The Makings of a Captivating Prologue: Skill, suspense, backstory and plot

I’ve touched on how not to write a prologue, but today I want to lay out the makings of a really striking prologue. A lot of writing blogs tell you ‘what not to do’, which is always subjective in itself, so let’s explore a great prologue and see why it works.

Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (his prologue can be read under ‘read an excerpt’ on his website here) is the story of when the Rapture hits Mapleton:

“What if the Rapture happened and you got left behind? Or what if it wasn’t the Rapture at all, but something murkier, a burst of mysterious, apparently random disappearances that shattered the world in a single moment, dividing history into Before and After, leaving no one unscathed? How would you rebuild your life in the wake of such a devastating event?

This is the question confronting the bewildered citizens of Mapleton, a formerly comfortable suburban community that lost over a hundred people in the Sudden Departure.

Through the prism of a single family, Perrotta illuminates a familiar America made strange by grief and apocalyptic anxiety. The Leftovers is a powerful and deeply moving book about people struggling to hold onto a belief in their own futures.”

Now, to the prologue. Perrotta’s prologue works on a few different levels: we are introduced to major characters; the themes are established; and the setting is intriguing. So why does this work and so many prologues don’t?

1. Quality of writing Continue reading

The Dreaded Prologue

Can readers coming to your work for the first time get past your prologue?

Fact: Prologues in fiction should be avoided.

This may be unpopular advice but there are reasons why agents and editors alike refrain from keeping prologues once they begin working on material.

  1. Prologues are often backstory and backstory can be added anywhere.
  2. They can be distracting when the reader doesn’t know the characters yet and so the reader may skip it entirely.
  3. Prologues often show that the writer doesn’t know where to start the story.
  4. If the material in the prologue is important, why isn’t it in the body of the work?
  5. The prologue may turn readers off from the novel before it even gets moving, so why put yourself at a disadvantage?
    Continue reading

Balance and Backstory

Still confused about backstory, how much to include, and where to add it? Think of the plot like an engine pushing the story along:

“Because fiction requires a mighty engine to thrust it ahead—and take the reader along for the ride—backstory if used incorrectly, can stall a story. A novel with too little backstory can be thin and is likely to be confusing. By the same token, a novel with too much backstory can lack suspense. [...] Remember this: The fantasy world of your story will loom larger in your imagination than it will on the page. Continue reading

Let Dialogue Speak For Itself

Dialogue, in its most natural state, has the ability to move the plot and show character traits, as well as its most basic function: communication. When I read submissions this often marks the difference between a writer that ‘gets it’ and a writer that has a long way to go.

Dialogue must speak for itself. If you have to set up the dialogue before or explain it after you haven’t written good enough dialogue: Continue reading