Pensées on Prologues

Pensées on Prologues

In preparing to query, I am of course obessively interested in every tweet, post, or rumor about agent pet peeves that I run across. Not that I’m unfamiliar with this process–I’ve studied it for years, and frequently help my editing clients prepare query packages.

But when we’re talking about my book, the doubts come flying in like an EF-5 tornado.

One of the authors I really enjoying following on twitter (not stalking, more like a puppy tagging along, looking for tasty crumbs) is Delilah S. Dawson. She’s clever, funny, and generously shares useful tips she’s picked up on the way to becoming an established author.

I was nodding my head along with her stream of industry advice tweets until this one popped up:

I understand, to a certain extent, the bad rap that prologues have picked up over the years. I’ve judged enough writing contests and consulted on enough manuscripts to recognize that it’s an oft-abused technique. I’ve given advice to writers to cut the prologue, or weave it more organically into the story (if it could work that way; sometimes it can’t). I’ve read advice to set it aside and use it as a giveaway after the book is released, and I love that idea.

But I’ve seen a lot of cases where it worked beautifully. Especially in SciFi/Fantasy, where a skilled writer can use a prologue to gently introduce the reader to the world she’s built, or set up some important rules so a character’s actions in chapter 1 have a weightier impact.

Off the top of my head, I gave Elantris as an example. I use that book all the time as a tool to teach writers how to absolutely knock the reader’s socks off with fantastic first lines. (Go ahead, pull out your copy and re-read just the very beginning of the prologue and the first three chapters, when each new character is introduced).

I went back to triple-check, because my memory does get a kick out of playing tricks on my mind. Yes, Elantris was Brandon Sanderson’s first published novel. Maybe it’s an exception; it is exceptional writing, after all, though his craft improves exponentially in Mistborn.

Who knows…as Delilah said, Your Mileage May Vary.

In the sci-fi novel I’m polishing right now, I didn’t have a prologue in the initial drafts, and never planned on writing one. But the very first page felt different from the rest of the chapter. And honestly, I kept finding myself confused about how to look at the initial hook: is it my human heroine’s story, or the story of the alien who sacrificed himself to set everything into motion? Every time I took a stab at writing an elevator pitch or a premise line, the same problem cropped up.

Until I moved that first page into the prologue.

Suddenly, it made sense. I rewrote it and rewrote it until I was sure there was no hint of an info dump and nothing inherently confusing to anyone who doesn’t know the rules of my world (aka, everyone but me). I kept it under one page. If I succeeded at what I was aiming for, then the prologue sets the tone of the book, foreshadows the choices my heroine will have to make, and lays some guide rails for learning the mythology of the world I’ve designed.

The only way to know for sure is to send it out into the wild and see if it gets ripped apart by rabid agents. I’ll let you know how that goes.

While you’re waiting, go pre-order Servants of the Storma southern gothic YA fantasy by Delilah that looks to be a delightfully chilly read.

Short & sweet:

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