Writing a novel is like journeying the ocean…
But in this instance, you’ve no boat, no equipment, and you can’t bleeding swim!
(That, our writing friends, is a very English expression…)
An Ever-Growing Debate
It’s a topic we see a lot in the community: in heated discussions on Twitter, rage-infused debates in Instagram comments, back-and-forth arguments on Facebook. That’s one thing we’re starting to notice.
Where there’s a group of passionate people who are well versed in the art of words, there’s always something – something – to debate. That’s how life in the writing community goes. Someone says something, someone else disagrees; hellfire ensues.
Okay, so maybe it’s not that crazy…
We think we need to add more fuel to the fire, though. And today, we’re going to do just that. The topic of this debate? Prologues. Are they needed? If so, when?
Stick around, we’re about to explore!
Mastering The Art
There’s a harsh truth to be delivered here. If you’re someone who doesn’t like reading prologues, it’s likely that you don’t like writing them. And if you don’t like writing them, it’s likely that you don’t fully understand the perfect method of construction.
We’re nice. We’re going to go into that.
The prologue, first and foremost, should be something the reader reads and then forgets by chapter four. Sounds a little backwards, right? Well, here’s the catch: forget by chapter four until… they remember it again; until it all comes crashing back in one of those almighty ah-ha! moments.
The prologue gives backstory, a part of the plot that is unrelated until it’s not – that’s where the moment of realisation comes from. That’s also why they’re so hard to do well. If a writer doesn’t have the perfect sub-story to deliver in the prologue, the prologue won’t work. Period.
Even if the wordsmith-ery (yes, we went there) was a divine, damn-near perfect representation of literary genius, the prologue would not work if the chosen event wasn’t strong enough.
What To Do Instead
When deciding if your novel needs a prologue, ask yourself two simple questions: can the backstory I wish to give be included via a more natural means (flashbacks, contextual telling, back-to-front structure)? If not, you go on to the next question: is it entirely relevant?
That’s the thing… The most common reason to include a prologue is to detail a past happening; a past happening that sent the pendulum swinging, that set the meat of the rest of the story in motion. And the thing you have to tackle is simple: the timing and the structure.
Truth is, almost every prologue ever could be presented differently, sprinkled through the story in snippets by using well-timed and executed flashbacks. But, that would cause a lot of extra work, and in that, a lot of extra places in which you could royally mess up.
To simplify: the prologue was born.
Now, all you do is write that backstory, give all the intricate details, and then move on into the actual story. Just make sure that you don’t dance with the ultimate devil: always – always!!! – ensure that your prologue is given a purpose somewhere during the rest of the story. If the reader doesn’t come across something (an event, a character, a location) that they can relate back to it, it is ultimately, indefinitely futile.
Below, we’ll give you some practicality. We’ll outline some details (part of a story outline, if you will) that will show you exactly what types of things a prologue should include. This is going to be an example of a story that requires a prologue.
EXAMPLE: The plot is simple: a newly qualified detective is on his first assignment: a double homicide. Both victims are female. Both were strangled (we know, but the cliches are always best). BLAH-BLAH-BLAH, CRIME-SPIEL, CRIME-SPIEL, CRIME-SPIEL.
Now, the prologue detail.
Your protagonist’s past is pain-burdened beyond repair. When he was six year’s old, he bore witness to the passing of his mother. As she was strangled to death. In her own living room. Much like the two victims of his first case (and the three that follow).
Where does the prologue come into it? Well, with his past, of course.
Thing is, the reader never actually knows about his dead mother (or at least the details) until it is revealed at the end. What makes the reveal so shocking? It is the same killer now – the same man who murdered the detective’s mother. He is back on the loose. (That is revealed at the end.)
Imagine having to give all that pain and suffering in flashback form throughout the novel. Imagine how much pain and suffering it would in turn bring to you. Nope. We wouldn’t fancy it.
The solution? A prologue. Just one 600 word scene at the very start, before the book even begins. It shows two things: a woman being strangled in a living room, and a young boy, watching over the evil in horrified silence.
When it is revealed (by the killer, no less) that it was him – he is the guy who killed the detective’s mom – the reader will lose their mind. They’ll flashback to that random, unexplained scene from the very beginning and… AH-HA!
Only When Necessary
To give our final thoughts: yes, prologues are wonderful, and still have their place, but only when they are strictly necessary. That translates directly to: don’t just write one because it makes you feel like Hemingway; write one because that’s what your story needs.
If you can give the details in flashbacks and with past tense context – do that. If that sounds like an absolute nightmare among nightmares, and like it might require an inadvisable amount of whiskey, you need a bloody prologue!