I’ve started sharing some of the feedback I find myself giving regularly to editing clients – this time I’m chatting about VERY EXCITING PROLOGUES.
People say that prologues are a little bit like marmite – readers (and agents/publishers) either hate them or love them. I want to add a little caveat to this because, yeah, there are some people who just hate prologues. No matter how well-written they are, no matter how necessary, these readers aren’t going to be pleased. If they find one in a book, they are likely to either skip it or put the book down. However, most people actually quite like a prologue that NEEDS to be in the story. What readers (and agents/publishers) don’t like is a prologue that’s unnecessary.
I see A LOT of unnecessary (but usually very exciting) prologues in my client’s stories. And they are all there for one reason: LACK OF CONFIDENCE. I always ask my clients if there is anything in particular that they want me to look at when I’m reading their words. As soon as they ask whether the prologue works/is needed, 99% of the time I know the answer before I’ve read it. It’s NO, just in case that wasn’t clear.
VERY EXCITING PROLOGUES usually take two forms, and they both have their potential downfalls:
- A flash forward
- A distracting subplot
I want to state right here before I go on to chat about some of the common issues that I’ve seen with these types of prologues that there are ALWAYS exceptions to the rule. Your prologue might work AMAZINGLY.
BUT, if you’ve included it because you’re scared the start of your story isn’t exciting or grabby enough, then it may not be working in the way you think it is. It would be worth interrogating its place in your story to make sure it’s truly essential.
I’ve seen a few of FLASH FORWARDS recently in my client’s work, and they make an INCREDIBLE start for the story. We are launched into high-stakes action, the characters are fully realised and engaging, the writing is often pacey and fluid…
And then we return to the start of the story. The pace drops. The characters are weird and awkward and don’t know how to do anything. There are no stakes yet, and I don’t care about anything that’s happening. The intention of the flash forward is to capture the reader’s interest, and it does, but it also means that when we wind back to the start of the story we do so with an ugly bump. We already know where the story is going to go, so the journey feels less fun. All those bumbling attempts that the main character makes to find their way that could be endearing and tension filled aren’t because the reader already knows where the character will get to.
Flashes forward can feel like a good idea because you get to showcase the very best of your story/writing, but I would argue that they leech tension and excitement from the rest of the story. If you’ve got a flash forward, pay particular attention to how the pace changes when you switch back to the start of your story. Do you keep the drama and stakes high, or is there a sudden drop? Is there some way you can inject tension into those first chapters to keep reader interest high? And have a think about how much of the story is spent working up to the moment of the flash forward. It will be in the back of readers minds, so if it’s at the very end of your story, that’s a long time to expect them to retain interest in stakes when they already kind of know what’s going to happen.
I’m a little bit brutal and love killing darlings, so I generally advise axing this kind of prologue. If you’ve written a super exciting climax to your story, don’t give the game away by revealing it at the start of your story!
And don’t feel like you can’t make the beginning of your story exciting in some other way. I know everyone talks about how slow starts are of the devil and readers have NO tolerance for them, but you don’t have to rush to the most exciting part right away to even have a chance of anyone reading your book. This is particularly scary in children’s fiction, but let’s give kids a little credit. Yes, they have fast paced lives now but they also have peaceful moments and we can encourage this through our writing. Attention spans may be shorter, but they aren’t non-existent. Something needs to happen early on in your story, but don’t feel like everything needs to.
A DISTRACTING SUBPLOT is another common prologue. It often comes in two forms – a flashback or something totally distinct from the main story. These often use characters who aren’t directly involved in the main story.
They are, again, VERY EXCITING but they are distracting. By using a prologue like this, you’re essentially asking readers to invest in your story twice. First, they have to care enough about the characters in the prologue, and then they have to meet a whole load of new people in the actual story and care for them as well.
This kind if prologue is often used because writers aren’t sure how to tell the readers something without it. It might be the origin of the hero or some worldbuilding that the plot depends on, and this can be hard to wedge into a story naturally. And I want to say again, that these kinds of prologues can work. We just have to keep in mind the additional investment we’re asking of readers and try to mitigate that in any way we can.
I would advise keeping prologues like this short so that you can get on with the story as soon as possible. Introduce as few characters as you can and make them engaging but not too sympathetic – you don’t want readers to feel annoyed when they drop off the radar.
If you’re feeling brave, cut the prologue. Wedge the information in somewhere else (in lots of dribs and drabs if possible!) and get some new reader eyes on it. Ask them if they feel any information is missing or if they were confused by anything, and add in bits of info where you need to.
BUT I want to say again that both of these kinds of prologues can work really well! One great example of the FLASH FORWARD are all the stories in the Frost Files series by Jackson Ford. These all begin with incredible action sequences and then backtrack to how the characters got themselves into these tricky situations. These flash forwards work because they are pretty short, and they don’t move too far into the future. We generally only backtrack to how they came to be falling out of a window or involved in a car chase, so there’s not too much ground to go back over. We quickly get to the moment of the flashforward and can move on with the story. They are fun and chaotic and engage readers in the story, they are quickly explained, and then we move on.
Subplot prologues can be used incredibly effectively. Especially in first person or close third person stories – you might need to show something that the narrator/main character couldn’t have known about/witnessed, and there might be something to establish that’s pivotal to the plot.
It’s your story, you can do whatever you like! But ask yourself – is my prologue ESSENTIAL to the story? If not, axe it!