Prologues That Don’t Entirely Suck

Prologue or no prologue? That is the question all writers face! Fortunately we have expert advice today on the subject. Anna Steffl, a wonderful author and past president of Georgia Romance Writers, tells us how to write a prologue that won’t suck.  And she knows what she’s talking about! Anna finaled in the prestigious Golden Heart awards and she’s just released a novel, Seeking Solace, the first book in the Solace trilogy. It follows Arvana, the only Solacian capable of seeing the Blue Eye’s revelations, as she reluctantly leaves her cloistered refuge to seek a champion to wield a relic against the resurrected draeden.

Leave a question or comment for Anna because one lucky commenter will be randomly chosen to receive a free e-copy of Seeking Solace!

Prologues that Don’t Entirely Suck

Or, What Would George R.R. Martin Do?

By: Anna Steffl

The prologue has the reputation of a Norwalk virus on a Caribbean cruise ship—something to be avoided at all costs. But, sometimes you just need to bathe in hand sanitizer and risk the feta cheese on the buffet line because your tongue—er, worldbuilding if you write paranormal/SF/F—needs a little tang. I judge a fair number of paranormal/SF/F manuscripts in contests, and it is surprising how often I find myself telling an author that the work needs a prologue. Most of the time, it is to either heighten the threat or get overly intrusive worldbuilding out of the way.

So, if you need a prologue, how do you write one that sucks people in instead of sucking? I wrestled with this problem myself—hence the blog article. I needed a prologue for the exact reasons I usually counsel people to use one. Remember that two-headed-Norwalk-virus-breathing dragon of threat and worldbuiling? I needed one of those. At first, I used a diary entry as the prologue, and enough people liked it, and the partial, to final the manuscript in the Golden Heart contest. Alas, though that diary entry was a nice little bit of writing, it didn’t suck people in. Being a mother superior’s diary, it didn’t have the sexy and naughty bits that people read diaries for. And, the danger was just too vague. I had to scrap it.

After a dozen numbingly bad drafts, I bowed to common sense and asked, “What would George R.R. Martin do?”  In Game of Thrones he writes a one-and-off POV character in an action-packed scene that introduces enough of the baddies to make you curious and a little freaked-out.  He works in the backstory. Let’s all shout “Bingo!” Here’s how I started my prologue:

How the Tendrils Grew

Though he’d lost his senses of smell and taste a dozen years ago, Lieutenant Juvenot swore he could smell fear —and it made his mouth water like his once-favorite food, new pickles. He recalled the heat of the summer solstice and tiny yellow flowers peeking from a green mat of hairy cucumber leaves and tendrils. What a fine time in his life that was, before everything had been ruined. But now, in the snowy depth of winter, within a cast-iron pot so big five men could curl in its belly, was the promise for even better times.

His raiding party’s two light sleighs had flown through their escort regiment’s encampment and down the road toward him until they reined in the horses and stopped two hundred paces off. His mouth filled with pleasantly hot spit from the sight of his raiders unbundling four Sarapostan captives from the sleighs.

In the first couple paragraphs, you learn that there is a military aspect (lieutenant), something nasty is in the pot (because it must be bad-ass if you think it is going to change your shi**y life), it is winter, the society is low-tech (horses, sleds, cast iron) and fantasy (where the hell is Sarapost?), that Juvenot is a creep (he gets off on fear) and Sarapostans are his enemy. But, I tried not to be overwhelming with the fantasy elements. Let the characters and situation be the hook. From here, we get go straight into an unfolding scene that almost answers what is in the pot, why it won’t be there forever, and that shows the scary things that happen to the captives—which gives a warning of the larger havoc awaiting the world.

The editor really liked the new prologue. Then, a funny thing happened. Juvenot was such a good character that I couldn’t let him be a one-and-off POV. He returns in the next two books and became the source of tension that was missing in a section of the last book. Woohoo!

Full disclosure—another  funny thing happened. The editor redlined the word prologue, a move that scared the s#$% out of me. What if people think Juvenot is the main character? He’s a creeper.  They’ll wonder what the hell kind of book this is. But, she argued that since I use chapter titles instead of numbers, people will get it because of the title, “How the Tendrils Grew.” Plus, readers wouldn’t skip it, a depraved act that even I admit to committing when they suck.

There you go. Do you skip prologues? Have a troublesome one on your hands? Please tell. I promise I don’t have the Norwalk virus…not yet…there is that New Year’s cruise I’m booked on.  I’ll spread it around after that.

BIO: Anna Steffl lives in Athens, Georgia, home of the New World gods of football and alternative music. She has held a string of wildly unrelated jobs, from frying chicken to one that required applying for a Department of Defense security clearance.  She is a past president of Georgia Romance Writers and a Golden Heart Award finalist.

http://www.annasteffl.com/

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26 Responses to Prologues That Don’t Entirely Suck

  1. Kelly says:

    Hi Anna,

    This is a great post! Thanks for being here today.

