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Thread: Starting a novel with a prologue

  1. #1
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin eastallegheny's Avatar
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    Starting a novel with a prologue

    One critique I saw recently written (for someone else's work) stated that you shouldn't start with a prologue, and that that information should be incorporated into the first chapter, or scrapped entirely. I'm... nervous about that? Because while I am a ways off submitting my own work for critiques, the fact is I HAVE started with a prologue, because I just don't see any way around it. The prologue centers on the Big Bad of the book, and is about him setting things in motion. If that scene didn't play out, then I don't see how any of the rest of the book would even make sense.

    So what say you, Absolute Write? Can a novel that starts with a prologue work, or do I need to go stand in the corner and think about what I've done?

    (for context, the novel is a fantasy quest type premise, and I'm not sure who it's aimed at yet. I think young teens, based on the readability scores, but then again I don't know how reliable those are, or if people even really use them.)
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  2. #2
    practical experience, FTW indianroads's Avatar
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    Why not call your prologue Chapter 1, and write it with a different POV?

    Edited to add: decades ago when I was in school teachers said to write at an 8th grade level. Hopefully that advice is no longer valid.
    Last edited by indianroads; 01-02-2018 at 10:16 AM.

  3. #3
    Just Another Lazy Perfectionist Brightdreamer's Avatar
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    This is one of those "if it works, it works, if it doesn't it doesn't" situations.

    The big problem - particularly in fantasy - is that prologues have been overused. Like, really, really overused. And they were often not really necessary to the story - they were just infodumps by another name, the slow fade-in of the proverbial camera in a medium that doesn't need a slow fade-in or a camera. And it came to be expected that there'd be a prologue, because so many up-and-coming authors read books with prologues, so lots of prologues were written that didn't really need to be prologues, which further fueled the problem and subsequent reader burnout. To this day, many fantasy readers skip prologues as a matter of course.

    Is there still a purpose and a place for them? Yes. Is it going to be a harder sell, and a harder hook to set in a reader's mouth? Likely.

    So, think carefully. Does the prologue need to be there? Is there no other way to deliver the information? (Remember that thing about many readers skipping prologues... and also remember the phrase "kill your darlings.")

    My suggestion is to get your post count up and throw a sample into the SYW arena. The only way to know if it works or doesn't work is to get it in front of impartial readers.

    (ETA - On a tangential note, targeting an audience might be something to worry about more as you edit, but as a general rule, the age of the MCs has a good deal to do with it, as does the general subject matter and "feel" of the story - with heavy bleedover on the edges. There are "adult" books with young MCs, though few older or adult MCs in Young Adult or MG books, excepting MCs who "age up" with a series; think how Harry Potter started out aimed at a younger audience than he finished, though kids hooked on the series seem happy enough to read through all seven books. You'll want to read some books aimed at various demographics before you fine-tune your target and make your pitches, if you're unfamiliar with the different age categories. But, again, if you're still in the first draft and feeling out your story, worrying about marketing may be putting the cart before the horse.)
    Last edited by Brightdreamer; 01-02-2018 at 10:30 AM.
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  4. #4
    all out of fucks to give quicklime's Avatar
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    Read more. Read carefully. You have a couple questions you are really asking, imho:

    Are prologues bad? No, but a lot of shitty exposition, world-building, and infodumps all masquerade as prologues. To them, there is a very simple and universal rule: shitty writing is shitty writing. Doesnt matter if garbage got titked chapter 1, chaptwr 17, or prologue....its still shit.

    Should i do a prologue? Sure, if (and this is a big if but one that applies to almost any technique): sure, IF IT IMPROVES INSTEAD Of DETRACTS FROM THE STORY. But does if? Thats a conversation you need to have, as brutally honestly as you can. Maybe more honestly than you can sack up to, even.

    Does THIS prologue help or hinder? And is it really information I need a prologue for?? A lot of folks hate and skip prologues. Others like me read them but still with a grain of salt. Others just gobble them up. I am not saying they are good, or bad--i have seen both. I AM saying many prologues are worldbuilding that could EASILY be woven into story itself ( The Dark Tower and Agyar both come to mind as deep stories that start where they start, instead of pissing 5 pages away with backstory or rules for their world) or are character intros that could again be chapter 1, 2, 6, etc., as they are in almost all suspense/thriller booksjncluding those by King, Laymon, Koontz, etc....

  5. #5
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    If your plot rests on the prologue being read, that's the kind I'd be most wary of. Opinions on this will vary, but for me, if it's story-crucial, it doesn't belong in the prologue.


