FACT: If you are allowed to submit opening pages along with your email query pitch letter, including the prologue pages will kill your query 99.9% of the time and agents won’t ask for sample pages.
Most writers use the prologue for the wrong purpose.
* Prologues are written in a different narrative voice than the rest of the novel so do not represent an accurate sample of the writer’s voice for the story. (And usually the voice in prologues are the easy-to-do-poorly distant omniscient third person POV).
* Prologues given are usually the back story for the novel and writers use it as a “crutch” to get started. If you are a writer at the top of your game, you won’t need it.
* Prologues are used as world-building so the reader can understand the world before diving into the story. Once again, if you are a writer at the top of your game, you won’t need it. You’ll build in the world within your opening chapter.
I’ve blogged ad nauseum about this topic so check the side bar archives on “passing on sample pages” and “beginning writer mistakes” for more in-depth details.
Considering what you said, I’d be really interested to know your thoughts on the opening of Lock In (John Scalzi)….(a book I thought was excellent)
It opens with a 3 page “prologue” disguised as a printout for high school exams…so it hits all three points above (tone, crutch, backstory)…..So the logic would be that it is unnecessary and, ostensibly, a mistake.
However, John Scalzi arguably is a writer near the top of his game. As I said the book is excellent, as are the 2 others I’ve read of his. And it works – the opening page has no less than 9 references to the ‘prologue’ which would be incomprehensible without it.
So the question is: Why does this work when it does the many things that make prologues lazy, unimaginative crutches? Is it just that it’s not sufficiently awful that he gets away with it? Are prologues actually fine, but agents see enough bad writing (not necessarily a bad use of a prologue), that they advise against prologues to minimise the chance of errors?
I’m sure there are valid reasons, but as a reader I find it difficult to square a typical, Omni-POV, world-building prologue that isn’t really anything special by a great writer, with the advice that prologues that do these things are plain bad writing and is a mistake – but the end product is well written and makes sense.
I’m just interesting how it reads to an agent – is it just that Scalzi is successful enough to be lazy in this manner, but good enough its not offensive? As a reader, we only see the end product and not decision process rattling around in the background…..
Kristin, would you consider doing a future topic on prologues that work and why they do?
I think a lot of us know the pitfalls, but not what makes a good prologue really sing and keep the reader going.
I have chosen to go with a ‘Chapter 00’ written in the voice of my main Protag (first person) rather than third person omniscient for just this reason. I have not shared the prologue with any agents, etc, but wrote it recently due to several beta readers mentioning that it might be nice to have something with a little more backstory to it before launching into chapter one ‘a couple years after the bad thing happens’.
I currently have a journal entry at the beginning of my MS, but have yet to start the querying process. It isn’t a prologue, but it might fall into the same category. I might have to reconsider the opening.