Stuck on how to write that incredibly brilliant prologue for your book? Never fear - author Deanna Kipling is here today to give some tips on how to write an awesome prologue!
Deanna writes under the name De Kenyon is the author of the short story anthology Tales Told Under Covers - which I reviewed early last year. See my review of her book HERE .
In the meantime, I now hand you over to Deanna for her post - take it away Deanna!
How to Write an Awesome Prologue
Most writing advice on how to write prologues goes like this: don’t.
Okay. Having read a ton of slush from beginning and intermediate writers, I can see the point. Prologues in the hands of someone who doesn’t understand prologues are almost always bad. Not just kinda bad, but baaaaaaad.
Now, I’m not a famous writer with lots of street cred. And I haven’t written a million prologues. But I have read through the mistakes that beginners make over and over again, so let’s first get those out of the way.
The big oopsies:
• The prologue is unnecessary. Usually, this is because the prologue is just backstory--something that we can find out later, like in Chapter 10 while two characters gossip.
• Nothing happens. The prologue isn’t written as a scene with setting and characters, just a summary of What Happened Fifty Years Ago, like a history lesson.
• “Did you know?” We get backstory in the form of dialogue between a couple of characters. Yawwwwn.
• The characters in the prologue are boring, stupid, or pointless. And we really don’t care what happens to them.
• The prologue contains no setting. Usually while trying to be mysterious, the writer makes it so mysterious that we have no idea where the characters are!
I’m sure there are more, but those are the ones I usually read, full of boring stuff the writer had to know in order to start writing the book. No wonder that most writing advice says not to write a prologue.
There are some awesome prologues out there, so somebody must be doing it right.
So why write a prologue?
• The beginning of the story is low-key. The beginning’s not boring--you should never bore your reader--but it’s a sunny day at a picnic where something seemingly insignificant puts the story in motion. A lot of cozy mysteries do this: they show a murder then switch to the sleuth in a calm scene where they pick up the first, hidden clues.
• It’s a story within a story. The Princess Bride by William Goldman does this--in the movie, it starts out with a grandfather trying to comfort his sick, bored, cynical grandson.
• To show some other type of contrast. If you want to show the difference between the past and the present--use a prologue. Between fantasy and reality--use a prologue. Between two completely different outlooks on life (with different POV characters)--use a prologue. How the future will look back events vs. how the characters see them at the moment--use a prologue. Any contrast can make a good prologue, as long as that contrast is important to your whole story.
And note that if you can write Chapter 1 instead of Prologue at the top of that section and have it still make sense to readers, then it’s not a true prologue. Just call it Chapter 1.
Now, finally--the traits of an awesome prologue:
• It hooks the reader right away. Rule #1 of Write Club: Don’t bore the reader. But use whatever techniques you like, from action to great voice to characters you can never forget.
• Make sure it fits. A prologue is your readers’ first impression of your book. When you write a prologue, you’re making a promise that the rest of the book will match. Write a couple of incompetent bad guys in the prologue, then write a detective novel featuring a serious detective? Nope. You promised the reader Inspector Clouseau in your prologue, not Sherlock Holmes.
• Don’t give a lot of backstory. Remember, a prologue is supposed to contrast. If all you’re doing is giving the reader backstory to explain why the main character is the way she is, you could do that in backstory. But if you show a scene from the character’s past in the prologue...then have her show up in Chapter 1 acting differently than we expect, that’s interesting. What happened that we don’t know about?
• Build a character in a setting with a problem. If this looks familiar, it’s because it’s the beginning of Algis Budrys’s Seven Point Plot.
• Something important happens that explains why the rest of story is important. Like in The Princess Bride: We know that the fantasy story about Buttercup and Westley (and fantasy in general) is important because it delights the cynical grandson the same way it did his grandfather, when he was a kid.
• It’s short. If your prologue goes on and on...maybe your prologue is the book you should be writing. I’d say look at your average chapter length and make the prologue just a little bit shorter. A prologue is an appetizer, not a main course.
• Chapter 1 isn’t boring. You gotta start all over when you hit Chapter 1. Chapter 1 can be more low-key, but it can’t be boring. Your readers have to be hooked by your character in a setting with a problem just as hard as they were in the prologue. Going back to The Princess Bride...the beginning of the story-within-a-story is pretty slow, right? So slow that the overly cynical grandson complains about it. But it’s still fun to watch.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t hit on all the techniques that you could possibly use. But these are some good ones to start with.
So if you want to write a prologue, don’t let people scare you away from it...but make sure it’s an awesome prologue if you do.
DeAnna Knippling tends to like books that are stories within stories and would hate for prologues to go away.
A huge thanks to Deanna for her amazing guest post. I'm now going to go back to my next book and work on that amazing prologue! Hope you guys found this interesting as well! Please leave comments below and share some love!
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Thanks for reading!