Fiction writing tips: Description of the setting

Landscape photoALWAYS keep in mind that setting is intimately and dynamically involved with both characters and plot. The setting can change, the way the characters view the setting can change, and the setting can influence the plot. Action may be the most important element of fiction, but no novel is fully realized without some description. Here’s an excellent example from Gaylord Dold’s mystery novel Samedi’s Knapsack:

“Roberts walked down the ramp and stood on the hot tarmac, breathing diesel fumes. He was sweating heavily and his shirt was soaked through to the skin. The sky was like a fiery kiln of clay glaze, smelling of sulfur and charcoal smoke. He looked at the low airport complex, sets of concrete buildings with tin roofs, a long hedge of cactus separating the runways from miles of confused, jumbled slums. In the west, high brown mountains rose into crabbed valleys and wrinkled ridges, then a slash of green. All around him the Haitian passengers were lugging their packages and bundles toward a tin customs shed located at the far end of a concrete building with several broken windows and an air conditioner leaking water.”

Note all the sensory details that Dold used.

You should include only the most significant details in a passage of description, as Dold has done. You don’t want an exhaustive catalog of images. That will turn your reader into a clerk taking inventory. Readers won’t do that job for long. Instead of mentioning every item in a room—or every detail of a character and his clothing—choose perhaps three or four vivid and specific details that make the room or that person unique. Remember that the reader and the writer are involved in a creative partnership. The writer uses a broad brush, and the reader fills in the blanks. As a writer, you must trust the reader to do so.

What do I mean by “the most significant details”? Let’s say that you and your spouse go to have dinner at the home of new friends. If you had to write about this experience and describe their home, what would you choose to mention? That they had a couch and a recliner and a big flat-screen TV in the living room? You could do that, although such things aren’t very interesting or revealing. But what if you saw a big glass display case in the living room that was filled with World War II weapons and memorabilia, or beautifully bound copies of the complete works of Shakespeare on a bookshelf, or a liquor cabinet crammed with every alcoholic beverage known to mankind, or a scatter of NASCAR magazines on the coffee table, or a wall filled with arty black-and-white photos of nude women? Things like that are much more informative, aren’t they? That’s what I mean by significant—and that’s what you want to include in description.

When you’re writing description, remember that you want your readers to inhabit your point-of-view character, so you must do that yourself in order to write vivid description. To do that you need to get out of your own brain and see everything through the eyes of your viewpoint character.

Tip #1: Do this exercise: Drive around urban, suburban, and rural areas and stop at places you’ve never seen before. Note what catches your attention first, then what other things stand out. Also notice any obvious smells and sounds.

Tip #2: Placing your viewpoint character in the midst of some activity allows you to integrate description into the action so it is less invasive and more an organic part of the whole. One of the best ways to work in the description of a setting is to move your main character through it. That’s why the Mississippi River was such an effective device in Huckleberry Finn.

Tip #3: Don’t forget about the weather. In some stories the weather is so integral to the story that it goes beyond a mood-setting device to being like another character. Think of the movie Blade Runner, where it’s always dark and rainy.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Writing fiction: How to use multiple viewpoints

Today’s guest post is an excerpt from Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld (@JordanRosenfeld), published by Writer’s Digest Books.

fiction writer at workSome stories require greater scope, more voices, or a different context than can be delivered through the eyes of one protagonist. When you find this to be the case, consider using multiple viewpoints. However, you must think about several factors before launching into this greater undertaking.

In a book with co-protagonists, each character should get approximately equal story weight. In other words, no one character is more important than the other, though one character’s story may seem to drive the action more than the others. Usually these multiples are written in an intimate POV, and each co-protagonist gets his or her own POV chapter or scene, in which we are privy only to that character’s thoughts and feelings. When your co-protagonists appear in a scene together, you still must choose which character’s POV to show it from. This has the potential to get confusing, so remember to imagine that each character possesses a movie camera. The POV comes from the person whose camera (mind) we’re looking through.