    I'd be tempted to call it chapter one as another poster suggests.

    Alternatively, perhaps you could cut it and make it the epilogue. As in, the readers read your story, and at the end are given "here is how it started". People tend to feel epilogues are like a reward, an extra treat after the main book, whereas prologues are usually regarded as the starter vegetables an author is asking you to chew before getting on to the meat of the novel.

    Just try removing it as an exercise. It may well be one of those things where it is necessary for you to know as the author, but not necessary for someone else to know as the reader.


    Addendum. My go-to example of a prologue I think is done well: Game of Thrones. Not plot crucial, you can skip it and still enjoy the book. But if you do read it, it's gripping from the get-go and establishes setting, tone, and a (very) miniature arc (concluded when that man is later executed by Ned.) The reader feels like they've been let in on a little secret between themselves and the author, as Ned doesn't know the full story, and might not have executed him if he had; it also sets up a moral dilemma that GRRM explored early on, where even people who think they are behaving honorably, are often not following the best course of action.

    I'm not actually much of a GoT fan beyond the first book but I do think his prologue was well done.
    Last edited by Harlequin; 01-02-2018 at 01:46 PM.
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    I'm in the school of "if it works, it works; if it doesn't, don't use it".

    I think an example of a prologue done well is Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsong. The prologue provides information the reader would not get without reading the rest of the Pern series.
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  7. #7
    practical experience, FTW Raindrop's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Harlequin View Post
    I'd be tempted to call it chapter one as another poster suggests.
    I'm not sure this would be appropriate in OP's case -- as the prologue is centered on the Bad Guy. As a reader, I tend to latch onto the first MC I spot in chapter 1. Like a goosling and the German scientist, you know? In this case, I'd probably root for the Bad Guy for the whole novel. A prologue is a clear way of telling the reader, "Watch out, this isn't the MC. Don't get too fond of them."
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  8. #8
    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    A few random thoughts for you, eastalleghenny.

    Aren't the good guys trying to find out who the bad guy is and why he is acting the way he is?

    And if the bad guy 'sets things in motion', somebody is affected, surely? Do I see anything from the POV of whoever is affected?

    Why do I need to know the who and why in the beginning if the unfolding tale (presumably) involves somebody trying to find out exactly that?

    Can't I find out at the same time?

    Welcome, and good luck.

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  9. #9
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin eastallegheny's Avatar
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    Wow, lots to think about! I especially love the gosling comparison. Yes, that's exactly why I didn't want it as part of chapter one: because none of the MCs appear in it, the Big Bad does. And unless and until he does what he does in the prologue, nothing else in the book can really happen.

    My prologue is literally about 350 words long, so I briefly considered having it be the first scene of the first chapter, and then doing a really obvious scene transition. But, the gosling thing. I don't want The Big Bad to be the first character in the first chapter, I want him clearly set apart. I want you to meet Bill in the first chapter!

    Also, my setup has each chapter "narrated" by a different character, 3rd person POV fly on shoulder, the same way GoT centers each chapter on a person. The difference, if there is one, is that my chapters are written more how the characters talk. Not heavy dialogue, because I think only Brian Jacques could pull that off, but like... one of my characters has zero contractions in her speech, and when it's her turn to "narrate" a chapter, the prose doesn't have any contractions in it either, because it's her thoughts.

    ANYWAY. The point of saying all that, is to say that I just don't see the prologue scene working as part of a chapter, because it's Big Bad centric, so to shoehorn it into the narrative turn of one of the MCs would be really out of place and odd. It wouldn't be fair to Bill, for example, if during his turn to narrate he had to sit aside and let the Big Bad's thoughts take precedence!

    And now to Bufty's questions, which I liked and will do my best to answer:

    Aren't the good guys trying to find out who the bad guy is and why he is acting the way he is?
    Not in the beginning. The Big Bad is using a Lesser Neutral as a cat's paw. He sends information anonymously, knowing Lesser Neutral will take the bait. Lesser Neutral contracts with the party to act on the information and Get The Thing. Neither Lesser Neutral nor the party have any real idea of Big Bad's involvement, or that The Thing is Very Bad Indeed. That's information that, for the time being, only the Big Bad has. (Everyone else is in it for money, basically.)

    And if the bad guy 'sets things in motion', somebody is affected, surely? Do I see anything from the POV of whoever is affected?
    Directly because of the information sent by Big Bad in the prologue, Lesser Neutral's greed is activated, so he assembles the party. The party consists of the six MCs: very different people with very different demeanors and backstories, but with a similar, monetary primary motivation to go on a quest for Lesser Neutral. (Several of them are adventurous by nature, but this is for them an added bonus, because the primary motivation is money).

