This manuscript didn’t originally have a prologue. In fact, prologues were something I tended not to do. I was (am?) a staunch believer in keeping an open palate and never just outright ban something save maybe to challenge myself. I claimed it is never a question of if you have a prologue but if a prologue works. Up until that point, I just never felt I needed one. Then, after I did, it made me never want to have one again.
The prologue of my current piece came into existence mid draft one. I struggled with the beginning even at that point because it was slow and I didn’t particularly like it. But I often write the introduction with the intention it will be rewritten by the end. Because I don’t know where the story is going and I like the beginning to foreshadow events and theme, I often end up writing best after the first draft is done, but obviously I can’t finish if I don’t start.
My first attempt was to add another scene. I had several problems I was contending with.
-I needed to establish the reality of the calm and sheltered world the characters began in, though it was an exception to the rest of the planet. “Normal” everyday lives, but in an interesting way.
-While it was a protected location, there was lurking menace. How do I show a dangerous world through the eyes of someone oblivious to it? If the main character is blissfully unaware of any conflict, empathy isn’t a means to up the stakes, and any mention of a problem needs to be subtle enough that she’s not a complete idiot for not seeing it.
-Prior to setting up the female protagonist’s little slice of safe exception, I wanted within the first few paragraph to tell a reader what sort of setting he was going to be experiencing for the majority of the book. This was not going to come in for several pages. The original beginning did not establish the actual tone of the rest of the story.
I had already known of people’s complaints about prologues, so I examined their arguments and my own personal feelings to attempt to do it well. From what I remembered, any prologue I took issue to featured characters who obviously weren’t part of the main storyline, or at least weren’t close to the protagonists. I also knew, from reading unpolished fiction, that often times prologues existed because it was just an obvious place to begin, an answer to the question, “How does a book start?” Lastly, I felt that most complaints about them were just complaints about beginnings in general—slow starts, info dumps, starting way too early.
I also knew expositional background has never been a flaw of mine. It has often been the opposite in which I was asked for more straightforward, immediate explanations as to how the world worked. Nowadays, if I’m accused of an info dump of background details, it was usually added in a later draft in (poor) attempts to clarify things.
The prologue features the male protagonist’s life long before he ever came to the safe exception, a pivotal moment that started everything.
And I liked it.
This scene between the protagonist and his brother exemplified exactly the tone I was going for. The emotional scene showed me something more about this character and created a massive subplot, completely altering the story all together (we’ll get to that later.)
I finished the novel some time later, this history of the protagonist that was then interspersed throughout the manuscript being some of my favorite scenes. I am not one who minds flash backs in general, and I genuinely enjoyed reading those parts each time I came across them. And while comments on the prologue were… constant, no one complained when I re-entered the time of the subplot.
The manuscript, in its final form, was about twice the size of an average book. Not only did I know it needed to be cut for marketing reasons, I also was aware that it could and even should be cut in many places (see slow beginning). As I slashed away 60,000 words, rereading it many times, and these background scenes remained interesting to me even after I’d seen them more than I’d ever wanted. The balance of the story became more and more focused on this brother who was long gone before the current events even began. I had a constant admiration of these memories and how they affected the overall ambiance, tone, and understanding of the protagonist even after I already hated the book with every fiber of my overexposed being.
When I gave it out to others, the complaints about the prologue were expected. I had experienced enough criticism sessions, read enough writing advice, and heard enough anecdotes to be fully aware of the bigotry against prologues in general, and I didn’t expect that to go away. But I wasn’t fully prepared for the magnitude of the complaints.
To be clear, a lot of my readers only ever received the first few chapters, and my writers’ group would read three pages every two weeks. For those of you who haven’t experienced it, criticism on the beginning of a book is very different than the rest of it, especially when the feedbacker only has that little bit to go off of. You will often see their criticism be very nitpicky and surface level, focusing on line edits, typos, and noticeable pet peeves. If your book has an amazing beginning that immerses them immediately (which I didn’t exactly), this won’t be the case, but even good stories often have their voices fixated on until the reader starts to get the hang of things. Then, after they grew invested, they forget to be looking for what’s “wrong” and start to react as a regular reader. It becomes far more about big picture issues, in-world criticism, and general feelings.