Using co-protagonists is different from omniscience, in which the POV can move between the heads of multiple characters in the same scene. Often in omniscient, the story has one protagonist, but the narrator still dips in and out of other characters’ thoughts, adding flavor, clues, and color. But ultimately we are still following only the transformational arc of one character. Using multiple viewpoints can benefit your story in several ways. Keep in mind that when showing the vantage points of co-protagonists in one of the intimate POVs, you must start a new scene or chapter each time you switch.

5 reasons to use multiple viewpoints in your novel

Your story must be told from multiple perspectives. No matter how compelling one person’s journey, some stories are more deeply realized when several people tell the same story, adding different facets to the larger picture. Novels that have done this include All the Light We Cannot See by Kathryn Stockett, and The Hours by Michael Cunningham. This is especially true when each member in your cast of characters provides a unique piece to a larger puzzle: They might not understand each other’s lives, or they might clash against one another as a result of plot events.

Each character offers a unique plot thread or strand to the story.

Multiple POVs only work when each POV character has a truly different story element to offer. They contribute new information, opinions, history, and clues that walk us deeper into the story’s heart.

Each character is compelling and has his own narrative arc.

Sometimes writers confuse secondary or supporting characters for co-protagonists. A true co-protagonist must have his own narrative arc. He must be driven by his own unique goals and undergo a journey of transformation related to the larger plot. That’s a lot harder to do than just maintaining one character’s arc.

Your story spans a wide swath of time and history.

Historical novels or stories that cover large time periods often feel limited when told in only one character’s POV. Since one character may also possess only a portion of the knowledge you need to convey, multiple characters can offer a feeling of depth and richness. But again, don’t bring in a new co-protagonist unless you are sure she is integral to the plot and carries her own arc.

Your book requires a quick and compelling pace.

Multiple-character POVs have the power to make readers turn pages at a fast clip. As you end one character’s compelling scene at an unresolved point, you also create a yearning in readers to know what happens next. Repeat this technique with two or three characters and you create positive page-turning tension.

5 common problems with multiple viewpoints

Before you get too excited about creating a cast of co-characters, it’s wise to consider some of the potential pitfalls inherent to multiple POVs.

Readers don’t need the POV of the antagonist unless you’re redeeming that antagonist via his own narrative arc.

I’ve read a lot of client manuscripts that try to “explain” the antagonist’s actions by offering several chapters from the antagonist’s POV. Unless you plan to redeem your antagonist so that he truly becomes a good, or better, person by story’s end, this is not necessary.

Don’t rehash the same scenes from different characters’ POVs.

Don’t fall into the bad habit of writing the same scene from several characters’ viewpoints. Unless each rendition offers new and potent plot information, you run the risk of boring readers and slowing the pace of the narrative.

Don’t use new characters to offer narrative info dumps or explanatory plot information your protagonist doesn’t provide.

A viewpoint character has to exist for his own story purpose, not just to offer up key plot explanations to carry your protagonist to the next stage of the journey.

Don’t add characters to create new subplots.

Some writers feel that the best way to create a compelling plot is to include lots of subplots linked to more characters. More often than not, this leads to complications. The best plots arise from one character’s problem, past wound, or current challenge. Subplots must also rise organically, like spokes radiating from a central hub rather than a tangled web of overlapping and confusing stories.

The character arc of each co-protagonist should be distinct.

New characters are exciting and fun to write, and it’s easy to dream up a team. But it’s a lot harder to develop a unique story arc for each character. If you can’t quickly think of how each character not only will play an integral part in your plot but also will experience a story-worthy transformation, you’re better off sticking with one protagonist.

