My First One
Toss that term into a gaggle of writers…but jump back. A religious squabble, much like adverbs, show-not-tell, or dialog tags, will break out…friendships ripped asunder in by slashing tongues.
For the longest time, I resided in the don’t-do-prologues camp, readily admitting to skipping or skimming them. Weird, but no different from reading the final chapter before returning to the story.
Unfortunately, anything written in italics, which includes prologues, aggravates my astigmatism, whether wearing glasses (ugh) or contacts. Fonts with jagged little edges hurt my eyes, and italicized Times New Roman becomes unreadable.
I also distrust prologues for another reason. Somehow, whatever occurs in the prologue doesn’t matter, with an inescapable feeling it already happened. I don’t anticipate adventure or mystery like the real story, and that spurs me to race over them.
Except…I wrote one…
…to placate betas struggling with my start, something that’s vexed me from the start. Unlike many writers starting too slowly, I started too late, dropping readers into a complex ongoing situation, filling them with panic. No matter my effort, some floundered.
I first tried adding scenes ahead of my opening…three times…with my original opening becoming scene eight. And…they still struggled.
Someone suggested a prologue. So, I bought a recommended craft book, Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, by Nancy Kress. She offered sensible, easily understood guidelines:
1 – Title it a prologue.
2 — Fit it into the story structure. Sometimes it:
a — occurs long before the start, or at a great distance.
b — happens well after the ending, treating the entire story like a flashback.
c — is written from a different POV, never used again.
d — uses something real or fictitious like newspapers, telegrams, or some document.
3 — Mechanics
a — It strongly portends future conflict.
b — It does everything an opening scene does. And the first scene must repeat that again, something discussed in other posts.
c — It reveals an essential MC character trait or motivation.
With nothing else for it, I typed PROLOGUE on a clean, blank screen, 24 point Copperplate Gothic Bold. After strange, delicious sensations washed over me, I took that first, hesitant step down dark, forbidden paths.
Sorry if that sounded like I sold my soul. Ha.
The first question arose. How did a prologue help? To mitigate my fast start, it must provide context, with hints of complex family and political relationships, offering delicious threats and dangers. If I raised questions in the prologue, and answered several with my next scene, I might build reader trust.
Should it occur far earlier or later? Since I have thoughts of a series, but no idea how an arc looks, let alone another book, setting the prologue in the past seems safest.
And which POV works best?
- I instinctively wanted to show rival brothers as children, battling each other, highlighting the heart of a major subplot. But, that would promise guys battling for control. Though true, it’s not the MC’s story.
- Unwilling to forsake the brothers, I dreamed they had met the MC as children, fighting over her even then. Alas, ten years younger than the youngest brother and growing up in a different country, she meets them for the first time when she is twenty.
- Belatedly, I focused on my MC. In the story, she is inseparable from her sister. Besides, betas remarked how vividly I painted the sister. So, writing them as girls, in the sister’s POV, felt more right each time I considered it.
How many words? Unprepared to write a Robert Jordan 5,000 word prologue, I settled on something less grand, about 500 words.
Then I followed guidelines for an opening scene. In the First Scene Situation, the MC’s sister has just undergone a magic rite which changes her future. Filled with elation and remorse, she rushes to tell her younger sister. Together, they realize the MC must become the vessel for their father’s political plans and maneuvers, one day journeying to their implacable enemies to marry a leader who hates her people. There, each brother will vie to own her. In that snake pit, she must protect her son, keeping him alive until manhood that he might assume his birthright.
With any fortune, I’ve put readers where they need to be, when they need it.