Let’s give a warm welcome to Sophia Chang – a fantastic writer (and crit partner) who’s here to talk about Prologues. But first, some background for you. I’m struggling with my opening for my WIP. I have two options, a first chapter that feels a bit like a prologue, and another opening that isn’t as hooky as it needs to be. So, selfishly, I asked Sophia’s opinion on Prologues. I think this answers my question perfectly!
We’ve all read the books and the agent blogs, right? So we all know that the trend for prologues is: CUT THEM.
Jamie asked me the oft-answered question: to prologue or not? I’ve found only one solid answer myself:
Whatever your agent/editor/publishing-house-that’s-paying-you-the-big-bucks tells you to do.
That’s for those of you lucky enough to have an agent/million-dollar book deal. For the rest of us, ask yourself as a reader:
Do you like to read prologues?
How about for this particular story?
Let’s break these questions down.
Do You Like To Read Prologues?
I’ve come to realize I don’t.
They’re used often in thrillers to drum up excitement and mystery: Someone’s being chased/murdered! We don’t know who! We don’t know why! Oh my god!
This tactic worked the very first time I ever encountered it, probably in a Michael Crichton book in middle school. It hasn’t done it for me since. Now I ask, like a good little “crit”ter, Who’s being chased? Why? I need to care about this person – oh wait they’re dead now.
Movies needlessly employ this tactic all the time. I saw BattleLA recently (opening scene spoiler alert), which began in extreme media res: a cacophony of gunfire and bombs, shaky Blair Witch camerawork (unfortunately continued throughout the movie), dust and people flying around the screen. I was exhausted before I’d even met a single lead character.
The second scene then flashed back to a the day before, soaring over a grassy knoll to the sunny, happy downtown Los Angeles as our eponymous theme song by Snoop Dogg played.
I would have loved if the film started with this innocuous, almost shallow pan of this ridiculous city. The bubble gum innocence of this opening would foreshadow something darker to come and provide more contrast than the nauseating chaos of the first scene.
Which would you prefer? If you like that smash opening, then prologues are probably for you. Me, I prefer to get to know a character before I cut his leg off or take her soulmate away.
How About For This Particular Story?
Let me remind you that you’re asking yourself this question as a reader. Not as the writer, creator, all mighty god of your WIP, who might be experiencing a bit of ownership-induced myopia.
Pretend you are seeing your opening for the first time. I don’t care that you’ve seen it every day for the last eight years and the words are meaningless now. Do a shake-out dance, close your eyes, open your manuscript and pretend all you’ve read is the query/jacket flap. Now look at your prologue.
Is this the first thing you want to see?
In addition to the first impression, also ask yourself it there’s any information in the prologue that is absolutely critical to your plotline. That if you take out, the reader will have NO IDEA what your book is about. The answer is usually “no.”
Go ahead, try it now. Come back and let us know what you discover!
“Once upon a time on the island of Manhattan a Chinese girl was born with a Star of David stamped on her birth certificate, so you know she’s really a New Yorker. It was the dead heat of summer, and not even her Tiger Mother could predict the adventures that were about to befall. (See, did you really need this prologue?)”