Distinguishing multiple protagonists

To figure out how many co-protagonists to include in your story, analyze novels in your genre with multiple viewpoints. You’ll find that three is the average number of co-protagonists, but it’s by no means the rule; many novels have only two POVs. And while focusing on the struggles of more than three POV characters can cause readers to feel torn or confused, that’s not to say it can’t be done: Marlon James’s Man Booker award–winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, has no fewer than thirteen protagonists spanning seven hundred pages. He pulls this off by putting the viewpoint character’s name at the top of each chapter so readers have no doubt whose POV they’re in, and he imbues each character with a distinct voice. However, I prefer books in which readers can tell who the POV character is by his distinct voice and personality alone.

To determine how often to switch to a different viewpoint character, many writers use a formula wherein each co-protagonist gets a POV chapter or scene in a set rotating order: Protagonist A, Protagonist B, Protagonist C, all the way through the novel. Others might structure their scenes so one character appears more often than the others: A, B, A, C, A, B, A, C, or even A, A, B, C, A, A, B, C. This is where scene trackers and plot outlines come in handy. When you’re juggling multiple protagonists, you will need more structural guidance to keep track of the arc and plot outcome for each one.

Paul Thayer
ThayerLiterary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Writing help: Dangling participles

Writers must make sure that descriptive phrases modify what they’re supposed to modify. Scribes must pay particular attention to sentences that begin with verbs that end with -ing and –ed (participial phrases), which often lead many writers to construct sentences with a misplaced modifier called—oh, horrors!— the dreaded dangling participle. Other types of misplaced modifiers, including dangling elliptical adverb clauses, may be camouflaged so well that they’re hard to spot in your own writing.

Here’s a sentence that contains a misplaced modifier (a dangling participle):

Walking through the cheering crowd toward the dressing room, people slapped Tony’s back.

The modifying phrase Walking through the cheering crowd toward the dressing room is misplaced because it modifies the noun that follows it—people—instead of the person who walked through the crowd—Tony. That is, Tony walked through the crowd, not the people. Rewrite this way:

As Tony walked through the crowd on his way to the dressing room, people slapped his back.

Some sentences with misplaced modifiers, especially dangling participles, are hilarious. I found this howler in the dining column of a local newspaper:

Stuffed with ham and served with black beans and rice, Mom would never recognize her Saturday night special.

Poor Mom!

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

Fiction tip: The importance of Chapter 1

Chapter One is extremely important. Do I really need to tell you this? In both commercial and literary novels, this is where you have to hook readers and reel them into your story. It should include a motivating incident (a.k.a. the catalytic event); the problem or at least a hint of the problem that the main character has to deal with; the main character’s response; and the conflict (internal or external) that the problem creates for the main character.

When you consider your main character’s response, you should ask yourself, “What is this person’s goal(s)? What does he or she want? Everybody wants something. I want to be paid for writing this blog, but I’m not holding my breath. The goal can be explicit or implicit, the latter being an intimation, a glimmer, or a hint that readers with an I.Q. higher than room temperature will sense. Why is at least an inkling of the protagonist’s goal so important? Because without a goal the protagonist will take no action and experience no conflict as he/she strives to reach the goal. And without conflict your story will be snore fest.

In short: Goal ➔ Conflict ➔ Struggle ➔ Drama ➔ Emotions ➔ Reader connection

Before you introduce the components of scene-setting, you should have an attention-getting first line in order to pull readers into your story. This is one of my favorites from John D. MacDonald’s Darker than Amber:

“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge.”

How could you not be sucked into a story that begins with that line?

From a much newer novel, Head Games by Craig McDonald, the first line is:

“We were sitting in a back room of a cantina on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, three drinks in, when Bill Wade reached into the dusty duffle bag he had tucked under the table and plunked down the Mexican general’s head.”

The severed head of a dead Mexican general? That gets your attention. Notice how much scene-setting info the author includes in this first line. He tells us that there are at least two characters in this scene, probably male, where the scene takes place, and what happens. The sentence does double duty—grabbing the reader’s attention and dropping him into the fictional scene.

