9.28.2017

The Maligned Prologue

A striking cover induces a reader to open a book to page 1. In a literary novel the narrator’s voice alone will draw the reader forward from the first sentence, intrigued by the idiosyncratic point of view. Authors who 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, you can find a school of critics that decries it. I don’t advocate prologues as an axiom—many times they are mishandled—but the impulse behind using one is not wrong-headed. The novel’s opening scene does the job it’s supposed to—lure the reader further into the book.

Far worse is the alternative: a dull opening. Say you have an opening chapter that describes a character engaged in a fairly mundane crisis, strewn with bits and pieces of character description and background. The ending of the chapter trails off, usually inside the lead character’s mind. So a reader is left with the question: Why should I bother turning the page to Chapter 2?

While you must have confidence in yourself as an author, you cannot make the mistake of thinking that advice suitable for an Iowa MFA candidate will work for you. If your protagonist does not have an instantly captivating point of view, you should rely on plot to help you. Lead with action, draw the reader into the book.

If you’re not sure, the best advice I can give you 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 the first page of that novel. Now read your first page. Are you matching up with that wonderful voice? Or do you still have more to learn before you can dominate the page? Don’t be depressed. Just be smart about what you can deliver to the reader.

Exercise: One way to start with a strong pull is moving a scene from later in the book up front. You feature a central crime first, then backtrack to the beginning to unfold why the crime took place. This is a very common narrative structure even for a literary novel. Just make sure you don’t divulge all the great details. Tell a portion of the scene—and tell the rest when you reach the scene again in its chronological place.

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.”
—Benjamin Franklin

 Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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