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:
Prologue
noun
• 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 (http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/), 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
paulthayerbookeditor.com


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: The subjunctive mood of verbs

Yes, verbs are moody little buggers, and one of their weirder moods is called the subjunctive. This form of the verb, which expresses an improbable condition, one contrary to fact, or a wish, command, or desire, is a booby trap for many writers. Its use in both spoken and written English is nearly extinct, but it survives in certain traditional phrases such as:

If I were you. . . . Wish you were here. . . . If I were a rich man. . . . Come what may. . . . Far be it from me. . . .

The condition contrary to fact is the construction that is the biggest bugaboo in the use of the subjunctive. Example:

If such a procedure as this were not used, many patients would not survive.

This example is correctly expressed. But many clauses introduced by if do not express a condition contrary to fact but merely a condition or contingency. In such cases, the subjunctive mood is incorrect. Clauses introduced by as if or as though, however, usually—repeat, usually—express an unreal condition (a condition contrary to fact). Therefore, you must use the subjunctive mood of the verb with them in most cases. Example:

She looked at me as if I were Vlad the Impaler.

Now look at this sentence:

If she were not on the scene, his chances would improve.

Is the subjunctive mood of the verb (were) correct in this case? Is the sentence expressing a condition contrary to fact or simply a contingency? It’s talking about a contingency—an event that may or may not happen. She may or may not be on the scene. So using the subjunctive mood is incorrect. The verb, therefore, should be was.

Now you can amaze your friends by explaining when to use was and when to use were.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


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 tip: Inanimate objects should not possess

One rule of grammar that is easily overlooked says that writers should not ascribe possession to inanimate things like buildings. Example: the hospital’s wide double doors. This example isn’t nearly as clumsy as one I caught in an unpublished short story once, where the writer used the phrase the chimney’s smoke, but it still breaks the rule that says inanimate objects cannot possess. Some phrases that form all or part of the subject or predicate are acceptable, however:

He spent a week’s salary on computer games.

Day’s end found the expedition at the river.

They discovered her body at the water’s edge.

Also, certain inanimate objects that have been personified may show possession:

The ship’s rudder was damaged when it ran aground.

The students made a model of the airplane’s fuselage.

Editors are generally more tolerant today about applying this rule, so few would cavil at innocuous expressions like the hospital’s wide double doors. Nevertheless, I would not push my luck by writing expressions such as the chimney’s smoke and the house’s roof, for instance.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


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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Fiction writing tip: Using the “spring forward/fall back” method

Instead of opening your scenes with narration, use what I call (for want of a better term) the “spring forward/fall back” narrative device. A span of time usually passes between chapters and scenes. That’s the reason for those white-space breaks in the text. When you push the story forward to another point of action in a new chapter or scene, you should get the new scene going and then recap events that occurred in the interim, if you need to, quickly summarizing what happened since the end of the previous scene. In other words, you “spring forward,” then “fall back” briefly, and then pick up the action again. You do this to skip some boring stuff—or at least some less than compelling material that isn’t worth dramatizing. You’ll see professional novelists doing this all the time.

Note of caution: If your recap is long and detailed, then you shouldn’t have jumped so far ahead in story time. You should have just maintained the chronology of events and kept moving. A “fall back” recap that runs too long isn’t a recap anymore; it’s a flashback, which isn’t a device you want to use at or near the opening of a new chapter or scene.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


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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Fiction writing tip: Don’t use “soap opera dialogue”

Providing readers with information they need to know is necessary, of course, and a great way to do that is by using dialogue. You have to make sure, however, to avoid what I call “soap-opera dialogue.” You shouldn’t have characters discussing things they already know just for the benefit of the reader. Chitchat like this is called soap-opera dialogue because it’s used in soaps frequently to help viewers who may have missed a few shows. Example:

Rick: “Jeff got here about ten minutes ago.”

Todd: “Jeff? That sleazy attorney who broke up with Natalie last week after Dr. Lebowitz told him she had a brain tumor?”
Rick: “Yep. He flew in this morning. I guess he figures that big murder trial of his in New Orleans can go on without him.”

In conversations like this you can almost see the characters winking at each other. Never use soap-opera dialogue in your novel.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


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: When to use “who” and “that”

The pronoun that may have a long history of referring to people as well as things, but using it can sound illiterate in some contexts where you’re obviously referring to humans—a habit that writers have picked up from spoken American English. Further, despite the long use (or misuse) of that in connection with people, current English textbooks maintain that who should be used to refer to people or to animals with names or special talents. That and which, they say, should be used to refer to animals, things, and sometimes to anonymous or collective groups of people.

A few exceptions exist, as usual. Using that instead of who can sometimes get you out of a tough situation, like this one:

“Did she say it was a man or a book that she curled up with last night?”

I could make an inappropriate comment about this sentence, but this time I’m gonna restrain myself.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


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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Top 12 fiction writers’ mistakes

 1. Writing sentences in the passive voice—Watch out for excessive use of the passive voice of verbs. Replace was and were with verbs that show action:

Burglars stole a lot of jewelry.

instead of

A lot of jewelry was stolen by burglars.

2. Using the same words over and over—Watch out for pet words. Find good synonyms to bring variety and life to your writing.

3. Using too much punctuation—Avoid being showy or self-consciousness about punctuation. Save the semicolon for formal writing, and don’t use it in dialogue. For guidance, consult a good basic text like The Elements of Style.

4. Using too many contractions—Using many contractions in exposition (narration) signals an informal style that may not suit the target publisher or the audience. When in doubt, check the publisher’s style sheet or ask for advice.

5. Writing “purple prose”—A common affliction of new writers, who often use too many adjectives and too much description:

“The rich, red tropical sun rose brilliantly over the sparkling azure blue water, spreading its glorious warmth over the dewy dandelions, sensuous snapdragons, and sleepy morning glories, which opened their blue mouths wide to taste the delicious dawn.”

Arrgh! Gimme a break.

6. Overusing pairs of adjectives—Another way writers sometimes overdo it. Trim the fat. One good adjective almost always works better than two.

7. Using clichés—Writers should avoid clichés like (ahem) the plague. Find an original way to express your thought.

8. Overusing $10 words—Too many unfamiliar, highfalutin’ words will turn off most readers. You don’t want to sound as if you’re showing off or talking down to the reader. Academic and technical writing, however, allows more such terms.

9. Making all sentences the same length—Varied sentence length is one characteristic of good writing. The right combination of short, medium, and long sentences actually helps hold the attention of the reader and keeps things moving.

10. Adding information that’s off the subject—Is all your text relevant to the story? Do all the people mentioned add something to it? If not, determine where you have strayed, cut out the junk, and get the narrative back on track.

11. Using too many words (overwriting)—Some writers just go on and on, with no sense of getting to the point, piling on adjectives and adverbs, making vague or irrelevant statements, and using several words when one would do. Eliminate unnecessary words.

12. Being too general—Vague and general statements take the life out of your writing. Be specific. The best writing is packed with details that engage the senses and emotions, allowing your readers to participate in the scene being described. Fiction or nonfiction, the principle is the same: Give your readers details, details, details.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


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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