Monday, March 29, 2010

In the Beginning, There Was No Prologue

Our writers group a few nights ago engaged in a lively discussion about prologues. It seems many beginning writers - including myself - depend on prologues to drop a healthy dose of backstory into the reader's lap before officially beginning the story in chapter one.

My personal experience has been finally deleting every precious word of the sweated-over prologue for my first historical novel, The Distant Shore, based on the advice of a publisher who, although he rejected the manuscript, kindly took the time to give me a few helpful suggestions.

The book was eventually accepted for publication - sans prologue - and I must admit that it's a much smoother read.

Just this morning, I ran across the same topic in the March/April issue of Writer's Digest. The following is an excerpt from the article, "Lessons Learned From an Author Turned Agent" by Jennifer Lawler:

"While reading the umpteenth slow-starting novel manuscript that crossed my desk one afternoon, I found myself practically screaming, 'Throw away the prologue! Just throw it away! I never want to see another prologue in this lifetime!'

In fact, in all the submissions I've looked at, I have yet to read a prologue that has improved a manuscript. Good stories should start where they start, and not before or after. You need to work the backstory into the story, and not just shove it into a prologue.

Only after I'd had that reaction did I realize that one of my own novels - in progress at that very moment - started witha prologue. The prologue was there because it was the image that popped into my head when I first started wiritng. As I neared the end of the book, I knew the prologue no longer served any purpose, but I loved it! I thought maybe no one would notice it didn't really work.

Now I realize that someone would notice. I was so attached to it that it physically hurt to chop it out, but you know what? Getting rid of the prologue did improve the book. Immensely."