You can find many notable first lines by googling that subject. Here’s one good site:

I have read far too many uninspiring openings written by inexperienced novelists. Often they begin with backstory. They set up the story by downloading a ton of info to readers instead of getting right into the action of the story. In other cases the writer makes a minimal effort to get the story moving by beginning with a dull bit of commonplace action, soon followed by backstory, something like this:

“When Julia woke up, her bedroom was still dark. She shuffled to the bathroom and looked at her tired face in the mirror.”

Then the writer has to tell us why she’s tired, what color her hair and eyes are, how old she is, where she was born, where she went to college, where she lives now, where she works, what guy she has just broken up with, why she’s anorexic, why her mother hates her (or vice versa), her favorite color, the name of her best friend, and how she and her BFF bonded at age six after that day in the bathroom. Etcetera. I’m exaggerating so you get the idea.

This doth not a compelling opening make. Beginning a story with the main character waking up in the morning—used more than you might think—is one of the worst ways to start a novel. It’s beyond cliché.

Writing a reader-grabbing first line, first graf, and first chapter takes a lot of thought and experimentation. I urge you to read the beginning of a truckload of novels, analyze them, and determine what works and what doesn’t. Before long you will get the hang of it.

Tip: If reading the first page induces a coma, that’s not the way you should write.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Grammar tip: “who” and “whom”

Deposit this statement into your memory bank:

Who is the subject, and whom is the object in a sentence.

The subject of a sentence is a noun or a noun substitute about which something is asserted or asked in the predicate (the predicate is the part of a sentence comprising what is said about the subject).

The object of a sentence is a noun or a noun substitute governed by a transitive verb, a nonfinite verb, or a preposition. A direct object is any noun or a noun substitute that answers the question What? or Whom? after a transitive verb. A direct object frequently receives or is in some way affected by the action of the verb. Example:

John hit the ball. (ball is the direct object of the verb hit)

Subject: Who hit the ball? John hit the ball.

Object: John hit the ball to Linda. Linda is the object of the verb hit.

I should define one more term: case. Case is the form of a noun or pronoun in a specific context that shows whether it functions as a subject, an object, or a possessive. We use the terms subjective case for the subject of a sentence and objective case for the object of a sentence.

The pronouns who and whoever are in the subjective case, meaning that they are used as the subject of a sentence. The pronouns whom and whomever are in the objective case, meaning that they are used as the object of the subject in a sentence. See direct object above.

Zzzzzzzzz . . . Right?

Wake up. There’s more.

To find the correct pronoun case in a sentence, you must determine whether the pronoun functions as a subject or an object. To do that, use these tests:

Test for who or whom in the subjective case

Example: I wondered (who, whom) would vote.

Test: Substitute he and him (or she and her): “He would vote” or “Him would vote.” Answer: He. Therefore, because he is subjective, who, which is also subjective, is correct: “I wondered who would vote.”

Test for who or whom in the objective case

Example: Volunteers go to senior citizen centers hoping to enroll people (who, whom) others have ignored. Test: Try using they and them at the end of the sentence: “Others have ignored they” or “Others have ignored them.” Answer: Them. Therefore, because them is objective, whom, which is also objective, is correct: “Volunteers go to senior citizen centers hoping to enroll people whom others have ignored.”

I hope all this makes sense to you so you can apply these rules in your writing.

One final point: Some grammatically correct sentences sound too fussy. If a sentence that says “We had a minister whom everyone seemed to like” sounds that way to you, then recast the sentence:

Everyone seemed to like the minister of our church.

This is fascinating stuff, isn’t it? Now you can amaze your friends by explaining the proper use of who and whom to them. I know they will thank you for that. Surely most of them have lost sleep by wrestling with the who/whom dilemma.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

P.S. — To reward you for reading all this gobbledygook, here’s a limerick that might amuse you:
A certain young man never knew
Just when to say whom and when who;
“The question of choosing,”
He said, “is confusing;
I wonder if which wouldn’t do.”
— Christopher Morley

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.



