The novel I’m trying to publish includes a prologue, which I recently read at an open mic. Prologues I’ve discovered are tricky. It would seem they are generally discouraged in publishing. However, I’ve seen books, including bestsellers, which have them. Even in movies you’ll find them. There are different kinds of prologues too. Lital Talmor and Louise Lilley have created lists of different categories, good and bad (see Further Reading below).
This particular prologue I have furiously tried to keep as many beta readers and fellow writers in critique groups (all of whom shall remain anonymous) gave their opinion of it and the rest of the manuscript. Why you might ask did I want to keep it so much? Was it even worth it?
I’ve learned if a prologue is going to be written, it must have a specific purpose. In order to draw readers in, the first few pages, with or without one, must hook them. If the prologue doesn’t do that, it ought to be discarded. At the beginning, what I wanted mine to do was show what is at the heart of the story, which is the beauty and importance of Nature. Throughout the manuscript and especially the prologue, when it came to Nature imagery, I got a bit poetic, which at the time was what I wanted.
One of my first beta readers liked it for the juxtaposition of Nature’s beauty with its destruction, which shows what is at stake. However, as I would later learn from other readers, that was not enough. In the earliest drafts of my novel, the entire prologue was a dream sequence. However, I soon learned that was a big no-no. Furthermore, it was, as Maeve Maddox (see Further Reading below) would point out, largely atmosphere. Lilley herself advises against such a prologue. Maddox says if your prologue feels “boring” then readers will want to go straight to Chapter 1. Those who read my earliest version felt it was too “detached” from the plot, and the style “wordy”. Clearly then if changes were not made it would have to go, or at least be broken up within the main plot somehow. Maddox herself offers that solution in the case of backstory.
So, in an attempt to keep my prologue, I made only the second half a dream sequence, with the protagonist describing it as he was looking back on past events. So I sort of made it a cross between what Talmor calls “background” prologue and a “future protagonist” one (the idea had come around because I have considered an epilogue at the end of the trilogy where he is a young man reflecting on the story’s events). I chose to withhold his name, hoping to make readers wonder who he was and want to read more to find out. Even then, critique group members still felt it was too detached from the story.
I found inspiration from the first Iron Man film. It has a “prologue” showing Tony Stark attacked and wounded, then after the movie title shifts back to 36 hours prior. So instead of having my protagonist years later, I had it set in the main plot, with Chapter 1 beginning some days before the prologue’s events and the early pages build up to that moment, which occurs before the first quarter mark. I added dialogue between the protagonist and another character, so it would not be mere atmosphere anymore, but still there are no names included. One beta reader who read this version liked it and described it as “intriguing”. While even acknowledging publishers do not always like prologues, she felt mine “worked”. So perhaps I am on the right track. I also believe that beginning with Chapter 1 as it is now, it would feel too sudden a start.
Some still thought it too wordy, and I have continued to try to find a balance. Recently, listening to myself reading it out loud helped me simplify it even more. In the end, I am reminded of my father’s advice: the important thing is to tell a story and tell it well. He has also told me less is more, especially with writing. In the end I have come to finally accept that I maybe I did get carried away with the “poetic” feel, and it certainly could get in the way of delivering the message and drawing in readers. So perhaps a poetic style was not the right fit for a young adult audience after all.
Will this prologue be discarded before publication? Will it become something different than it is now? I cannot say. I can say not every book I write will have a prologue, nor need one, but I’d like to try it a few more times, perhaps using Talmor’s categories. If the day comes that I try screenwriting, it will be the same. But I will make sure I want it in a story, and that it will serve a purpose, or I won’t have one at all.
Here’s my reading of my prologue:
- Lilley, Louise. 6 Prologues I’m Tired of Reading.
- Maddox, Maeve. 3 Reasons to Ditch Your Novel’s Prologue at Daily Writing Tips.
- Talmor, Lital. Where to Begin? When, Where and How to Write a Prologue at Writing-World.com.