    I’ve heard pros and cons about prologues from editors, agents, and other writers. How do you know if your book really needs one?

    Thanks,
    Kelly

    • Anna Steffl says:

      Haha. That’s the heart of the issue. Use a prologue only to increase tension.

      The situation that screams prologue is when there is an inciting incident that the author feels compelled to tell me about in the first couple chapters. The key word is tell. Telling usually doesn’t increase tension. If you’re telling backstory/inciting incident/evil dude, seriously consider giving that information via a real scene–showing not telling. People connect more when they witness sometime rather than just hear about it, right? When you see someone punched, hear that horrible noise of knuckles busting the cartilage in someone’s nose–you remember that way more than when you hear “Joe punched Jack.” But, it all comes back to tension. If I know xyz now, does it increase the tension for either the reader or the hero/heroine? Make good use of dramatic irony–where the reader knows something the character doesn’t. In paranormal, a prologue is often used to introduce us to the threat and magical world that the main character knows nothing about. This is especially important if your main character doesn’t enter the magical world right away. A prologue is a nice cue to the reader about what kind of story this is. You don’t really want to get a third through a paranormal without seeing much paranormal.

      The trick is to know when this information needs to be given because maybe the inciting incident/backstory/villian would be more compelling if teased-out through the story instead of in a prologue. Are you, the writer, simply being over-eager and trying to reveal too much too soon and destroying your tension level?

  2. Kelly and Anna,

    Thanks for the great post. Looking forward to reading Anna’s series! Nothing like a good creep-out in the first “chapter” to suck a reader in. I think the difference between a great prologue and a sucky on has to do with whether the scene conveys action or just backstory. Action will advance the plot, but backstory just dooms your book to the discard pile. Anna’s example definitely is a part of the story, not just background the author is unwilling to discard or sprinkle throughout the book.

  3. Bryonna Nobles says:

    A great post and great prologue, Anna.

    I have a prologue in my first book, Moonstruck, but I really had to debate on it. In the end, I decided it was needed because

    1. It built the world in just a few pages. You knew exactly what you were getting into.

    2. I needed to create sympathy for my hero who is, pardon the language, a real asshole when you first meet him.

    3. It let you know straight out you were reading a paranormal, something my first chapter doesn’t do since my heroine is, at that point at least, a human.

    For for those reasons, I wrote the prologue and I do find I have trouble getting people to read it.

    I have never skipped a prologue before – maybe I just haven’t found a truly bad one. For me, I felt everything that writer put down was there for a reason and I will be missing key information if I skip it.

    Maybe I should do as you did and change it from ‘Prologue’ into something else. Maybe not give it a title at all. I don’t know… At least no one has told me to cut it yet, so clearly its doing its job. Unless they’re skipping it! O.o

    But this was a great blog post. Very helpful.

    • Wendy Beck says:

      This fascinates me. I have never known anyone to skip a prologue. Completely baffles me. Perhaps I know too many fantasy folks. You wouldn’t skip. Lol

  4. Kelly says:

    Bryonna, those are good points. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Wendy Beck says:

    I admit, I hesitate to write this but, the truth is, I would have grasped the flow of your book MUCH better if that first “chapter” had been called a prologue. Thinking of it that way made sense of it! It came across with a different feel, creepy and disturbing. As a prologue, I’m prepared to know that this isn’t the feel of the book; it’s a setup scene, something a little separate. I’m not sure how to explain really. It just added to my being confused, something that righted itself, but it took chapters. Now, I have read a lot of fantasy, so I understand prologues, and perhaps the advice you were given was because they expected a different audience. Maybe there is something to be said for that, but I can’t agree with them. It was jarring as chapter one. A prologue tells me to shift. For me, the story would have greatly benefitted from the structural warning. I read that you had it as a prologue originally, and my mouth dropped open in, “omg! Now it makes sense! Why didn’t I see that?”

  6. Anna Steffl says:

    Bryonna,

    You listed all the really good reasons to have a prologue–especially #3. I’ll usually hang with a main character I don’t like, as long as he’s interesting and I don’t mind easing into the worldbuilding, but it is, for me, a bit strange reading a paranormal and finding myself wondering when and if I’ll ever get to the paranormal. I just want a little taste of it at the start. Sherrilyn Kenyon does a good job with this her her first Dark Hunter book.