Writing tip: Avoid redundant expressions

A redundancy is an expression—usually a word pair—that says the same thing twice. One of the words can be omitted without losing the meaning. I typically delete many repetitive words when I edit a manuscript. Here is a list of common redundancies:


(absolutely) essential

(absolutely) necessary

(actual) facts

advance (forward)

(advance) planning

(advance) preview

(advance) reservations

(advance) warning

add (an additional)

add (up)

(added) bonus

(affirmative) yes

(aid and) abet

(all-time) record

alternative (choice)

A.M. (in the morning)

(and) etc.

(anonymous) stranger

(annual) anniversary

(armed) gunman

(artificial) prosthesis

ascend (up)

ask (the question)

assemble (together)

attach (together)

ATM (machine)

autobiography (of his or her own life)



balsa (wood)

(basic) fundamentals

(basic) necessities

best (ever) biography (of his—or her—life)

blend (together)

(boat) marina

bouquet (of flowers)

brief (in duration)

(brief) moment

(brief) summary

(burning) embers


cacophony (of sound)

cameo (appearance)

cancel (out)

(careful) scrutiny

cash (money)

cease (and desist)

circle (around)

circulate (around)

classify (into groups)

(close) proximity

(closed) fist

collaborate (together)

combine (together)

commute (back and forth)

compete (with each other)

(completely) annihilate

(completely) destroyed

(completely) eliminate

(completely) engulfed

(completely) filled

(completely) surround

(component) parts

confer (together)

connect (together)

connect (up)

confused (state)

consensus (of opinion)

(constantly) maintained

cooperate (together)

could (possibly)

crisis (situation)

curative (process)

(current) incumbent

(current) trend


depreciate (in value)

descend (down)

(desirable) benefits

(different) kinds

disappear (from sight)

drop (down)

during (the course of)

dwindle (down)


each (and every)

earlier (in time)

eliminate (altogether)

emergency (situation)

(empty) hole

empty (out)

(empty) space

enclosed (herein)

(end) result

enter (in)

(entirely) eliminate

equal (to one another)

eradicate (completely)

estimated at (about)

evolve (over time)

(exact) same

(exposed) opening

extradite (back)


(face) mask

fall (down)

(favorable) approval

(fellow) classmates

(fellow) colleague

few (in number)

filled (to capacity)

(final) conclusion

(final) end

(final) outcome

(final) ultimatum

(first and) foremost

(first) conceived

first (of all)

fly (through the air)

follow (after)

(foreign) imports

(former) graduate

(former) veteran

(free) gift

(from) whence

(frozen) ice

(frozen) tundra

full (to capacity)

(full) satisfaction

fuse (together)

(future) plans

(future) recurrence


gather (together)

(general) public

GOP (party)

GRE (exam)

green [or blue or whatever] (in color)

grow (in size)


had done (previously)

(harmful) injuries

(head) honcho

heat (up)

HIV (virus)

hoist (up)

(hollow) tube

hurry (up)


(illustrated) drawing

incredible (to believe)

indicted (on a charge)

input (into)

integrate (together)

integrate (with each other)

interdependent (on each other)

introduced (a new)

introduced (for the first time)


ISBN (number)


join (together)

(joint) collaboration


kneel (down)

(knowledgeable) experts


lag (behind)

later (time)

LCD (display)

lift (up)

(little) baby

(live) studio audience

(live) witness

(local) residents

look (ahead) to the future

look back (in retrospect)


made (out) of

(major) breakthrough

(major) feat

manually (by hand)

may (possibly)

meet (together)

meet (with each other)

(mental) telepathy

merge (together)

might (possibly)

minestrone (soup)

mix (together)

modern ______ (of today)

(mutual) cooperation

(mutually) interdependent

mutual respect (for each other)


(number-one) leader in ________

nape (of her neck)

(native) habitat

(natural) instinct

never (before)

(new) beginning

(new) construction

(new) innovation

(new) invention

(new) recruit

none (at all)

nostalgia (for the past)

