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What Every Writer Should Know Before Creating a Prologue

Arguably one of the most famous prologues in literature, Charles Dickens' opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities is a perfect example of how to write a prologue. It is the most quoted line from the book, and has stood the test of time because it does exactly what it is meant to do—make the reader want to continue reading.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Charles Dickens

For any writer, creating a Dickens-like prologue is a daunting task. This is especially true for first-time novelists who are unsure of the process of writing a book from start to finish, and what it will entail. They'll often make the mistake of starting with a prologue—because it's fun to start a story that way—without understanding the real purpose of those few pages at the beginning of their story.

The bad news first

When someone gives you the option between hearing good news and bad news, you'll likely choose the bad news first, right? So here it is.

Literary agents looking to represent another best-selling author generally don't like prologues. One reason is that they've read a lot of them. They've seen it all for a book's beginning, especially from authors who take 500 words to describe an approaching storm or use the prologue to do something "different" or "cool," which usually only results in completely confusing the reader. With so many samples of work coming across their desk, they start to recognize tell-tale signs about you as an author—how you pace your story and the tone of your narrator. They ultimately want to represent an author who can sell books, and use simple metrics to help their decision on whether to represent you.

Now to conclude the bad news, let's take a step back and ask the question: Do you hope to become a best-selling author and have your work accepted by big publishers? If the answer to that question is yes, then you might want to rethink a prologue entirely in the first place.

Take a step back and determine whether your prologue would be strong enough to beat the odds of having your manuscript accepted.

Advice from the pros

Elmore Leonard, bestselling western and crime fiction writer, who has also published tips for writers, suggests to do away with a prologue entirely. Sandwiched in between tips like "never open a book with weather" and "never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue," he suggests that a writer "avoid prologues." If avoiding a prologue lands in the Top-10 list of industry-wide standards for best practices, then it obviously is something to consider thoroughly before you begin the querying process to have your book published.

There's a valid reason why literary agents tend to avoid reading prologues when considering authors to represent. For example, Janet Reid is a literary agent at New Leaf Literary and Media in New York City. Her client list includes several New York Times Bestselling authors, and she knows how literary agents think. From a literary agent's point of view, a big problem with authors sending in a prologue as a query is the fact that it doesn't give them an opportunity to see the writer's true pacing and story-telling style. Prologues often contain vague references or back story, leaving the reader—or in this case, literary agent—with little knowledge about your talent and capabilities as a writer, but a lot of confusion trying to understand a prologue outside of the context of the manuscript as a whole.

With multiple manuscripts to read daily, literary agents look for tale-tell signs of poor writing to help speed the process. In many cases, when receiving a query, an agent will skip past the prologue and start immediately on Chapter 1.

In addition to that, many literary agencies ask for a query as an introduction to your work. It's standard for agents to request that the author send in a query, with only 3-5 pages of the book as a sample. Since a prologue stands on its own, it's a bad introduction to what you can do as a writer. A query is not the full manuscript and it's certainly not the finished book, says Reid. Reading at the query stage is often skimming. It's not settling down on the couch with a cat and a cup of java for a nice read of an 800-page novel.

Reid also suggest that writers ask themselves an important question before submitting a query containing a prologue. If you leave the prologue out of your query, she writes, will the agent be able to understand Chapter One? If so, leave it out of the query. Remember, you only have 3-5 pages most likely, or not many more, to catch an agent's attention.

She also advises that if you simply must have a prologue and have faith that it will stand out as extraordinary, remember that the point of the query is to engage the reader. It is up to the writer to determine if the prologue would do that best, or if Chapter One would be more of a hook. Be very critical in your assessment here, says Reid. If I'm only going to read five pages, which ones are they?

Reid is not alone in her feelings about prologues. Michelle Andelman of Regal Hoffman and Associates, another New York City-based agency, shares the same opinion. I'm not a fan of prologues, she writes, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page 1 rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it. Andrea Brown of Andrea Brown Literary Agency puts it like this: Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written. Laurie McLean of Foreword Literary writes, Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!

Finally, the good news

With the bad news out of the way, let's focus on the good, especially if your manuscript is already written and you know the prologue you've included is perfect. Kristin Nelson, President and Founding Literary Agent of Nelson Literary Agency in Denver, has represented over 35 New York Times bestselling titles. She, unlike most in her field, doesn't completely discount the potential of a prologue. However, if you're going to send it out for agents to read, at least avoid some of the most common mistakes writers make in writing their prologue.

According to Nelson, there are two definite mistakes to avoid. Ranking at #1 and #2 are writing a prologue for backstory so the "real story" can begin, or making the prologue too long. Both of those mistakes combined would, in her words, be the death of a manuscript.

Another common mistake she has seen often is when writers present a prologue that is in a completely different writing style or voice compared to the rest of the book. A writer might do this for several reasons, perhaps to stand out or be different than the rest. Nelson writes, …then when Chapter 1 begins, readers are left flummoxed—especially if that style or tone of voice is never revisited.

As for the perfect prologue, and its place in a novel, Nelson admits that a prologue can be a truly amazing tool for a writer and make a novel more successful. However, she also notes that extraordinarily written prologues are not the norm, and she can count the number she has seen on two hands. These odds might not be ones you want to face in your querying process.

What makes an extraordinarily written prologue?

If you're still convinced your manuscript needs a prologue and you can avoid the whole thing by not sending it out in queries, here are some best practices to consider as you write it.

  • Make readers want more. As in Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, write a prologue that captures the reader's attention so much that they simply can't put the book down until they know the story and its every detail. That's the kind of hook you need to make a prologue work in an industry that doesn't really take well to prologues in the first place.
  • Use the prologue as the proverbial hook, but don't try to yank the hook forward by starting Chapter 1 in the same way. If you've written a dynamic prologue, slow the action down a bit when writing Chapter 1.
  • Think of the prologue as its own unique part of the book. Instead of writing a snippet or snapshot of action that will take place later in the book, think of it as a short story that can stand on its own. If you do this, you'll be more likely to give the prologue the attention it deserves.
  • Don't make it too long. If your prologue is wordy and in any way bores the reader, it's a useless device. You want to engage the reader and hook them into reading more, not run them away with a bad first impression.
  • Write it in a voice that continues in the rest of your novel. Many writers make the rookie mistake of writing a prologue that is in the voice of the villain, or worse, a character who doesn't play a significant role in the rest of the story. This is not only confusing for literary agents taking a small glimpse of your work—it's confusing to any reader.
  • Don't use your prologue for a lot of back story. Throwing in back story details is often more effective within the plot's progression, and can be difficult for your reader to grasp if there are too many details included.
  • Read a lot of prologues. Look at what other authors have done in writing their prologues. Compare how they use it to set up their story, or hook the reader in to reading more. A prologue doesn't have to be a bad thing if you do it right. The fact that there are many bestsellers on shelves that contain a prologue shows that the device still works. Look at what publishers liked (obviously, by publishing the novel), and dissect how other authors have managed it.
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