Simplified, my first pages were covered in red ink discussing whether or not “slightly” or “lightly” is the best word, but my last pages would point out a typo here or there and maybe a comment at the end if the events should happen before the previous chapter or not. This is fairly common, and I’ve even caught myself doing it; before you’re committed to a novel and are looking for things to say, you spend a lot more time scrutinizing subjective details.
When I say people fixated on my prologue, I mean that it was the main topic of discussion. Though not everyone brought it up, it came up often enough, and it would usually be the only big picture aspect anyone would say. I was only getting two pieces of feedback: the vague “I’m confused,” and the “You’re not supposed to have a prologue.” Those who did not mention it usually just have a list of words they thought I should change. More noticeably, it was the label prologue that they paid the most attention to and not the influence of it.
People tended to be vague. One most memorable gentlemen asked, “Do science-fiction books usually have prologues?”
“Sure. I guess.”
“Well, I’ve read a few and I didn’t see any.”
“Well, I’ve read a few and I didn’t see any.”
“It’s not a staple or anything.”
“What’s a staple?”
“You don’t have to have one.”
“I was asking do you have to have one.” He continued. “You should read other prologues and see how they do them.”
“What am I looking for exactly?”
“I just haven’t seen one done that way before.”
A woman in the group who I liked immensely added, “I have heard you’re not supposed to have one.”
And that’s the way the conversations always went.
No matter how much I asked him, he would beat around the bush, refusing to answer direct questions, even when I flat out asked, “What is the problem you are trying to solve?” he said, “Oh, no problem…”
I knew him decently at that point. He was the sort of person who went home and took every piece of criticism. He was a “supposed to” kind of guy, and if it were just him, I would have long written it off as a “You’re not supposed to have prologues because you’re not supposed to have them” and leave it at that. I got the vibe that his abrasion was nothing more than the aforementioned bigotry. His problem, while a real one to him, came strictly from being told it was a problem.
The other people who fixated on it weren’t much different. I got very little in the way of information. I was looking for reasons it was a bad way to start out and I couldn’t get straight answers.
My brother was a straight A student. I was not. If you were to make assumptions about our personalities from our abilities to do well in academia, you would see what I mean when we have very different priorities. I’d consider us both intelligent, both cynical and critical, but I’m the sort of person who doesn’t trust reputation, only arguments. If you tell me someone’s novel is great, I’m going to have to read it myself to believe it. It is both a flaw and a quality. As for my brother, if a book receives an award he trusts, it is good, no matter what. Because I am his sister, the girl who chewed our cat’s whiskers off, I will never be a good writer in his eyes. I am not a respectable expert no matter what my actual writing is like.
The last time I’ve ever requested his feedback, I brought him this manuscript and ask him for his opinion on other people’s responses.
Knowing how I am about “banning” rules such as “don’t use a prologue,” I also, ironically enough, didn’t trust my speculation that those who had brought it up were only saying so out of “supposed to.” It was possible that I wrote off the vague explanations prematurely due to confirmation bias. I had long learned that just because someone can’t articulate their thoughts well doesn’t mean they’re wrong, and it was in my best interest to try and truly understand their reactions. If I did determine their opinion came merely from an expert saying so, then I could let it go. I had, in my opinion, addressed most of the complaints that experts warned about, and if they couldn’t point out anything negative my prologue actually did, then I could assume my critic followed the letter of the law, not the intent. But I wasn’t sure that’s what it was, especially because it was one of the few things more than one person mentioned. At that point, I knew people weren’t reacting well, but didn’t have a lot to go off of as to why. (My first few chapters, by that point, had been completely rewritten a couple of times, and the current version had been edited many more.)
My brother, who is a much more prolific reader than me and enjoys very traditional sorts of sci-fi and fantasy—what you would expect when hearing the words—was the sort of reader with experience and insight that I thought he would be a good person to help me see if I had my blinders up. He has no problem being critical of me, voicing his opinion, or knowing how to explain his mind.
