This question about first chapters and the pros and cons of writing a prologue came in through my MG and YA webinar that I did for Writer’s Digest last Thursday. But this is pretty much the idea behind every novel prologue question I get, so the wording isn’t especially important:
What are your thoughts on prefaces/prologues? Do they ever work for you? Many people have told me that everyone HATES prefaces/prologues so I cut it. However, my beta readers LOVED the preface. It made them want to keep reading to see what really happens in that moment. What to do? Do prefaces/prologues ever work? Will you pass on a MS because they include a preface/prologue?
Yep, this is the point of a writing a prologue. It usually teases the reader with a high-tension moment from later in the book and it starts the manuscript off with a bang — because, as a writer, you know to do that. Tensions are high. Things are really exciting. This is great!
Writing a Prologue: Crutch for a Boring First Chapter?
Then the real first chapter starts. And the ol’ Prologue Deflation kicks in because the writer is usually dragging the reader into an ordinary beginning which is, let’s face it, kinda boring. Sure, there’s always that story tension that you’ll go back to the exciting prologue stuff later. And that’s what the writer is counting on. But most of the time, this kind of prologue tension feels like a lazy cheat to me, to tell you the truth. A lot of writers resort to writing a prologue because they don’t know how to otherwise make their first chapter exciting.
Failure of Imagination? Lack of Experience?
A novel prologue isn’t an automatic rejection for me but they almost always leave me underwhelmed because the beginning after the prologue is usually a failure of imagination. Most likely the writer didn’t know how to start writing a book, so they throw a fake-out on the fire and hope that it’s enough to carry you through to the good stuff that’s buried later. It’s the equivalent of a writer saying, “Well, I really want to send you the first 50 pages because it doesn’t really get going until Chapter Four.” Why hide the goods? Why resort to tricks and manipulation? Why toy with the reader and cover up your own plot insecurities? I’d rather have a well-crafted, gimmick-free, honest-to-goodness beginning to a novel almost every time.
Sure, prologues start with tension and they’re popular, but they set my expectations low in terms of the writer’s overall craft level, to be perfectly honest. There are definitely exceptions to the rule and some prologues work as a first chapter. Regardless, lots are published. But just know that we’ve seen the novel prologue bait and switch too many times to really have high hopes in most cases.
Whether you’re an experienced writer who’s experiencing a block or a new writer who doesn’t know how to start, I’d love to be your book editor and help you craft the perfect first chapter.