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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Prologues: Friend or Foe?

On Select Wednesdays, I post tips and strategies for writers. 

PROLOGUES: FRIEND OR FOE?
by J. Rose Allister
I recently commented on Jerri Aubry's blog post about whether or not prologues are a good idea (you can check it out HERE). I have very specific views about prologues that have been honed by writing workshops, experience, and my time as both a reader and a submissions editor. As I clicked the "submit" button on my comment, it occurred to me that this topic definitely warranted a post of my own.

Not always, but quite often, those who are for and against prologues can be grouped into two categories: readers and writers. 

Writers will often say, "Prologues are essential for giving information!"
Readers will often say, "Prologues aren't important."

So who's right? 

Both.

This post will cover why.

PROLOGUE AS A FOE

Think about the last time you saw a prologue in a book you didn't write. Did you skim it? Read the first sentence and skip the rest entirely? Or did you cling to every word as though it held the key to the entire tale?

Quite often, prologues are ignored. Readers want to get to the meat of a story, and many instinctively know a fact that writers often miss: the prologue usually isn't necessary to get to what they need. They typically prefer to meet their main characters as they are now, just prior to the events that will drive the story. They don't want to hear about the history, not at first. Even if the prologue has excitement, explosions, or love's first kiss, it isn't The Story. (Except when it is, which I'll get to in the next section.)

So why do writers defend the prologue as a crucial device? Prologues contain critical information about the story--for the writer. These data dumps are more of a freewrite that help with the storytelling process. I call these a "writer's prologue." Because the writer finds them so invaluable, they often make the mistake of thinking the info is equally important to the reader. But the truth is, a large number of "writer prologues" are better off cut from the final draft entirely (and possibly used as bonus content, which I'll discuss later.)

An author will always know more about a story than the reader. Good writing involves knowing what tidbits to include and what to leave out for the optimal reading experience. 


PROLOGUE AS A FRIEND

The above said, there are times when a prologue can help hook a reader's interest. Generally, this is the job of your first paragraph/page, and a prologue is no different. The historical significance of the setting, the ancestry of the characters, and other "writer's prologue" details do not typically drive this sort of interest, which is why readers skip them. So what, then, makes for a "reader's" prologue?

Use a prologue when letting readers in on a secret or detail will enhance, rather than delay/detract from, the experience.

My current series, Sons of Herne, begins with a brief prologue that I actually added after two editing passes. Considering my above views on prologues, this might come as a surprise. But while there are stories made better by leaving the reader guessing until a Big (or Gradual) Reveal, other stories are much more fun when readers are in on the secret from the beginning. In the case of Dominus: God of Yule, I realized after revising the story twice that the "I know a secret" fun was missing. In this case, I decided to offer a glimpse of a conspiracy by the Fates that not only immediately influences the book's plot, but drives the entire series.

Whether it's better to use the I Know a Secret or the Gradual Reveal depends on the book, and deciding can be tricky. Do an editing pass specifically looking at the overall reading experience from both these standpoints. A writer is often too close to the work to see this with fresh eyes. A good beta reader can be immensely helpful with determining whether your prologue creates a hook or a vacuum.


WHEN A WRITER'S PROLOGUE CAN BECOME A READER'S BONUS

Let's say you've soul searched and realized that your precious three-page prologue is better left out of a story. Should you suck up the despair of pressing "Delete"? Maybe not. Edit it up nicely, maybe even expand on it a bit, and turn it into a PDF to offer as bonus content. Fans of the book may well want to know more, and these are the people who will appreciate the extra tidbits that you held back. Offer this as a free bonus either for joining your mailing list or as a separate download link in the back of your book.
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J. Rose Allister is the author of more than twenty-five books, primarily romance and erotic romance. A former editor and submissions director, she now works as a mild-mannered hospital secretary by day, naughty writer by night.

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