Tuesday, September 17, 2019

prologues-the topic that will not die

I was wondering about prologues. Please, stop cringing and hear me out! From reading the blog I understand that when querying and sending the first ten pages, those ten pages should be from the main narrative and not the prologue. But what happens when a partial request comes in? Do you send the prologue along? I guess my question is, at what point do you break the devastating news to your agent-to-be that you have a different beginning (maybe even with a different tense) than the main novel?

This is a good question.
Rather than just state a rule as in Do This and Never Do That, let's look at the purpose of query pages, partials and fulls to help suss out the answer here.

Querypages are intended to show the reading agent that you can string sentences together in a compelling way. That you can wrangle words deftly. That the story is enticing.

To that end you want to send the pages that show the start of the story. Most often that is chapter one, page one.

Prologues are often set up, backstory, or in some cases, the twist in the plot that you understand only after you have read the whole book.

In other words, they fulfill two of the three requirements for pages.
Chapter one, page one fulfills all three.

Thus: generally you will NOT send the prologue as pages with the query.

Partials are intended to do all the things the querypages do, but with more real estate.

I'd ask for fifty pages with the query if I could because all too often the story starts on page ten, not page one, and I won't see that at the query stage cause I only ask for the first 3-5 pages.

But even a sharkly agent with a cold cruel heart isn't going to ask for 50 pages embedded in an email.

With a partial do you need setup, and backstory? Maybe.
It depends on the book, and how the plot unfolds.

If you think the prologue will help the agent assess those first 50 pages, then yes, include it.

If the prologue is the twist to the plot, save it for the full request.

Which leads us to requested fulls: yes you should include the prologue. If only so I can tell you to take it out.

Prologues are so often misused that the entire Prologue category gets shamed. I've seen VERY effective prologues. And of course we've all seen those that should have been excised.

As you read in your category, keep a list of books that have good, effective prologues.
It will be an aid when you have to decide yes/no on including a prologue in your next Tome of Terrific.


E.M. Goldsmith said...

This is great way to spin the dread prologue. As our queen says, they are often misused. I do not have one in the book I am on the edge of querying. However, the next several books I have lined up all have them and depend on the books being published as a series so will NOT be used for my debut. Also, they are not really prologues they are more like frames for the full breadth of the epic. Wheels spinning inside wheels kind of thing. I will work closely with editors/agent to make sure this will be as cool as I think it will. I so look forward to my future agent and editor.

I have seen too many published books that have these prologues that are ghastly, contribute little to the story, and are just taking up page real estate. Beware of those kind of prologues. You don't want to turn your readers away. We readers have so many books to choose from. My TBR pile could have its own postal code. I am considering building my own library. Seriously. Make sure that book hooks your reader and hooks them so hard that even a large shark won't be able to get away.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I love my prologue because it sets up an eye opener of epic proportions.(How's that for writer BS)
Seriously boys and girls it's a stunner. (I'm knee deep this morning)
I may be delusional but I am comfortable. As usual QOTKU is spot on.

Craig F said...

D4EO does ask for 50 pages.

Prologues work, mainly if there is enough time and distance from the story to be relevant, but not critical to the beginning of the book.

I have a half page that is almost, maybe, a prologue. It is to bring the aliens from chapter fourteen into focus.

Unknown said...

When I began to query my first novel, it had a prologue. Nada! Rejection after rejection. Then I sat down and wrote myself a memo: What were the goals of said prologue? What did I want the reader to GET before delving into the main story? It took me a month of tortured rewrites, but I distilled it into one paragraph, which I made the opener of chapter one. Bam! Hooked an agent!

Fearless Reider said...

As a young reader growing up in the dead center of nowhere, I loved prologues. I felt that they let me in on a big secret, drawing back the curtain on a world where everything was consequential and placing me squarely in the middle of it all. “Two households, alike in dignity”? Tell me more! I also loved prologues that were less grandiose but dropped a clue or two to put in my pocket for later, then deepened my understanding of a character or stakes when I took them out later to get a better look at them, after the story had unfurled.

My current WIP does not have a prologue, but the Project of My Heart has a short one. Less than a page, I promise, but if it’s less effective than I think it is, I will bow humbly to my hypothetical agent and editor (whilst muttering hypothetically under my breath). I’d love to hear about Reiders’ favorite prologues, especially from current titles. I encounter them seldom in my category, which should be telling me something.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I might be the odd one out here, but I genuinely like prologues--not in my writing, necessarily, but in what I read.

I read a lot of fantasy. I think it's a genre that goes very well with prologues, because most fantasy novels require a lot of trust and patience from their reader. Fantasy requires a decent amount of orientation right at the beginning (provided it's well done and not just paragraphs of exposition on world building). Most fantasy prologues I read aren't fast paced high-action. They're just a promise. "Yes, you are going to have to sit through some world building and familiarize yourself with this universe, but first! Look! Cool scene that promises what this story will look like!"

