Sunday, August 3, 2014

6 Reasons to Damn the Haters and Write the Prologue

Your journey as a writer will lead you into the orbit of many other wordsmiths, and by now you may have realized how important it is to learn from the Ancient Graybeards, from She-who-has-her-shit-together, and let us not forget, The Published One. However, every now and then advice that is common among the almost-pros will turn out to be meaningless swill, peddled in the format of listicle blog posts aimed at self-conscious, young writers (all inferior to this listicle blog post aimed at way cooler young writers, rest assured, dear reader).

The swill I intend to excoriate today is the “damn the prologue!” fever gripping writerly circles.

It happens the same way again and again. Some neonate author will plunge into the vast nest of cats, caffeine, and self-obsession that is a writer’s group and ask whether their intro (almost invariably a prologue) “works,” by which they actually mean, “Praise me and tell me I’m good, the same as my mother does.”

I always cringe, waiting in silence as the respectable types in their dark hoods look up from the freshly feasted-over dreams of the last writer whose work they stripped dry. They swarm to the youngster. “No, no, NO,” they rationally explain, “Do you want the spray bottle or the newspaper? No prologues. NO. PROLOGUES.”

Today I pick at the thread of conventional wisdom and seek to unravel the dark robes of the Prologue Haters. What I reveal beneath is the fetishization of “Do Not” checklists and confusion over what the device actually does.

Here is my checklist: The six major myths and realities of prologues.

MYTH #1:

If you want to be a Grown-Up Writer, you should listen to “Do Not” checklists that condemn prologues and other storytelling tools.


This is the worst possible way to improve your writing.

“Do Not” checklists are the empty calories of the writing-advice world—and I’m bitter because they get more clicks than I do. If you want people to read your blog post, write a “Do Not” checklist. It either validates or angers young authors, and they will share it with their friends either way.

In short, these articles rarely rise above the function of masturbatory aids for your ego.

You’ll never get better by avoiding things. Write them, assess whether they worked, and if they did not, then just rewrite them.

Why are you so terrified of mistakes? Don’t write like it’s a minefield. The English language contains over a million words, writers employ hundreds of literary devices, and there are over 20,000 tropes. It’s not a minefield, it’s a diamond mine. Write like it’s a dance floor and you know one million moves. Somewhere in there, there are moves that will make your defenseless readers feel something, think something, or want something.

Stop avoiding. Take risks. This isn’t medicine, and you get as many do-overs as you need. Never stop taking risks. I broke three “Do Not” rules in the opening sequence of my latest work-in-progress. I only wish I’d broken seven.

MYTH #2:

“Don’t call it a prologue—just label it ‘Chapter One.’”


The number one argument employed by Prologue Haters is that you don’t need them—typically followed with, “At least, not if you’re a good writer, like moi.”

If what you’re saying is so important, they might add, “just label it Chapter One.” This is a statement bereft of understanding.

A prologue is like punctuation for your chapters. A period gives you pause and notes a transition to the next thought. Prologues are the same thing for chapter structure—a transitioning device.

Consider: When you see the word “Prologue,” you know that you are reading something that is apart from the main work. There will be a barrier between the prologue and Chapter One—some type of significant break, change in narrative or character, or shift in trajectory.

The two most important pieces in the anatomy of a prologue are the break between it and Chapter One—which can mark some of the sharpest transitions in literature—and the word “PROLOGUE” at the start, which informs the reader what to expect ahead, in exactly the way “appetizer” informs the diner that there is more (and different) to come. Alerting the reader to that forthcoming break is what makes a prologue different from Chapter One.

People blame prologues for employing false protagonists. This is nonsense. If you read a prologue about a character and are SHOCKED that this character might not turn out to be the protagonist*, then you’re too dim to be reading anyway. Go watch TLC**. The whole point of the device is to note that “this is what comes before the story, so be prepared for us to shift gears.”

Prologues and first chapters are not interchangeable. Learn what prologues do before you use them—but for the love of the Inklings, try to learn what they do before you give bad advice regarding them.

*--If you're not shocked, but just upset because you bonded to the character in the prologue, then you're fine and the author is probably a dick. And also probably me. (Thanks for pointing that out to me, Amanda.)

**--Don't actually do this. TLC will just make it worse.

MYTH #3:

“You never actually need a prologue.”


It’s not about “need.” Good writers don’t set impossible standards for a device, such as, “Can I think of any way to do this without the prologue?” They ask, “What is the advantage to a prologue? What is the disadvantage? Now, with my audience in mind, is it a better story with or without the prologue?”

Like short chapter breaks, or first-person perspective, or non-linear narratives, they have both strengths and weaknesses. A lot of writing is about managing tradeoffs between the strengths and weaknesses of various devices. We’ve talked about how prologues are great at making transitions, so now let’s talk about their downsides.

Why some people hate them: Prologues are strong for the same reason they are weak. They are the beginning of a story that is different from the story. Some folks just want you to get to the point. Never mind the anticipation of a four-course meal, they want their cheeseburger right now, goddamnit.

