Thursday, July 28, 2011
Should your novel have a prologue?
Should your novel have a prologue? Hmm, that depends. If it provides information essential to the plot and reveals significant facts that can’t be shown as well in any other way, then go for it. (Like everything else—if it doesn’t work, you can always delete. You’re the boss, at least until you have an editor!)
Still, we need a good reason to add a prologue. Maybe the prologue scene happens during another time and at another location so it doesn’t quite fit with the first chapter. Here’s a test: try to leave it out—is anything important missing? Or try to change it to Chapter One—does it damage the integrity of the plot? If the answers to these two questions are yes, then you probably need to consider writing a prologue.
There are four major types of prologues.
According to Lital Talmore the first kind, ‘the future protagonist’ prologue, shows the hero or heroine after the main portion of the story has already taken place. It primary purpose is to give the end of the story first, while the rest of the book tells what leads up to it--the book backtracks from the end to the beginning. A first person POV memoir is a good example of this.
The second type of prologue is called ‘past protagonist.’ It’s usually used as an important or defining moment from the heroine’s past that impacts upon the present story. It can explain some of the motivations and conflicts in a hero or heroines’ life in a much more dramatic way than just weaving the information into the main body of the novel. It can also keep the author from having to write a long flashback. Putting a strong, emotional event in the prologue starts the book off to a dynamic start. It also will probably make the hero/heroine sympathetic and begin to create a bond with the reader.
The next kind, called the ‘different POV’ prologue, describes a particular event from the POV of a character who isn’t the hero/heroine. This important event can take place during the same timeframe as chapter one, or before or after. But eventually it will connect with some part of the novel and its significance will become apparent. It’ll be relevant and effect the plot. If the book is written in first person then the prologue may be in some other character’s third person POV.
In this type of prologue the writer can introduce a danger that the reader should know about, but the hero shouldn’t, at least not now. This is often used in suspense stories where the prologue is in the villain’s POV.
The last kind is the ‘background’ prologue. These are common in science-fiction and fantasy stories where the reader needs to know some information about the special world. But keep it interesting or the reader skip over it.
I was surprised when my editor asked me to write a prologue for Love on a Dime, my first book in the Ladies of Summerhill series. I was under the impression that prologues were usually frowned upon by editors. But she thought it was important to show the break up of my heroine and hero, Lilly and Jack, which occurred several years before the actual story begins. I’d told all about it, but I hadn’t shown it in the first few chapters. At the time I didn’t realize how much more effective showing can be over just telling. What happened to tear the couple apart impacted greatly upon their relationship in the story. So I did what any new writer does--I took my editor’s suggestions. It turned out to be excellent advice and just a small amount of extra work.
First of all, through writing the prologue I discovered so much about my hero and heroine I hadn’t thought about before. Okay, I should’ve already known all about this crucial event in great detail, but I’m afraid I didn’t know enough. I also learned more about Lilly and Jack’s emotions and how their break up affected their future lives. Lilly’s parents came to life, too. Now I understood the entire story better and could improve the manuscript.
Book three in the series, Love by the Book, also has a prologue. This time I wrote one without any prompting from my editor. It was obvious right from the beginning that I needed to show Melinda and Jack’s reactions to the news they were going to share guardianship of their niece Nell. The prologue shows their immediate reactions to each other and the new, unexpected situation that turns their lives upside down. This is the beginning of their character arcs.
Six months later when the three of them come together at Summerhill (chapter one) they’ve already started to change. We see their goals, motivations, and conflicts in the prologues and can look ahead to anticipate the problems they’ll encounter during the summer. The setting has changed from New York City to Newport, Rhode Island.
Since the prologue is the opening scene you’ll have to write two opening scenes—the prologue and chapter one. I found that a prologue made the first chapter easier to write because I didn’t have to weave in so much information the reader needed right at the beginning.
Here’s the first page of the Love by the Book prologue.
NEW YORK CITY, JANUARY 1901
Melinda’s sharp intake of breath shattered the silence. All eyes turned toward her, but Melinda could do nothing but stare at the attorney. Had she misheard her sister’s will? Or had he misread it? How could Cora leave her daughter to Melinda’s care—as well as Nick’s? She couldn’t imagine.
Cora had never mentioned such an odd arrangement, but then again her sister normally avoided unpleasant subjects. A wave of panic swept through Melinda. No one loved Nell more than she. No one. But being a mother was far different than being the doting aunt...
Attention shifted from her to Nick. Seated at the other end of the semicircle of family members, Nick’s blue-gray eyes were still wide with shock. The minutes dragged by until finally, mercifully, Mr. Ricker concluded the reading and dismissed the others. Nick immediately rose and walked over to join them.
Mr. Ricker cleared his throat and spoke in a hushed tone. “You both seem surprised by the custody situation. But let me assure you Mrs. Parker Bryson insisted you two share guardianship—for reasons of her own.” He looked from Melinda to Nick, frowning.
If you’d like to read the rest of the prologue and chapter one of Love by the Book, you can find it at my website www.caralynnjames.com
Oops, I just realized I forgot to mention I'll be giving away a copy of Love by the Book. If you'd prefer either Love on a Dime or Love on Assignment I'll send one of them. Either print or e-book.