That could just be because fantasy novels are longer, and readers walk into them with more patience than for a shorter book.

Of course, not always. I read one of Erikson's novellas, and he took FOREVER to get to the story. I didn't ever finish that one. I was expecting something quick and easy, not 30 characters tangled in a knot.

Colin Smith said...

Here's another one of my "tie me up with piano wire and pluck out my eyebrows if I'm wrong" comments, but...

... I think the fear people have is that if they write a prologue, every agent will reject their work. So many agents (at least a lot of the ones I have read) have a dim view of prologues that you get to think they are the quickest way to kill your prospects of ever getting published.

And yet, when you scan the sci-fi books in your local codex emporium, nearly all of them have a prologue! So what gives?

I think the tip here is, if you have a prologue, and you are sure that prologue is necessary for your story, then keep it. Just don't include it with your query pages. With a requested partial or full? Include it. If the agent is interested, she'll tell you either, "Love the prologue--it's a keeper!" Or, "consider cutting the prologue--it doesn't help." Remember, if the agent has asked for a partial or full, she is interested in your work. She's not going to be deterred by a prologue if she's sold on the story and your writing. Just be prepared for her honest opinion about it. :)

As I said, Janet, if I've got this wrong, you have Uncle Vinnie's number. I think he has a spare piano... :)

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

I've only read two prologues that worked for me and for a lot of other people afaik. "The Dry" by Jane Harper and "The Nix" by Nathan Hill. OP, you might want to give those two a read because they have often been cited as the exceptions to the crappy prologue rule.

KMK said...

Sometimes what you think is a prologue is really just Chapter One. My soon-to-be-published mystery (April 2020 -- don't ask me unless you really want to hear the story!) opens in the right place, with the death, but there's a time jump to the rest of the story. Since I'd heard the prologue was the Great Satan, I called it Chapter One, even though it's pretty prologue-y. Worked for me, and seemed to work for everyone else. And based on the Queenly Shark's criteria today, it probably wasn't a prologue anyhow. So before you go to bat for a prologue...be sure that's what it is!

Karen McCoy said...

"I'd ask for fifty pages with the query if I could because all too often the story starts on page ten, not page one, and I won't see that at the query stage cause I only ask for the first 3-5 pages."

I've heard this referred to as the "Chapter 1-2 switcheroo." More often, we woodland creatures feel like we need to give people the proper setup, when, all the while, the story starts a bit later, and the setup isn't always needed.

OP, sometimes a prologue can be a paragraph or two. See "My Sister's Keeper" by Jodi Picoult.

Colin, I would loathe to think of a piano being used in such a way!

Colin Smith said...

Karen: Me too! Speaking not just as a musician, but also as the victim... ;)

Laina said...

"But even a sharkly agent with a cold cruel heart isn't going to ask for 50 pages embedded in an email."

I've queried a couple people who asked for that.

Unknown said...

I love getting totally immersed in a story and in my experience, when you get to the end of a prologue you're jolted out of that story line and blasted into an entirely different one in the following chapter. Ugh. Does my head in. These days I just skip the prologue altogether.

Beth Carpenter said...

A book I'm reading now started with a prologue when the four friends were ten and at a sleepover, and then started Chapter 1 with them now in business together. I think it worked to establish their relationship dynamics.

John Davis Frain said...

Beth Carpenter, what book is that? I already like it.

Laura Stegman said...

I wouldn't say this is one of my favorite books but certainly it's by one of my favorite authors, Lethal White by Robert Galbraith AKA JK Rowling, has a prologue that details Robin's wedding, and I wouldn't have the book start any other way.

Will N Rogers said...

I like the prologue from Leviathan Wakes and often use it as a reminder of what makes a good prologue.

It's tense, slightly horrific, and shows that the woman the two protagonists are searching for is a real, living character. It tells us that the story is about more than an ice-hauler going POP and a down-and-out cop. Without it, all the stuff with the protomolecule later in the book would have seemed to come from nowhere, what happens on Eros might have felt like a genre-switch, and Julie Mao would have seemed two-dimensional.

Konnie Enos said...

I personally have never written a prologue, but my sister has. Once I read a post about prologues and the right way to use them. I can't remember exactly what it said, but I do remember that my sister's prologues meet those requirements. One in particular is in the POV of a supporting character to the story, but it completely helps us understand what happens later. (I think that meets the Query Shark's criteria too.)

AJ Blythe said...

Catching up on nearly 2 months worth of blog posts. Wasn't going to reply because I realise I'm probably talking to myself, but on the off-chance this is seen by someone, Jessica Faust recommended "The Dry" by Jane Harper as a perfect example of prologue that works. I've had that book on my TBR pile since, and still haven't got to it, so can't comment myself, but if JF recommends it's worth checking out.