November 17, 2009

The Surest Way to Have Me Groan at Your Partial...

Dear Readers,

I send a lot of comments back on authors' partials and I can tell you that the one I hand out more often than any other is, "Although I greatly enjoyed your story, you need to begin with action."

You have to grab me (or any other reader) from the first paragraph. From the first sentence. It's my first impression not only of your story but of you as a writer. It's the moment I get to sit back and say, "Okay, show me what you've got." How well can you make me feel the urgency of the plot, the dire straits the character is already in? How much can you make me care about those characters from the moment I join them? Starting in medias res lets me begin with curiosity rather than cynicism, setting my frame of mind for the entire story.

But to accomplish this "begin with action" goal, too many writers try to grab an action scene that doesn't quite fit and make it into the opening of their book. Here we find...THE PROLOGUE. (And don't think that just because you don't call it "Prologue" that you've fooled us--we have degrees in book reading. We know these things.)

Prologues make me cry. I even suggested to my boss that we write on our website that there were no prologues allowed in partials sent to the agency. (Sadly, that does not seem to be happening any time soon.)

When a writer gives me a prologue (with very few exceptions), they put me in a rather cranky mood before I've even gotten to the meat of the story:

1) They want me to bond with characters that I will most likely never see again. Knowing this, I already don't care about them.

2) If it was important enough to write a prologue about, it will be important enough for your regular characters to talk about--in doing so, they'll end up telling me the story again. This means that when I hear the character refer to it, it has lost most of its emotional strength and shock value.

3) If it is a flash-forward to future action, I now know where the story is going and you took away the surprise.

4) I feel like I can skim it because "it doesn't really matter" and eventually I end up skimming the entire partial. It's really hard to get my interest back once you've lost it--and if you lose my interest and I love reading books all day, think about how much harder it will be for your target audience!

5) A strong writer should be able to incorporate background information within the story, not shove it into a prologue. If you need a prologue for that kind of information, you're including way too much.

In addition, the actual writing becomes stronger when you incorporate it into the body of the story. We get to hear how the information makes the characters feel, how they react to learning the information, what they choose/don't choose to share and with whom, etc. These little things make the story much stronger than plain exposition.

If you have a VERY SHORT prologue where the writer addresses the audience (in something like a diary or a letter), a prologue may make sense. Or with some historical background included as a foreword. But prologues, as a whole, only prevent the reader from getting to the actual story. Don't distract from the main attraction!

The last thing you want to do is leave the assistant, the first line of defense for the agent, groaning and writhing in pain. So please, consider VERY carefully before you include a prologue. Can the information be included within the body of the story? Do you really need that info at all? What do you hope to accomplish with it? If it's death to the assistant, send that prologue.

Until next week,



  1. I agree with this. I started to think prologues are kind of gimmicky. Like telling the punchline to a joke before telling the actual joke.

  2. Don't you think sometimes a prologue can be intriguing, a few short paragraphs that make the reader want to know more about the story? I ahree that dumping backstory into a prologue isn't good, but prologues can work sometimes.
    Can't they?

  3. Thank you for your advice on prologues. I am writing my first YA novel and had recently made the decision to axe my prologue and work into the body. Now I feel like I did the right thing. I look forward to following your blog.

  4. Very insightful! I was one of those newbie writers who had a prologue in my early drafts. (gasp, I even attatched that thing with a few queries back then. So I can check that off my list of mistakes new writers make. Thankfully, I've learned my lesson and really get what you're saying here, and I'm happy to report I have no prologue and my action begins right away.

    Thanks for sharing such vaulable info to help us all use our partials wisely.

  5. Thanks for posting. I would also like to add my .02. Action does not necessarily mean action as in an action scene. The reader needs to understand what is happening that has changed the situation from it's previous latent state, frame of mind or state of physical being for the protag. Where are we now? What is going on? Why are we reading this book--essentially? Think of it as a harried phone call to a friend when something is really troubling you or something has happened that you NEED to talk about. Do you start with--"I woke up today, the sky was blue, the weather was, the color of the walls in my apartment are..." No. Your friend would hang up on you. You race into the details of what is going on. You detail your frame of mind, how you're feeling, what encouraged you to make the call. You may not tell exactly what happened right away, but you may talk in detail at first, about your state of mind, which may encourage your friend to ask leading questions--to get more from you. And this is how you should think about your book and in particular your first chapter/paragraphs. Otherwise, you will miss the opportunity to get requests for fulls and more. You will lose the reader's interest.

  6. Sometimes I like reading the prologue in a book. It just depends on where the author is taking me. It all just seems the opinion of whomever is reading whether or not they are valuable. Not all are bad.

  7. I've been reading some prologues, especially in urban fantasy that grab you. But then you start reading chapter one and it's total crap. Picked up a much beloved UF that everyone loves and I was so interested based on the prologue. Then chapter 1 and 2 made me want throw it against the wall because of the amount of info dumping and too much internalization.

  8. Wow everyone--great responses! I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get back--I thought there weren't any comments, then I finally found the page they were moderated from (eek, newbie blogger alert!). I just un-moderated them so unless there's a problem, everyone's comments should just show up from now on.

  9. @Najela --> I think that's a great way to put it! Perfecto! :)

  10. @glenys --> I think if it's just a few short paragraphs it's better served on the back cover. That's less of a prologue and more of a "teaser," just in my opinion. If it's less than a page, I would definitely go with "teaser," the same way I couldn't call using a quote or poem to open the novel a prologue--sometimes that works because it's about setting the mood. But jumping ahead in your story...I like Najela's phrase, "telling the punchline of a joke before the actual joke."

    I used to not mind prologues at all! On my first day, I had no idea what my boss (Robert) was talking about when he said, "Oh, trust me--you will..." Seeing them every day has just made me aware of how unnecessary they are and how much they weaken writing.

  11. @Michaele Stoughton
    @Rebecca L Sutton
    I'm glad I could help! The other thing that makes me sad about prologues is that if you didn't have to send them, you could have sent more pages of your actual plot in the partial! It's sad when I have to write a rejection and say, "I really like your writing but I've seen 50 pages and nothing happened." (Truthfully, I always feel sad when writing a rejection...unless the person was mean. Or a jerk. People seem to forget that although agents develop thick skins, we don't sell our souls to the Devil. But I digress.)

  12. @georgiamcbridebooks --> Nailed it, as always :)

  13. I completely agree with the blog post. I mean, as a writer and a reader, I have always hated reading prologues because they never grab my attention. I have always wondered the reason for their existence. The only time a prologue could be acceptable is if it was placed in the past, as long the action itself is interesting. To me, prologue should just be renamed to Chapter 1, or even better, Chapter Zero.

  14. What about a prologue in where the future boyfriend, the fallen angel/demon/vampire, saves the protagonist from certain death?

    How about prologues where the protagonist wakes up from a terrible accident?

    How about prologues which jump back to the moment the slush reader slits her wrists from reading prologues?

    Then we can flash forward to the murder of the would be writer.

    Just a thought. ;)