(now) pending


off (of)

(old) adage

(old) cliche

(old) custom

(old) proverb

(open) trench

open (up)

(oral) conversation

(originally) created

output (out of)

(outside) in the yard

outside (of)

(over) exaggerate

over (with)

(overused) cliché


(pair of) twins

palm (of the hand)

(passing) fad

(past) experience

(past) history

(past) memories

(past) records

penetrate (into)

period (of time)

(personal) friend

(personal) opinion

pick (and choose)

PIN (number)

pizza (pie)

plan (ahead)

plan (in advance)

(Please) RSVP

plunge (down)

(polar) opposites

(positive) identification

postpone (until later)

pouring (down) rain

(pre)board (as an airplane)



(private) industry

(present) incumbent

present (time)

previously listed (above)

proceed (ahead)

(proposed) plan

protest (against)

pursue (after)


raise (up)

RAM (memory)

reason is (because)

reason (why)

recur (again)

re-elect (for another term)

refer (back)

reflect (back)

(regular) routine

repeat (again)

reply (back)

retreat (back)

revert (back)

rise (up)

round (in shape)


(safe) haven

(safe) sanctuary

same (exact)

(sand) dune

scrutinize (in detail)

self-______ (yourself)

separated (apart from each other)

(serious) danger

share (together)

(sharp) point

shiny (in appearance)

shut (down)

(single) unit

skipped (over)

slow (speed)

small (size)

(small) speck

soft (in texture) [or (to the touch)]

sole (of the foot)

spell out (in detail)

spliced (together)

start (off) or (out)

(still) persists

(still) remains

(sudden) impulse

(sum) total

surrounded (on all sides)


tall (in height)

tall (in stature)

(temper) tantrum

ten (in number)

three a.m. (in the morning)

(three-way) love triangle

time (period)

(tiny) bit

(total) destruction

(true) facts

(truly) sincere

tuna (fish)

(twelve) noon or midnight

(two equal) halves


(ultimate) goal

undergraduate (student)

(underground) subway

(unexpected) emergency

(unexpected) surprise

(unintentional) mistake

(universal) panacea

(unnamed) anonymous

UPC (code)

(usual) custom


vacillate (back and forth)

(veiled) ambush

(very) pregnant

(very) unique

visible (to the eye)


(wall) mural

warn (in advance)

weather (conditions)

weather (situation)

whether (or not)

(white) snow

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.


Fiction writing question: Should your novel have a prologue?

Should you write a prologue for your novel? Maybe yes, maybe no. To find the answer, let’s begin by defining the term:
• a separate introductory section of a literary or musical work: This idea is outlined in the prologue.
• an event or action that leads to another event or situation: Civil unrest in a few isolated villages became the prologue to widespread rebellion.

Sometimes I pick up a book and read the prologue and wonder why the author thought it was needed. I ask myself, Does it do anything that can’t be done in the first chapter? If the prologue is all backstory, shouldn’t that material be braided into the story as the plot and characters develop? Is the prologue intended only to hook the reader? If so, why wasn’t that done on page one of Chapter One, where the reader-baiting and -hooking should take place?

You may think I’m death on prologues, but I’m not. A prologue can be effective if it’s written well, with a clear view of its purpose, and if it includes significant facts that contribute to the reader’s understanding of what kind of novel this is and where the plot is heading. Furthermore, contrary to what some believe, I think a prologue can be used to pull readers into the story, to create a sense of place and time, to foreshadow events to follow, and to provide the voice and viewpoint of an important character.

Even so, I often find myself sighing with impatience when confronted with a prologue. Just get to the damn story already! I think. Show me a scene. I want to see someone doing something worth writing about. I want to hear people speak. I want setting. I want conflict. I want to know what kicks this story in the ass to get it moving.

The prologues of far too many self-published novels, especially, contain none of these things. They tell; they don’t show. The only thing they do well is extinguish any interest an intelligent reader has summoned in order to start reading the book in the first place.