But upon reading the first sentence, he quit because he couldn’t figure out how to mark it up with a line edit. Instead, he took the little he knew about it (from my explanation), told me he agreed with the criticisms I asked him about, and then suggested I read A Game of Thrones and see how George R. R. Martin did it.
My brother criticized how eight years had passed from the prologue to chapter one, suggesting that no one could be affected by something that long. Some people had managed to say they didn’t like not knowing what happened to the brother who was absent in chapter one, but that criticism was muddled by their follow up of, “Oh, yeah. I don’t need to know now, just eventually. Some enthusiastically praised how it effectively piqued their curiosity. The real complaint seemed to be about their mistrust of the author ever answering it. Prologue complaints was not a criticism I received from people who had read the whole book. But would the distrust stop someone from getting that far?
If you’ve ever read A Game of Thrones, you might not even remember the prologue. It features several characters all of whom die within it save the one only to be beheaded immediately. How this scene ties into the lives of the characters doesn’t become clear until something like page 500 in which one of them is mentioned in passing, an easily missed reference. I would argue its purpose is more to demonstrate the magic and danger in the world when the majority of the book takes place where the supernatural doesn’t really happen. A Game of Thrones is called low-density fantasy mostly because the region hasn’t seen most magic for many, many years.
So you can understand my skepticism when my brother suggests I write a prologue like an expert whose prologue already has a parallel purpose and contains the same criticisms he’d just given me. This only served to confuse me more. Was my brother’s feedback an honest reaction to a problem, me being incapable of seeing the subtle differences between why Martin’s prologue worked and mine didn’t? Or was it simply an issue of reputation?
Don’t have a prologue because you’re not supposed to, unless I already trust you.
It’s definitely a philosophy that people have, and my brother does have the habit of saying I’m wrong no matter the context.
I focused my attention on the things that were solvable. People were confused. They couldn’t tell me why, so I struggled to blindly tackle the issue. “What are you confused about?”
“I don’t know.”
When I asked someone to mark up right where she stopped understanding, she read through it again and said, “Well, I guess I understand it all.”
I had another person, who was absolutely disgusted with how confused she was, tell me back the story as best she could. Despite claiming she had reread it several times, it turned out she had misread the most simplistic straight forward sentence in the prologue, “I saw her stab you,” included in hopes to help people understand.
I examined carefully the words people asked me to change. As I said, it was weird for more than one person to make a similar comment. Only one sentence did most people agree they didn’t like, and that was an easy fix. Other than that, out of twenty different copies, the words that were so important to one person no one else would mention. I have for a long time gotten comments on my writing saying, “I love the way you write, but sometimes it’s jarring,” and so, because I only knew people were confused by this script and had been jarred by others, I strove to find the reasons behind each individual complaint. Some critics would be very helpful, listening to my questions and answering best they could, but others would feel hurt or flustered when asked to explain their opinions. I often found myself having to slough through each piece of advice on my own. They could be infamously making me write like them, they could have their own unique connotations. Or maybe they were just noticing/pointing out something that others missed.
At the same time that I was getting people telling me not to use a prologue, notorious for history dumps, at times it seemed some were annoyed my prologue didn’t have a history dump, some just wanting a straightforward explanation as to what kind of world this was. This were primarily people who didn’t read the genre, but it wasn’t just limited to that.
Over the following months, by asking questions and thinking critically, I started to realize that when they said confused, they really meant overwhelmed. My readers were expecting things that proved untrue. In the beginning, it was, I suppose, low-density science-fiction without a great deal of technology or space travel. Being a sci-fi reader myself, I had read many books that don’t fit squarely into the stereotype and didn’t realize just how jarring it would be to have an earth-like planet with motorcycles.
Then there were some objects, used to demonstrate the kind of world it was, mentioned because I knew they weren’t the sort of thing the reader would immediately assume was in that sort of world, that the readers fixated on. “What’s with the stripped engine? Why is it stripped?”
