2.23.2017

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

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