work. She can read the results on the weekend, when she has a block of free time, and discover: hey, this stuff is pretty good. 

You may, however, forgive John Grisham for not quaking in his boots just yet. As anyone in any other field of endeavor knows, a prize easily won may not be esteemed as highly by others. Any author needs to put her work in context. I have had conversations in which the person I was talking to somehow felt the office manual she had written was in the same league as the novel I was editing. By way of analogy, would you regard chatter in a supermarket aisle as equivalent to a Ruth Bader Ginsburg talk at the 92nd Street Y? Of course not. 

While office mates can get away with strange conflations of relative values, you have a tougher audience. The person reading your book has likely read dozens of books in your field. Are you really matching up with your favorite author? Entertaining a reader is hard work. 

A fictional conversation works best when it discusses either a plot event that just happened or an event about to happen. In other words, dialogue usually does not drive a story. You need to walk the talk—and that means devising a plot in which the characters are more than armchair quarterbacks. Sure, they do a lot of talking—deep inside a mine in Uganda. Or in a back aisle in WalMart while they’re stuffing sock packs inside their coat liners. Put them in danger first, then see what they have to say as the missile is about to launch.

Exercise: Review the stretches of dialogue in the manuscript. After each one, write down, in one sentence, what the conversation was essentially about. That is a plot point. When you have finished, read down your list and see what your story is really accomplishing. If too many conversations revolve around the same plot points, you need less talk and more doing.  

“A lot of good arguments are spoiled by some fool who knows what he is talking about.” 
—Miguel de Unamuno

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine



What Has Happened Lately?

In trade publishing, nearly all nonfiction books are sold through a marketing document called a proposal. While space limits discussing all of its sections, an essential one is the first section a prospective agent or editor reads: the Overview. In 3-5 pages you need to encapsulate what your book is about, including its selling points. If the Overview doesn’t capture the publishing professional’s interest, she probably won’t bother reading the rest of the proposal.

Because most nonfiction authors write about what they know well—usually developments in their profession—their passion for the subject shines through the prose. Many an author knows he is part of a long continuum, building on the shoulders of giants before him. That thorough knowledge suffuses the material.

Once the first draft of the Overview is written, an author is advised to stop and ask herself one question: what does the agent or editor know about the topic? Most people who work in publishing specialize in a certain area, or a few main areas. So they also know all of the works written by the previous giants. They rightly believe that a reader will choose a book written by an established authority rather than one by a newcomer.

How do you distinguish yourself in a crowded field? Your best advantage is the span of time that separates your book from theirs. Let’s say you want to write about teenage girls gaining self-confidence. A giant in that field is Raising Ophelia, published in 1995. That gives you 20 plus years of new developments in the field since the book was written. Right away you can start listing landmark clinical studies and school programs that have occurred since then. Does your book cover those new developments?

You have to take a further step, though. What other best-selling books in your field have come out since then, even if they build directly on the shoulders of Ophelia? Let’s say a book came out in 2010. Do the selling points you’re including sound a lot like the main points of that book? Then you’re still in danger of sounding like me-too. What has happened in the seven years since then? Can you find 4-5 points—which hopefully include your original contributions—that are fresh?

Exercise: Amazon.com is a good place to go to compare books. Each title has a blurb, and often an Inside Look, that lists its main selling points. If you wish to go deeper, type in the book title and then “review.” Some critic out there will provide what is essentially a synopsis of the selling points. Once you have drawn up a list of them, check that against the list of your points.

“People are in such a hurry to launch their product or business that they seldom look at marketing from a bird's-eye view and they don't create a systematic plan.”
—Dave Ramsey

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.