And hey, sometimes I want my cheeseburger right now goddamnit, too. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But when people issue a Fatwa on appetizers, some of us are ready to draw blood on behalf of our cheese sticks, thanks.

Why prologues fail: Prologues fail when they are used for the sake of establishing things that you don’t need a sharp transition to establish.

The number one complaint is when prologues are used to “infodump.” It’s difficult to find successful prologues in literature that are solely infodumps—Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” is the best I could come up with, and he may have needed it because Fantasy wasn’t a well-established genre with reading rules until he came along. So it’s safe to say you need to do more than infodump.

But there’s also a whole world of effective transitions for you to exploit. Some people like them purely for the sharp contrast—introduce a character in the prologue before they were broken and cynical, and then in Chapter One reveal who they have become. The huge gap between the character’s past and present that the writer has created can catapult the drama forward in a way that “seeding” the protagonist’s back story could not.

Whether they do character, setting, or plot work, prologues create an “establishing shot” that can be contrasted to or used to condition what is happening in Chapter One. For writers who love to employ stark contrasts and sudden transitions, it’s a powerful tool.

Good writers use prologues to heighten the narrative. They accept that it makes for a slower start, but if the appetizer is delicious enough, they know most of their readers will hang through and then love them for it.

MYTH #4:

“No one reads prologues.”


Nearly everyone reads prologues.

This is the part where the Prologue Haters try to validate their opinion through cynicism. If you can’t convince them it’s bad art, convince them it’s bad marketing.  I’ve seen it come off as nearly a veiled threat, as if to say, “Yes, it’s a matter of taste—but if you don’t change your taste, then you won’t sell.”

I don’t buy it for a minute. It doesn’t pass even a preliminary smell test, since tens of thousands of books use prologues, and they continue to be used by talented authors. If no one reads them, why are there so many? Second, I have never heard someone complain about prologues unless they are writers who read a lot of bitching from agents. Prologues are mostly a weird agent hang-up, because they get so many bad ones.

I cannot think of a more cynical, less interesting writer than the one who takes seriously the bitchings of professional agents. The whole reason agents exist is to tell crappy writers “no.”  While a talented agent will know a good story when they see it, they have far fewer productive things to say about what authors should write, or else they would be writers and not agents.

But hey, you know what’s great about a cynical point like this? It’s an empirical question. We can answer it through the magic of surveys. As best I can tell, it’s been answered already here, here, and here (and a hat tip to J. Scott Savage). Would I like a larger sample size and a more randomized draw? Sure. But it’s the best data I’ve seen, and it confirms my commonsense intuition.

Namely, the percentage of people who usually or always skip prologues ranges from between about 5 and 16 percent. That means the overwhelming majority—about 85 percent or more at the lowest—are reading prologues. Moreover, the survey that offered the best question methodology (the widest range of frequencies for prologue reading, and written in the most neutral fashion) is the one that shows 95 percent of people will read a prologue at least some of the time.

If you know anything about the percentage of people who start and then never finish books, you’ll realize that people are more likely to read your prologue than your epilogue.

If you can’t tell, this is the moment in my listicle in which I drop the mic.

(And then pick it up again, because I’ll not only kick a man when he’s down, I’ll kick him until I’m out of breath).

MYTH #5:

“But AGENTS won’t read your prologue.”


No, agents will not black list you because of your prologue. They will cast it a critical eye because they do get a lot of bad ones, or at least so says David Powers King—a fine, sweet gentleman kind enough to interview some agents on Twitter (seriously, he appears to be one of the internet’s most jovial writers).

According to King’s Twitter exchange, the important thing agents are looking for is that you used the prologue correctly. That’s all. That’s everything.

Agents want to read the best thing you can produce. Yes, crappy writers do more prologues than the professionals, but professionals still write an awful lot of them.

If you’re super worried you’ll get the brush-off for a prologue, just send them Chapter One instead, and include the prologue when they ask for the full manuscript. Or whatever. I know a lot about writing, but I admit, my relationship with the marketing side of the business is roughly what you would expect from someone who publicly derides “bitching” from agents.

MYTH #6:

“I’m just expressing my harmless opinion about prologues!”


You’re spreading misinformation that percolated out of the frustrations shared by a few agents, and which don’t reflect readers at all. You are also backhandedly insulting a shit ton of talented writers by claiming prologues aren’t something “good authors” do.

Prologue Hate is a massive misunderstanding wrapped in a humblebrag. A few agents griped about wanting more writers to get right to the story, and now it’s taken as Gospel that there’s nothing worthwhile in the device. And that Herculean leap of logic is perpetrated by almost-pros who want to give worldly-sounding advice to novice authors. It’s an attempt to say, “Look at me, I don’t make this common mistake that the riffraff make. Be like me.”

Prologues aren’t a mistake. They’re a device. As a writer, you are responsible for knowing the tools in your toolbox. If your story calls for one, then damn the haters—full speed ahead, and write the prologue.

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