Guest post: How to Eat (or write) a Book: Probing the Pros and Problems of Prologues by Lauren Grimley

Tonight’s second guest blog post, on the topic of prologues, is brought to you by urban fantasy author Lauren Grimley.

How to Eat (or write) a Book: Probing the Pros and Problems of Prologues

Like most writers, I’ve spent hours researching my craft. I’ve read agents’ websites, blogs of established authors, and books on writing and publishing. I also attended conferences and workshops run by writers and agents. I learned early on that tastes vary. There are few hard and fast rules for anything related to writing. In the same conference an agent will espouse the importance of doing something one way, and a writer will enter the room and tell you to ignore everything you just heard. However, study enough and some general consensuses begin to emerge. One area most agree on is the use of prologues, or rather the misuse of prologues.

Their biggest problem with prologues is that they come before the rest of the book. Yes, this is inherent to prologues, but the problem is that in today’s market, when consumers are flooded with choices, most writers and agents agree that a writer has about two pages to sell a book. Those crucial first pages need to establish setting and tone, introduce an interesting main character, and have enough action or intrigue to hook a potential reader. If the first two pages are prologue, that doesn’t always happen.

So as readers should we kiss the days of prologues goodbye? As writers should we avoid them like dream sequences or dialogue tags? Is this too a matter of taste or a hard and fast rule? Well, in my opinion, while most meals are best eaten course by course, there are times when it’s not just okay, but downright decadent to break the rules and devour a meal or a book out of order.

Deciding when a prologue will work starts with determining what type of prologue you’re writing. By definition, the events of the prologue should take place prior to the events of the main story. I call this an appetizer prologue. Depending on your server, appetizers can be served long before the meal or just seconds before the main course arrives. Appetizer prologues usually provide backstory about the main character from years earlier or from seconds before the story begins. As a reader, I love characters’ backstory, but, most of the time, I agree with the agents and other writer’s on this one. Backstory is usually best when worked into the plot later on. If it’s important enough to the main character’s life, they’ll think about it at some point in the story. That’s the place to put it in. If it’s not important enough for the main character to think back on it, then the reader doesn’t need to know it, especially in the opening pages. In this case, Mom was right, you need to let the readers’ save room for the main course.

Plenty of books, though, have prologues that don’t actually fit the traditional definition of describing events prior to the start of the story. Many writers use a prologue to introduce the conflict, often through the eyes of the antagonist. As a writer, the pull to do this is strong. Everywhere you read says to start with action, hook the reader, set up the tone. What better way to do this than to drop the reader into a scene with the bad guy being bad? It’s like giving the reader a taste of a spicy side dish. I did this myself in one of my drafts of my first book. Writing it was a great way to really get to know my antagonist, so naturally I thought reading it would have the same effect. The problem is that it draws the reader away from the main story and the main character. It’s also hard to write without giving away too much, too soon. You might pull the reader in with that zing, but then when they start chapter one that first bite might fall short. Better to build expectation and intrigue with a taste of the main dish. Make their mouths water with your main character. Save the heat for after they’ve whetted their palates. Unless…

Hey, there are exceptions to every rule. Books later in series and even sequels can successfully start with a side dish prologue. Readers of a series or sequel already know and, if they’ve continued to book two or beyond, presumably like the main dish. They know what to expect. Tone, setting, and characterization have been established in previous books, and although those things need to be further developed in a new book, readers can be side-tracked for a few pages without being overly jolted when the story returns to its main course. In these cases introducing a character who is new to the series piques readers’ interest by assuring them something different is in store for the main character.

