The Beginning of the End

A few days ago, Syd sent me this link, in which agents list their Chapter One pet peeves.  I enjoyed reading them…until I came across “sins” that I had committed myself.  And because my embarrassment might be a source of learning for someone else, here are the pet peeves I was guilty of (I’m trying not to cringe):

1.  A boring prologue (ouch).
2.  Unoriginal ideas…such as getting a phone call about a death (head meet desk).
3.  Don’t ever describe eye color (but what if it’s essential to the story?!).  

There were also some conflicting peeves that I wasn’t sure I’d committed or not.  “Action too close to the beginning,” and “too much description and not enough action.”  Does anyone else feel like writing first chapters can be like walking a tightrope??  

So after I finished beating my head against the wall, Syd reassured me that a good story trumps all.  I’m hoping that in my case, peeves #2 and #3 will sound okay in my story.  But #1–the boring prologue–is still bothering me.  So for today’s topic I want to talk about prologues.  

As a general rule, I don’t like prologues.  Sometimes I don’t mind them, but sometimes I hate them.  I can’t remember any book I’ve read in which I believed the prologue to be essential to the story.  And if a prologue hints at the ending and somehow ruins the rest of the book for me–well, that just makes me mad (and a specific book comes to my mind, when the prologue spoiled the ending for me).  Why do books need prologues??  Can you give me one good reason??  I will listen and consider!

It seems like a lot of prologues are hinting at the exciting climax, I guess in an attempt to hook the reader and make him/her want to finish the book as soon as possible.  But a lot of times, this ploy just annoys me. I don’t want reading to be a stressful race to the finish, during which I’m constantly wondering how the prologue plays into the story.  Why not hook me with the first page of chapter one, and then use interesting writing to keep me turning the pages??  I want the story to propel me forward, not the prologue.  

Remember, some people will browse in a bookstore by picking up a book and reading the first page or so.  Well if that first page is a prologue and it’s either boring, irrelevant, or annoying, then you’ve just lost a potential reader.  And before you can worry about the reader, you have to worry about getting an agent!  If an agent hates prologues in the first place, and then he/she reads the first page of your not-up-to-par prologue…you might as well kiss that agent goodbye.  

By now you’re probably wondering, “Why did you commit the sin of a boring prologue if you already knew it was a sin?!”  Fabulous question.  The first draft of my novel didn’t have a prologue.  But then Syd read my first chapter and said, “This language/narration is too sophisticated for a twelve-year-old protagonist” (not exactly what she said, but you get the point).  My reply to this was, “She’s retelling her story fourteen years after it happens, so she’s narrating at the age of 26.”  This become obvious at the end of Book 4 of the series…but how do I explain the narration for the first three books?!  And that’s when I decided to write a prologue.  Even I think it’s boring (and it makes me look like a hypocrite), but it does an adequate job of explaining how my protag is a certain age in a certain year and why she’s sharing her story.

But it’s not your typical prologue.  One of my readers, Stephanie, asked, “What was the deal with the prologue?  Why wasn’t it resolved at the end of the book?”  And she’s right–most prologues hint at the climax, so you can figure out at the end of the book what was happening in the prologue.  But my prologue isn’t explained until Book 4.  Has that ever been done before??  Is it a big no-no that I wouldn’t be allowed to publish??

I’m tempted just to cut my prologue–it’s causing me too many headaches.  But then I’m left with two choices:  1) completely change the writing style and rewrite the narration to sound like a twelve-year-old, or 2) leave it the way it is and have everyone who reads it point out how unrealistic it is (until Book 4 when I finally get to say, “See?!  I’m not completely crazy!).  

What do you guys think??  Am I missing an obvious route here?  Is there another way of handling this problem?  And what is your general opinion of prologues?  I won’t stone you if you like prologues–maybe you could convince me why they’re necessary.  Any insight would be greatly appreciated!  And hope to see you again on Friday!


4 thoughts on “The Beginning of the End

  1. I think prologues/prefaces can be help sometimes, but aren’t always needed. Like, just an example, Stephiene Meyes I feel never really needed a preface but she put on in every book, I felt the little quote or poem before the perface was enough. As for your story…couldn’t you just make your prologue or first page say something about how it’s been 14 years since it all began and/or somehow about hindsight. I don’t know if that helps or makes sense at all to the story since I’m not quite sure what the story is about.

  2. Hey, Sarah, thanks for stopping by! I appreciate your comment and your help. I’m going to consider how I might be able to add hindsight into the first chapter, rather than using the prologue approach. There’s got to be a way I can write it so that it’s explanatory but not boring the reader to tears…

    I know what you mean about SM. Her prologues didn’t spoil the ending for me, but they’re definitely the type of prologue meant to hook the reader and create crazy-fast-reading.

  3. Her prologues didn’t spoil the ending for me, but they’re definitely the type of prologue meant to hook the reader and create crazy-fast-reading.

    heh. her type of prologue is the one this particular reader skips because it feels a bit like a “cheat” to me, or like something that would go on the back cover or jacket flap, were it short enough, not something that’s the actual start of the story.

    i tend to forget these types of prologues – helped along by not actually reading or paying much attention to them – as i start reading the main story. it’s only when i come across that part again in the middle/end that i go, “oh, wait, IMPORTANT PART”.

    but i might be in the minority in this. (I’m a firm believer in skipping/skimming over bits that don’t hold my interest.)

  4. I used to never be a skipper/skimmer…but I turned into one after my son was born. There’s just not enough time to read as much as I want to, so sometimes I end up skipping parts.

    I agree that some types of prologues are forgettable….unless they’re too annoying to forget. 🙂

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