  7. Anna Steffl says:

    Thanks for the comment Wendy. I understand what you’re saying and agree that “How the Tendrils Grew” is pretty dark and isn’t the tone of the whole book (though all the bad guy chapters are creepy). It can be a tough call whether to use that prologue label, and that’s part of the reason why I wrote this blog post. I was thinking through my process and also reconciling it with what is in favor in the publishing world. I did have several discussions with the editor about this, with me pushing for the prologue title, but at some moment or another, I came face to face with my own reading habits and alas, I’ve skipped/skimmed the prologues of some very fine writers even though I’m an author and have a MA in Restoration Lit–so I should be a really sensitive reader ;-) Granted, I didn’t skip GRR Martin’s prologue, because it was exceptional. I’m convinced that chapter is only labeled a prologue because we really don’t encounter the White Walkers again until later in the series, so he didn’t want anyone to expect that they were the main theme of Game of Thrones. However, it did introduce us to the fantasy aspect of the book, so that’s why it is there as a prologue.

    As an aside, all the text in Superior’s diary entries at the start of the heroine’s chapters are bits of the original prologue. They do add some backstory, but I’m betting most readers skip them. They are there as a little delight for close readers who want an extra dimension to the story that isn’t critical, but perhaps enjoyable when all the pieces come together in book 3.

    • Wendy Beck says:

      I loved those diary entries you had! People skip those!? Maybe I’m the weird reader, and I don’t even know it. I trust authors too much. Lol. Do people skip epilogues as well? This has been eye-opening.

      • Kelly says:

        Wendy, I know a lot of people who skip the prologue. For some reason they don’t think it’s part of the book. Last year at a conference I heard an editor say she skips all prologue submissions and goes straight to chapter one. So it’s a tough call about whether or not to include it. Personally I think prologues are valid for all the reasons Anna and others have mentioned, but still these other “cons” exist.

      • Anna Steffl says:

        I’ll read an epilogue. By that point I’m fully invested in the story. But, shorter IS sweeter in the epilogue department.

  8. Jenny H Crowley says:

    I’m considering a prologue for my memoir, at least my critique group has recommended I do so. This post provides great insight for me to consider.

    Kelly, I am looking forward to meeting you in May at the Tallahassee Writers Conference and Book Festival.

  9. Anna Steffl says:

    That’s interesting, Jenny. A prologue for a memoir. My only thought is to keep it short :-) I’ll read introductions to non-fiction that are one or two pages long. If it gets too long, I usually skip it. I feel terrible admitting that, but I don’t think I’m alone, unfortunately. Once I invest in a book, though, I’m usually a careful reader.

    • Kelly says:

      I will keep that in mind for my next non-fiction book, Anna! :)

      • Anna Steffl says:

        Well, I don’t know about that, Kelly! I’m just spouting and admitting by bad habits. There are just as many people who want to read EVERY word you write and appreciate introductions/prologues/forwards. If I do skip one and love the book, especially non-fiction, I do go back and read them. You don’t want to be writing totally for the worst reader (me).

  10. M.V. Freeman says:

    Anna–
    I love a well placed prologue–I agree with you it gives you a flavor of what you are up against. I didn’t use one in my first book, but I’m finding I like doing it for the subsequent books. For me it sets up motivation especially in an Fantasy or Urban Fantasy setting.

    Are they trouble these prologues? Yes–like you said how much do you put in? How little? I find I rewrite them more often than any other scene in a book.

    You did a fabulous job in yours, and you have built a fascinating world. Wishing only good things for you!

    • Anna Steffl says:

      Hi MV,

      You are right! I ended up writing, rewriting, trashing, writing the prologue material more than anything else in the book.

      This whole discussion has been really interesting to me. I’ve spent some time surfing the web and it seems many people are having this same discussion and feeling the same pressure from agents and editors, but coming to the conclusion that there are times when the prologue is a marvelous thing.

      I dunno, maybe there was a time, especially in the paranormal/SF/F genres, where you HAD to have a prologue so we ended up with overkill. Readers got used to the throwaway prologue and started skimming? I guess I’m wondering how I got into this habit. Like cocktail hour…how did that happen?

      • M.V. Freeman says:

        I can’t help it-I have to answer this-

        My opinion?

        In my mind, throw away prologues are those that don’t do anything to advance or push forth the story or even develop tension. The ones which frustrate me are those taken from some point later in the book, to me that’s more of a teaser scene. Now, I am not sure how others feel about it–but I’d prefer something else, something going on which is going to set in motion a series of events which leads us to the story…

        I think, it’s like a wine we’ve never tried–but once we do, we prefer it. Good prologues are good for the palate, I mean story, they set the mood, entice us, and encourage us to read more.

        • Kelly says:

          Personally I like prologues that build the tension, or give you an idea of the threat that the H/H will have to face before they realize it.

  11. Kelly says:

    I’ve really enjoyed this discussion today! Thanks Anna and to everyone who participated. The winner of the ebook will be announced tomorrow, and feel free to continue posting comments through the evening.