Finally, we have dessert: it is by far my favorite course. As a reader, the climax is the triple-layer chocolate cake of a good book. Let’s face it, dessert is the real reason most of us go out to eat. So why not give readers a little dessert before the meal? Some writers do just that in their prologues, which aren’t actually prologues at all, but rather an excerpt from a crucial point later in the book. These dessert prologues are really teasers. They’re included to make the reader’s mouths or minds water for more. Stephanie Meyer did this in her obscenely successful Twilight series. As a reader of these books, I enjoyed this type of teaser, especially in the later books in the series, since I knew from reading book one, that the prologue would appear later. I remember reading the teaser/prologue of the final books and trying desperately to predict how the story would enfold. I think that’s the key if a writer wants to use the dessert prologue. The passage picked must only hint at what’s to come. You can’t actually hand the reader dessert first, or they’ll never eat their meal. But pass an artful dessert tray under their noses a few times and you’ll have them zipping through those other courses in unbridled anticipation.

So, to prologue or not to prologue? Readers’ tastes in books and beginnings vary as much as their tastes in food. You’re never going to please every reader with every decision. Some, like me, are happy to see the dessert tray first. Others like a little appetizer. Still others, which apparently include most agents, are purists who like to start with a well-presented main course. Frankly, I think that if what you put on the plate is appetizing enough, it won’t matter to readers or agents what course you started with. Any great beginning to a book, be it prologue or main story, is a writer’s way of telling their reader “bon appétit.”

I’m off to have some Banoffee Pie. Thank you, Lauren. 🙂

Lauren Grimley lives in central Massachusetts where she grew up, but her heart is on the beaches of Cape Cod where she spends as much of her time as possible.  After graduating from Boston University she became a middle school English teacher.  She has her seventh graders to thank for starting her on this path; it was they who convinced a rather skeptical new teacher vampire stories were worth reading.  She now spends her time writing them when she should be correcting papers. If she finds free time beyond these activities, she’s likely to spend it on a beach with a book and bottle of wine close by.

Teaser for Unforeseen, the first book of an adult urban fantasy series:

Alex was quite sure gifted was a term delusional parents applied to their strictly average children, vampires were gorgeous dead guys in her eighth-grade girls’ novels, and Seers was a middle schooler’s misspelling of a department store known for power tools. Teachers, however, don’t know everything–it’s Alex’s turn to be educated.

Running alone the night before school ends, Alex is violently attacked. Regaining consciousness, she finds herself in the home of the Rectinatti Regan, the leader of one of two covens of vampires battling nightly on the streets of her city. If that discovery wasn’t enough to make her think she’d gone nuts, she realizes she’s sensing the emotions of another of the vampires as strongly as she feels her own. Discovering these creatures have the answers to what she is and why she was attacked, she decides she wants to stay, despite knowing it is a dangerous, possibly deadly desire.

You can find more about Lauren and her writing via…

Links to Unforeseen and “Unknown” (a short from later in the series):

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If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with poet Jeanne Buesser – the five hundred and thirty-fifth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.

You can sign up to receive these blog posts daily or weekly so you don’t miss anything. You can contact me and find me on the internetview my Books and I also have a blog creation service especially for, but not limited to, writers.

Unfortunately, as I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t review books but I have a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me reading it / talking about and critiquing it (I send you the transcription afterwards so you can use the comments or ignore them) 🙂 on my ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ podcast, then do email me. They are fortnightly episodes, usually released on Sundays, interweaving the recordings between the red pen sessions with the hints & tips episodes. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.

One thought on “Guest post: How to Eat (or write) a Book: Probing the Pros and Problems of Prologues by Lauren Grimley

  1. Sophie E Tallis says:

    Another very interesting piece. Yes, I do love prologues on the whole, kind of like having an apertiser before the main meal. But some can be terribly flabby and over long and quite frankly boring. So it really does depend on the quality of the prologue and whether it really appropriate for the style and genre of book. In other words, one size does not fit all.

    I must say, I loved my prologue, but then I would, the author is always fascinated by the intricacies of backstory! I offered it to my publishers in case they wanted it but was relieved that they didn’t as quite frankly I think it would have just bogged it down.

    A fascinating post, thanks Morgen! 😀

    Like

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