    The more I think about it, the more I see the plot as a sort of... Rube Goldberg machine. Big Bad is the one to drop the marble in the chute, and the next part of the book is all the gears and levers and bells and whistles reacting to that rolling marble.

    Why do I need to know the who and why in the beginning if the unfolding tale (presumably) involves somebody trying to find out exactly that? Can't I find out at the same time?
    I think because the party is so unaware of the real purpose of The Thing, and of the real impetus behind their quest, the reader needs to know. Otherwise it really is just a very linear "Go And Get The Thing" quest premise. By pointing out from the get-go that actually, a Very Bad Man is behind them being sent to get The Thing, (I think) the reader gets to keep that in the back of their mind, and sort of be like "no, no, put That Thing back where it came from or so help me" lol.
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  10. #10
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    Not saying you should do this per se, just highlighting *a way*.

    I've also done a ms where the protagonists are unaware of the plot, and without using a prologue. The early story focuses on an emotional arc while the main plot is only hinted at in the beginning. Likewise multi POV. I think a fair few stories use this method; it can actually increase interest because the plot can then escalate, unfold, and continue to surprise. If you start with all your cards on the table, that's sometimes riskier IMO.

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  11. #11
    practical experience, FTW Kolta's Avatar
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    Few thoughts:

    Quote Originally Posted by eastallegheny View Post
    The point of saying all that, is to say that I just don't see the prologue scene working as part of a chapter, because it's Big Bad centric, so to shoehorn it into the narrative turn of one of the MCs would be really out of place and odd. It wouldn't be fair to Bill, for example, if during his turn to narrate he had to sit aside and let the Big Bad's thoughts take precedence!
    Why would Big Bad's thoughts have to take precedence at all? As opposed to events unfolding from Bill's or any other character's perspective?

    Aren't the good guys trying to find out who the bad guy is and why he is acting the way he is?
    Not in the beginning.
    If that part only comes in later, would that be such a bad thing?

    Why do I need to know the who and why in the beginning if the unfolding tale (presumably) involves somebody trying to find out exactly that? Can't I find out at the same time?
    I think because the party is so unaware of the real purpose of The Thing, and of the real impetus behind their quest, the reader needs to know. Otherwise it really is just a very linear "Go And Get The Thing" quest premise. By pointing out from the get-go that actually, a Very Bad Man is behind them being sent to get The Thing, (I think) the reader gets to keep that in the back of their mind, and sort of be like "no, no, put That Thing back where it came from or so help me" lol.
    You might not get the reaction you intend from readers. On the contrary, this could make it frustrating, waiting for the characters to figure out what we already know.

    As for the story being too linear without the prologue...it sounds to me like it would still be linear anyway. Knowing from the get-go what puts things into motion won't change how following chapters will progress.

    It sounds like you're placing a lot on this prologue, and at only 350 words you might want to rethink.

    I don't know how far into revisions you are, but the idea sounds like something that needs to be left to bake for a while. I say this because you very clearly want the reader to meet the Big Bad (not that there's anything wrong with that), but it doesn't sound as if they get their own chapters later on. But then they also play a significant role, enough to get their own prologue. But also if their actions are related through the POV of another character you fear that chapter's character taking a backseat to the Big Bad. Which means Big Bad has a large presence in the story, but they only get 350 words of prologue?

    So I'm suggesting letting this bake because from what I've read, you're excited to share this character with readers (I know the feeling) but beyond that I'm really not seeing a more compelling reason for the prologue.

    Having said that, if you've attempted other alternatives with regards to weaving in this backstory elsewhere and still keep coming back to the prologue, it's your story. If you feel it's what's best, go for it. But I would caution against mistaking excitement over an idea or a character for 'this is really, absolutely, crucially significant to the plot'. I'm sure it is important to find out what sets these characters out on their paths, but consider the timing and just how essential it is really for the reader to know it right off the bat.

    Hope this helps.

  12. #12
    All the nopes. lizmonster's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by eastallegheny View Post
    One critique I saw recently written (for someone else's work) stated that you shouldn't start with a prologue, and that that information should be incorporated into the first chapter, or scrapped entirely. I'm... nervous about that? Because while I am a ways off submitting my own work for critiques, the fact is I HAVE started with a prologue, because I just don't see any way around it. The prologue centers on the Big Bad of the book, and is about him setting things in motion. If that scene didn't play out, then I don't see how any of the rest of the book would even make sense.
    I've drafted seven books, and six of them have needed prologues.