Even though they were asking the questions I had wanted, I realized that there were just too many things to consider left unexplained, and my readers couldn’t tell which ones were important. Things I assumed they would just skim over and ignore, writing off as a detail of the world, they found extremely relevant and couldn’t let go off it. Combine that with the questions they were supposed to hold onto, and they found themselves unable to latch onto any truths, incapable of predicting the patterns of the world. It was unnerving and difficult to read.
I changed the setting of the prologue from the protagonist’s childhood home—a fallen down hut out in the middle of a waste—to one of the few technological advancements on the planet. Unlike the hut, the terraformer told the audience that this was not Earth and met with their expectations of sci-fi.
This one little change stopped a lot of the complaints.
I also went through and simplified the prose around any complex idea. It was my solution to the vague suggestion of “Just simplify everything!” and inconsistent line edits.
In order to solve the issue of my readers not trusting me—many’s discomfort having to do with the belief I might never answer any of the questions (which I find deeply insulting, but writers do it, especially in unpolished works, so it’s to be expected)—I made a point to give some answers before the chapter is over as an offer of peace.
The beginning had been completely rewritten over six times, the most editing of any scene in the book. I had cut down on the entire manuscript by a third, and though I considered the second half to be far better than the first, it was very much starting to come together.
Yet still the prologue remained an issue. While the feedback of “I’m confused,” grew less and less and more specific when it was given, the complaints about the prologue was still the same. On the one side, I personally thought it was great. Was that just evidence that I am choosing to be blind to its errors? Yet I’m the sort of person who has a wide variety of judgment on my own writing; being that it was one of the few parts I very much liked, there being others that I was very much critical of, I would say that it was a feeling I should take seriously. On the other hand, I knew people were struggling with my beginning, even after having addressed other complaints. And even if it is just a bias created by our society’s tendency to come up with inorganic rules to easily judge others by, does that necessarily mean I’m willing to shoot myself in the foot? Is it really that important?
By that point I wanted to remove it. I was sick of it drawing attention to itself and wanted people to talk about their reactions. It was constantly the subject of discussion, and I considered it to be useless.
I began to re-research what people had to say about prologues. I found some new criticism that applied to me, such as writers trying to take on a high-stakes scene in a prologue to compensate for a slow chapter one—which is exactly what I did. But other complaints weren’t relevant. I found my confirmation bias shifting; instead of looking for proof I should keep it, I started to look for permission I could get rid of it. Give me proof that it sucks so I can cut it and move on.
Except I couldn’t just cut it. It was a major plot point that needed to be introduced early on. I read the manuscript looking for a place to shift the scene to so it would become just a flashback, not a prologue. People would complain about that, I know, but I have been using flashbacks for years, and the location of it—i.e. not the first thing they would see—would make it not the main topic of conversation.
And as I read more about what agents had to say on prologues, I realized there was a lot of reasons for me to keep it as well. I could come up with great arguments to keep it and great reasons to remove it.
When I went to the writers’ conference in my hometown, I received a critique by an agent and two writers. This time, I gave only the first few chapters and excluded the prologue, rewriting nothing, just not submitting it. This was by the suggestion of an agent who claimed that if you must have a prologue, when giving agents a partial, start with chapter one and if asked for a full, then explain that it had been excluded.
I received the most positive responses I had gotten on the book yet. The agent gave me the name of her coworker who represented the genre, one writer told me the best compliment I’ve ever received, “I know you know what you’re doing,” (and then one informed me that it was obviously a first draft.)
Now you might thing that this proved to me the prologue was a bad idea, considering that the most enthusiastic reaction I got didn’t have it in it, but it actually did the opposite. All of the criticism that came from it was new yet constant, solved in the original first pages. To me, it proved my instinct about what the prologue achieved had been correct, and it proved that the prologue was just a distraction, just an easy criticism for people to complain about. Comparing the difference of response from when I didn’t have it and when I did, I believed that the prologue was important and the complaints were about nothing more than “supposed to.”
It doesn’t mean that the balking won’t continue, and it could be that it has an agent write me off long before they read the actual story. I might be convinced in the future that it has problems I don’t want. And I definitely won’t be including prologue in any manuscript to come. Yet right now, it’s there, I’m keeping it, and I love it. Even though I hate it.