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.