    I'd say leave it in, see what your critters think, and be open to change if readers are bothered by it.
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  13. #13
    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by eastallegheny View Post

    Why do I need to know the who and why in the beginning if the unfolding tale (presumably) involves somebody trying to find out exactly that? Can't I find out at the same time?
    I think because the party is so unaware of the real purpose of The Thing, and of the real impetus behind their quest, the reader needs to know. Otherwise it really is just a very linear "Go And Get The Thing" quest premise. By pointing out from the get-go that actually, a Very Bad Man is behind them being sent to get The Thing, (I think) the reader gets to keep that in the back of their mind, and sort of be like "no, no, put That Thing back where it came from or so help me" lol.
    I think you may be attaching too much significance to the 'no, no, you don't want to find this, put it back' attitude, which may not be as powerful an inducement to keep reading as you may think it is. For me at least, it's good characters, plus the thrill of the chase into the unknown, and the discovery of the unexpected, that keep me turning pages.

    The party members may be unaware of the real purpose of the thing but surely that could be an exciting reveal or twist later in the story when the reader is caught up in the search and the artefact is finally located. Remember Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? All that's needed for the story to start unfolding is for the characters to believe it is worth their tracking the artefact down, no matter what their individual reasons are.

    I do, however, acknowledge that it's your story, and I wish you good luck..
    Last edited by Bufty; 01-02-2018 at 04:59 PM.
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  14. #14
    Rewriting My Destiny Cyia's Avatar
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    Prologues can be tricky. Often, they're excuses to include tons of exposition in a Star-Wars-style, pre-plot "crawl," which is usually not very interesting to the reader.

    Sometimes, they're necessary information - such as an inciting incident that happens, but that your POV characters couldn't possibly have witnessed (such as something off-world, or before they were born).

    The deciding factor is to determine whether or not your prologue is necessary as a separate entity. If it's short, like a page or less, then you're probably okay. If it's chapter length, then see if you can either make it chapter 1, or incorporate the information elsewhere.

    Prologues aren't poison, but like everything else, they need to serve a function.

  15. #15
    Tastes Like Chicken GoSpeed's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Harlequin View Post
    People tend to feel epilogues are like a reward, an extra treat after the main book, whereas prologues are usually regarded as the starter vegetables an author is asking you to chew before getting on to the meat of the novel.
    This is a wonderful analogy! I may have to steal it
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  16. #16
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    Your prologue sounds like the okay kind: that is, it's not an encyclopedia of your world, it's a scene of something happening.

    That said, you can get rid of it. Do your heroes read the prologue? If not, what sets them in motion? If they can get set in motion without knowing everything that happened in the prologue, then so can the reader. The reader discovers what had happened slightly later, when the heroes do.

  17. #17
    All the nopes. lizmonster's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by morngnstar View Post
    That said, you can get rid of it.
    Not always. Some stories need a prologue.

    You shouldn't have anything in your book that doesn't need to be there. If a prologue makes the story work, it's necessary. If it's not necessary, it should go, just like a superfluous Chapter 6.
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  18. #18
    practical experience, FTW autumnleaf's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Harlequin View Post
    Alternatively, perhaps you could cut it and make it the epilogue. As in, the readers read your story, and at the end are given "here is how it started". People tend to feel epilogues are like a reward, an extra treat after the main book, whereas prologues are usually regarded as the starter vegetables an author is asking you to chew before getting on to the meat of the novel.
    See, I kind-of think the opposite. The prologue, if done well, is a tasty amuse bouche. The epilogue, if the book has come to a satisfying conclusion, is like an offering of more food when your stomach is already full. Maybe that's just because I remember bad epilogues like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.
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    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    I have read neither series I am afraid.

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  20. #20
    practical experience, FTW indianroads's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by eastallegheny View Post
    Wow, lots to think about! I especially love the gosling comparison. Yes, that's exactly why I didn't want it as part of chapter one: because none of the MCs appear in it, the Big Bad does. And unless and until he does what he does in the prologue, nothing else in the book can really happen.

    My prologue is literally about 350 words long, so I briefly considered having it be the first scene of the first chapter, and then doing a really obvious scene transition. But, the gosling thing. I don't want The Big Bad to be the first character in the first chapter, I want him clearly set apart. I want you to meet Bill in the first chapter!

    Also, my setup has each chapter "narrated" by a different character, 3rd person POV fly on shoulder, the same way GoT centers each chapter on a person. The difference, if there is one, is that my chapters are written more how the characters talk. Not heavy dialogue, because I think only Brian Jacques could pull that off, but like... one of my characters has zero contractions in her speech, and when it's her turn to "narrate" a chapter, the prose doesn't have any contractions in it either, because it's her thoughts.

