The Maligned Prologue

Word of mouth or a striking book jacket induces many a reader to open a book to page 1. In a literary novel the narrator’s voice alone will draw the reader forward, intrigued by the idiosyncratic point of view from the opening line. Authors that are first learning the craft, however, cannot rely on this advantage. They instead must rely on a more blunt instrument: forward momentum. In terms of plot dynamics, action propels a story forward. That’s why so many novels employ a prologue—an exciting scene that captures the reader’s attention right away.

Of course, for every good idea in fiction, there is a critic that decries it. I don’t advocate prologues inflexibly, but the impulse behind using one is not wrong-headed. That means the novel’s opening does its job—lure the reader further into the book. That’s far better than the alternative.

Perhaps because the author has followed some teacher’s decree to avoid prologues, I will read an opening chapter that describes a character engaged in a fairly mundane crisis, strewn with bits and pieces of character description and background. I note right away that the book is written in the third-person voice, from the outside—because the author has not yet developed a fluent narrative voice. The ending of the chapter trails off, usually inside the lead character’s mind. So a reader is left with the question: why do I want to turn the page to Chapter 2?

You must have confidence in yourself as an author. Yet you cannot make the mistake of thinking that advice suitable for an Iowa MFA candidate will work for you. If you know you still feel distant from your protagonist, you’re not going to write the book from the inside-out. Instead, rely on plot to help you. Lead with action, draw the reader into the book. Just remember: every writer’s voice is distinct. You’ll get better, and when you do, go ahead: throw out that prologue.

Exercise: The best advice I can give for this point is: read other books. What type of novel do you think you’re writing? Go out and read an author that is regarded as best in class. Read a page from that novel. Now read a page of yours. Are you matching up? Or do you still have more to learn before you can capture a similar wonderful flow? Don’t be depressed. Just be smart about what you can deliver to the reader.

“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write.”
—William Faulkner

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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