Monday, March 30, 2015

Is Your Prologue Cheating?



Prologues. Young and beginning writers seem to love them. And, there is nothing wrong with adding one to your story. In fact, they can be very helpful!

But, the problem with them is that young writers oftentimes use them to cheat. They don’t realize it, but their use of prologues is really lazy writing and people can sense that. So, the reader skips the prologue.

Which, for a writer is always bad. If your reader skips something, you’re doing something wrong.

But, how is the prologue lazy writing? How do people use it to cheat?

I’m glad you asked!

  • Info Dumps

I talked about this a while back. An info dump with when you dump a large amount of information on the reader, instead of letting the necessary info work naturally into your story. Many young writers I know use prologues as a means to dump the entire history of their fantasy world on their readers.

The problem with this is that people’s first impression of the book is a boring history lesson they don’t really care about. They don’t know your world or characters so they have no reason to invest their time and energy into remembering any of it. But, the writer usually treats the prologue as the only means in which they convey the necessary info. They assume at the beginning of chapter one that the reader read the prologue and has all the information they need.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. I know a lot of people who skip the prologue. If they don’t find it interesting enough, they just move on to chapter one. But then, they’re so confused because they don’t understand the world’s history that they often end up not finishing the book or enjoying it very much.

Or, the reader opens the book, starts reading the prologue, gets bored, and quits. They never even make it to chapter one.

  • A Teaser to Make Up for a Boring Beginning

Another common thing I see in prologues is that the writer uses it to draw the reader in with some super exciting opening. The prologue is so compelling that the reader just has to keep reading.

But then when chapter one starts is slow and uninteresting and it takes a while before the action picks back up.

It’s like the writer wants the reader to know the book is going to be exciting so they tease the reader with action at the beginning to make up for a boring first couple chapter, hoping the reader will stick around because of how much they enjoyed the prologue.

But, often times, readers will put the book down because they’re no longer interested or they’ll skip until they find something exciting. At any rate, they’re less likely to recommend the book to anyone, or, if they do, they pull down the rating because of the slow start. So, while you may have hooked the reader with your prologue, it’s really just a lazy excuse not to work on the opening chapters to make them more interesting.

  • Innocent Jumps to Warrior

We have all read at least one of these books- the one where the writer goes to great lengths to convince us  that the main character is a sweet, innocent person at the start of the book- whether they’re a child or just a sheltered young adult.

Then over the course of the prologue something happens to the character. Their village is burned. Their parent is killed. They’re kidnapped. Something terrible.

And then the writer ends the prologue with this a paragraph or line or something that indicates the character’s innocence has been stripped away. They are now so jarred by the realities they are facing that they are no longer the person they were on the opening page. A dramatic picture of that would look like the main character’s eyes going red and them silently vowing to have their revenge no matter the cost.

And then chapter one starts some time later when they’ve become a strong warrior or the like, doing things the sweetheart on the first page never would have dreamed of doing.

Then problem with this, is that we’re introduced to one character in the prologue and another in the first chapter. Only, we’re told they’re the same person. But, as have to take the writer’s word for it because we didn’t actually get to see the change from innocent to warrior. We saw the first seed of it, but oftentimes, the character is so different that the reader is left wondering how the transformation happened. How did the innocent from page one become this mighty warrior? How did they do from the character who wouldn’t hurt a fly to the person we see now who is killing people in battle left and right without a second thought?

There’s nothing wrong with this transformation. But, writers tend to use it as a means to explain what happened without giving the readers the emotional payoff they desire. They use it almost opposite an info dump, giving so little details that the reader is left with too many questions.

If you are going to use this sort of prologue and then spend the rest of the book exploring the emotions of the character, slowly providing the reader with the answers they want, that’s great and can be very effective.

But, if you’re going to use this and then only mention the transition once in that scene around the campfire and then again in the black moment or showdown, it’s cheating in the character development department. You can’t just explain away the character’s emotions- or lack of them- by a traumatic experience. By putting it into the book, you promise your readers it’s something you’re going to deal with. If it’s nothing more than a fancy info dump, drop it. Because nobody wants it.

This can go the other way too, with a bad guy in the prologue who vows to become good and then the next scene he’s helping widows and orphans and you’re left wondering how the change happened. Though, usually, this is dealt with better because very often his past comes back to haunt him and the writer deals with change over the course of the book. Like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables

  • We Don’t Know Who to Love

Another way writers tend to use prologues is to add that scene the main character would have no way of knowing about. Or, to add that scene from twenty years ago that was important. There’s nothing wrong with the scene, it’s well written and engaging and leaves the reader wanting more.

But then chapter one starts and we’ve got a whole new set of characters to learn about and the reader suddenly has to start over.

I am very character driven, as you probably know if you have read even a few of my other posts. So, when I encounter a prologue like this, I have a hard time because I’ve become attached to the characters in the opening pages.

Then chapter one comes and said characters are nowhere to be found. It’s as if the writer promises one set of characters in the prologue but then say “Just kidding! Here’s the real set of characters.” And the reader is left wondering if getting attached to them is wise as they’re now unsure if this set of people will get taken away from them without warning as well.

Or, the prologue is about the villain and the reader is left wondering who they’re supposed to care about in the scene and if these are the good guys or the bad guys. You throw a character into a scene, which is told from his perspective, a lot of times, and assume since he’s doing bad things that the reader will know he’s the villain.

But, let’s face it. The anti-hero is very popular right now. So, the reader is left wondering if the person they’re reading about is the hero and if they’re supposed to be supporting these decisions.

Either way, the reader is confused about who they’re supposed to care about. And, the opening pages of your book are critical when it comes to introducing your characters and making your readers care about them. Don’t waste your pages confusing people.


How about you? How do you feel about prologues? Do you use them in your writing? Are there any ways they can be used as cheating that I’ve forgotten?

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