That’s why I often urge new writers to deep-six their prologue. I’m pretty sure they haven’t given much thought to the craft of writing one, to its purposes and pitfalls. They just jump into the task of prologue-ing and fire away only because it seems like a good idea at the time and is an easy way to get started. All too often this results in a long-winded info dump of back story and character introduction written from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator, that invisible godlike being in the sky who sees all and knows all, even when we’re in the shower (Yikes!). This kind of narrator is actually . . . Guess who? The writer.

I don’t know about you, but I find no pleasure in hanging out with a bossy, faceless narrator who’s bent on force-feeding me great globs of information that are too much to digest in one sitting before the story gets under way.

Note: Reading page after page of back story and background info about people you don’t know is not entertaining. It’s more like a chore, like trying to memorize a page of a phone book or, even worse, trying to read Ulysses.

I often tell my writers this: Readers won’t be very interested in learning about a character’s background until they’re interested in his or her foreground.

How to drive a literary agent to drink

Some people say that all literary agents hate prologues. Not true. But many of them do. Here’s what some of them say:

“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.” — Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give backstory chunks to the reader that can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!” — Laurie McLean, Foreward Literary

“Prologues often show that the writer doesn’t know where to start the story.” — Carly Watters, P.S. Literary Agency

“Almost all the agents I know completely skip the prologue and start with chapter one when reading sample pages.” — Kristen Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.” — Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

“I’d say 99% of the submissions I receive with a prologue don’t need it. Most of the time they read (to me) like: Look at me! I can write an AMAZING scene! Oh, but sorry, you have to read 100 more pages to get to the story. — Natalie M. Lakosil, the Bradford Literary Agency.

In best-selling author Kristen Lamb’s blog (, she says that “there are a lot more reasons to NOT use a prologue than there are to employ one.” She calls prologues a big “fish head” that, in many cases, should be “cut off and thrown away.” But she also acknowledges that “prologues, when done properly, can be excellent literary devices. Yet, with a clear reader propensity to skip them, then that might at least make us pause before we decide our novel must have one.”

She identifies “The 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues,” as follows:

• The prologue is really just a vehicle for a massive information dump.

• The prologue really has nothing to do with the main story.

• The prologue’s sole purpose is to “hook” the reader.

• The prologue is overly long.

• The prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story.

• The prologue is condensed world-building (especially in science fiction).

• The prologue is there solely to “set the mood.”

As you can see, she’s one pro who thinks a prologue is no place for reader-hooking and mood-setting, while others think this is okay.

So when can you use a prologue? Ms. Lamb says:

• Prologues can be used to resolve a time gap with information critical to the story.

• Prologues can be used if there is a critical element in the back story relevant to the plot.

To all this I’d like to emphasize these points:

1. A prologue is not a side or back story. The best ones, IMHO, are a pivotal event that leads up to Chapter One.

2. Literary agents usually read only the first three to five pages, so if you have filled those pages with prologue material, many agents will reject (or set fire to) your manuscript without going any farther.

3. Readers tend to skip a prologue.

I have made my own admittedly unscientific survey of e-novels self-published on Amazon. After reading many samples from these books, I saw how popular prologues are with this legion of writers. I’d say that about 80 percent of these novels start with a prologue.

We probably shouldn’t rush to a judgment based on this observation, but I think it indicates something for us to ponder. Most of these prologues break one or more of the rules already mentioned. Some of the ones I’ve read should be labeled “Chapter One.” Almost all the others are info dumps of back story and biography used to set up the main story. Too many of them were so long that I couldn’t bear to read the whole thing. Will other readers feel the same way? I’m going with a yes.

So before you write a prologue, consider what I and others have said here. I also urge you to go to a library or a bookstore and analyze prologues in many published novels and see what works and what doesn’t and why. Take notes. Then reread the prologue you’ve written and decide whether to keep it or cut it off.

Like a fish’s head.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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