    ANYWAY. The point of saying all that, is to say that I just don't see the prologue scene working as part of a chapter, because it's Big Bad centric, so to shoehorn it into the narrative turn of one of the MCs would be really out of place and odd. It wouldn't be fair to Bill, for example, if during his turn to narrate he had to sit aside and let the Big Bad's thoughts take precedence!

    [...]
    350 words is IMO short for a chapter - I prefer them to be readable increments of 3500 - 4000 words, but that's just me.

    Our stories are different in that you have a lot more shifts in POV than I do. Here is what I'm doing in my WIP.

    Chapter 1 is (like yours) a set up and the catalyst for the rest of the book. It's an assassination attempt on a government leader... a bomb that goes off and she survives. The POV character is the government leader. Initially it was too short for a chapter (~1200 words), so I added a second bomb going off in her city before the actual assassination was tried. With that I introduced the climate change, government collapse, and other world building stuff. The result was about 3000 words, good enough for a chapter.

    Chapters 2 - 25 have the POV strictly as the MC in the story.

    Chapter 26 is back with the POV being the government leader, where she realizes what the retaliation was for seeking revenge on those who were actually innocent of trying to kill her.

    So it's kinda framed, with the beginning and ending being one character, and the rest belonging to the MC.
    Last edited by indianroads; 01-02-2018 at 09:22 PM.

  21. #21
    practical experience, FTW quianaa2001's Avatar
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    I don't see a problem with prologues, idk the fuss about them I guess agents might see them weirdly but I'd just leave them out when querying and if I got a request I'd send the version with the prologue. I guess the book I'm working on now kinda has one, it's a fake wiki style page for one of the main characters. but I have it then the actual writing is chapter one. You could also include it in the first chapter then have a page break before the rest of the story?

  22. #22
    All the nopes. lizmonster's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by quianaa2001 View Post
    I don't see a problem with prologues, idk the fuss about them I guess agents might see them weirdly but I'd just leave them out when querying and if I got a request I'd send the version with the prologue.
    I've seen agents articulate both sides of this. Some are irritated to discover a prologue in a full if they didn't get it when they requested a partial.

    I guess I've always felt if an agent is so biased against prologues they won't even read my story from the beginning, I'm probably better off not working with them anyway. Regardless, if I've mucked up the prologue, I've almost certainly mucked up the rest of the book as well.
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  23. #23
    practical experience, FTW quianaa2001's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lizmonster View Post
    I guess I've always felt if an agent is so biased against prologues they won't even read my story from the beginning, I'm probably better off not working with them anyway. Regardless, if I've mucked up the prologue, I've almost certainly mucked up the rest of the book as well.
    That makes sense! I'd include it in a partial request. I guess I meant if the query included pages cause lots now seem to ask for them I wouldn't send the prologue.

  24. #24
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    The solution I personally reached in the end was to introduce the necessary parts of the prologue into the story and start at Chapter 1.

    It took multiple revisions to get there, but ends up adding a really nice powerful scene in one middle-chapter, and a little more depth to a few other chapters.


    So in the end I still personally like prologues, and I read them, but (because it is important to listen to what readers want) I ditched mine.

    No one complains at the lack of a prologue. Some people complain at its presence. My real life SF-F critique group (all SF-F writers) was mostly OK with prologues but about 10% said no no no. I imagine non-writers would fall at greater than 10% dislike of prologues.
    I'm also on twitter where I routinely upset people. at pltavormina

  25. #25
    practical experience, FTW Raindrop's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Raindrop View Post
    I'm not sure this would be appropriate in OP's case -- as the prologue is centered on the Bad Guy. As a reader, I tend to latch onto the first MC I spot in chapter 1. Like a goosling and the German scientist, you know? In this case, I'd probably root for the Bad Guy for the whole novel. A prologue is a clear way of telling the reader, "Watch out, this isn't the MC. Don't get too fond of them."
    Hello, me. I disagree!

    Uh, what I mean is, I've just started re-reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. She's starting with a super-long prologue, with a slow-slow introduction to Victor Frankenstein from the POV of, well, pretty much young-Victor-bis before everything went pear-shaped. And it works. It's really smooth. By the time we get to Victor's story, we're eager for him to change the course of Victor-bis's fate. As a result, I'm not suffering from "abandoned goosling" syndrome.
    If I could put all my typos together, I'd have enough material for a trilogy.

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