Monday, January 7, 2008

To Prologue or Not to Prologue

Do you write Prologues to begin your mystery or other genre of a story? As Chris Roerden cautions in his book Don’t Murder Your Mystery, readers tend to skip this ‘front matter’ anyway so why do you do it? One of the weak reasons he hears so often is because,” writing the prologue was the easiest way to get started.” His reaction to that is, “even jumper cables are temporary.”

I have to agree with him. In other words, if you think you need a jump start to your book consider where you are coming into the story. Authors admit to writing prologues to get the muse to perch on their shoulders. But then, and listen carefully, I’ll whisper this so you really pay attention – they delete it! Denise Dietz is one of those kinds of authors. Sometimes he doesn’t delete it exactly. But she says in her novel Foot-prints in Butter, her prologue became her second chapter.

If agents and editors know that most readers skip front matter in the books, why would you risk giving them one more reason, or any reason to reject your manuscript? If a prologue is seen as a crutch, it’s time to get your novel to the doctor and surgically remove the prologue, or put a cast on it, to block it from your story. That prologue, especially if you don’t want your manuscript to wind up DOA on the editor or agents slush pile, is a waste of space and energy in most cases.

Thinking about prologues, there are a few reasons they can be useful. Be certain thought that yours is actually necessary, that it doesn’t give away crucial plot elements too early or hook into your main story line too late.

Reasons to allow a prologue to introduce your work:
1. Back Story connection
2. Future Story connection
3. Cheap Thrill/Body on the front page
4. Summary Prologue

The first two and number four are self-explanatory. If you do need to give back story or a peek at the future and it can’t be introduced in the first paragraph or chapter of your story these can be used if done correctly. The cheap thrill or getting your body (in a murder mystery) on page one is sometimes perceived as necessary. You may use this to crank up suspense, cook lukewarm chapter one that follows to a full rolling boil and then wind up leaving your reader high and dry when the person they though was the protagonist suffers some catastrophic end. Then the story seems disconnected as it plods along to some mediocre beginning before we find the real protagonist. This is death in the water, this is your manuscript DOA. Your reader may not recognize any of the players tripping across the page.

No one ever said a body had to appear on the first page of your mystery. Many successful mysteries have not shown a body until much later if at all. To get any story off to a good start we must become engaged with the protagonist on some level. We need to be awakened to the reasons why we’d follow this engaging creature from page one all the way through the labyrinth of angst and clue to a final victory. Watch her squirm, as she tries to resist being drawn into this drama, get your reader to invest in her future. A prologue is a risk, at best, a total failure oft times at managing to be a necessary part of the story. Be very certain your prologue is a viable part of the story and not just a bunch of throat clearing.

Take a look at a prologue that carries its weight and pulls the reader in. Its brevity ensures it will be read, much like the caption under a picture or a side bar in a article—brevity is key here.

“I don’t dwell on the past. No point in that. But I still can’t stay in the same room with a man wearing Paco cologne. And there are times when a ringing phone makes my heart race. I read the newspapers, but I skip certain stories. The nightmares come less often.”
A Woman’s Place, by Linda Grant

Don’t use a prologue as ill disguised back story, and description of a first chapter that would be weak and unnecessary fluff or padding. Make your prologue work for its inclusion for your reader and your editor.

Be sure to visit Sandra Cox's blog and the Wings Author Blog tomorrow to read an interview with me at Sandra Cox
and wings at Wings Author's Blog
Thanks and I'll see you there!


Anonymous said...

Hi Billie:
Thanks for mentioning my book, DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY, as the source for information about prologues (11 pages of close analysis)and Deni Dietz's practical experience in jump-starting her work. I don't cover all techniques--only those that get 90% of submissions tossed in the "no" pile before an agent or editor reads far enough to evaluate plot or character development. Incidentally, I don't mean to shock you but I'm a she, not a he, though for some reason many people assume from the name alone that "Chris" has to be a guy. Often, on learning I'm not of the male persuasion, people then address me as Christine. Sorry--as pen names go, mine is simply Chris Roerden, no intent to deceive. To prove it, there's even a photo of me when my book won the Agatha. It's on my publisher's site, (scroll down past all the wonderful reviews). My publisher asked me to revise the book for all writers, so I'm now in the middle of expanding it for June release under the title DON'T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSIONS. Same book, more techniques and lots of new examples.

Unknown said...

Chris if you should happen by, I apologize for thinking you male -- I get the same thing so I understand. Thanks for your comments and your book is dynamite - and very helpful.
Thank you for stopping by and I'll be watching for your new release.
Billie (also the female version)