Thursday, May 31, 2012

Foreplay for Writers -or- Are Prologues Disasters in Disguise?

Everybody has read prologues. Tom Clancy loves them. Stephen King seems to run hot and cold on them. Experienced authors use them, but what about you? Aspiring authors cannot play by the same rules that apply to the big names. Are prologues, in the hands of neophyte writers, viewed fairly or as much-abused writer crutches that can destroy your publishing hopes?

The answer might surprise you, because it has little to do with the impact of the prologue on the story.

Hundreds of query letters arrive every week for literary agents. Imagine getting 40 query letters a day--over 10,000 requests per year. Thousands of quick decisions must be made every day by agents, or more likely, their subordinates. How do they narrow down this daunting influx of requests to a handful of new authors to represent?

Think about the demand on their time. Out of those 10,000 queries, less than 500 manuscripts get requested. Then, after scrutiny of those manuscripts, a lucky few (maybe 50) first-time authors receive contracts for representation. Agents already have a collection of established authors to represent, so there’s little room for newbies. If those aren’t slim enough odds, agents do not place 100% of the manuscripts they try to sell. Agents are probably doing great if they place 50% of the neophyte author’s stories. That means 25 first-time authors actually see their work survive the full cycle and make it to bookstore shelves. From query letter to publication, success is one-quarter of one-percent probability.

The note says, "Rejected:  back story in prologue."

I know what you’re thinking, “What does this have to do with prologues?”

Key players in publishing--acquisition editors and literary agents—mention submission generalities as guides for newbie-authors. Here are some common bits of advice I have read for first-time authors:

  • Full-length, commercial fiction should be between 80,000 and 120,000 words.
  • Follow manuscript formatting guidelines, exactly.
  • Avoid mixing genres.
  • Make sure your query only goes to agents representing your genre.
  • Writers need a platform when starting the query process.
  • Prologues often reflect weak writing. Avoid them.

Agents have a daunting task in cutting down a blizzard of queries to a coveted few representation contracts. Thousands of submissions get the ax using basic measures; weak query letter, poorly written synopsis, improper genre, failure to include all submission requirements, etc. The next step is where that prologue could kill your hopes. After easy cuts, staff readers still need a lot more rejections, so they begin looking for ANY reason to reject a manuscript; SPAG problems, weak hook, confusing character development, poor plot introduction, general tone and voice of the author. These can often be determined in less than ten pages and result in quick rejections.

What happens if your story starts with a prologue? Ooops . . . you touched one of the “third rails” of many editors and agents. Will they reject your golden words just because the story begins with a prologue? Some might. More likely, they will read on with more skepticism expecting the prologue to be a crutch for weak story telling. If your first ten pages (including that prologue) read great, then they must face the reality that a lot of acquisition editors will also be wary of a beginning writer who needs a prologue to get the story off the ground. It’s a harder sell.

Let’s say your magnificent manuscript survives to the final cut. The senior literary agent must choose between your story and an equally well-written tale that will be easier to sell because it does not include a prologue. Who gets the nod? More importantly, if you knew your brilliance survived to this point, and the difference was the prologue, would you like a chance to remove the introductory words and find a way to incorporate them into the actual story?

I’ve read dozens of prologues, many by big name, big dollar authors, but I’ve only read half a dozen enjoyable prologues. In most cases, they bore me or annoy me. Who knows? Maybe the acquisition editors are onto something. The purpose of this blog is to give you that second chance now--before you need it!


  1. Clancy's prologues have always bored me, even when he was in his prime. They're unnecessary. What you can say in a 'prologue', you can say just as easily in chapter one. Besides, if I'm forced to read 25 pages of back-story before I can even get into the main one, you're going to lose me as a reader.

    By the way: Most people skip prologues on the assumption that they're an author add-on and have no relevance to the main story. They must be confusing them with forewords, but nevertheless it's an important thing to remember.

    Skip the prologue.

    1. I can't imagine your stories beginning with a prologue. They start with a bang, run with fierce intensity and end in a violent collision of words--thrillers, all the way. Thanks for your thoughts...Dean

  2. I labeled my first chapter the prologue because it's essentially a short story that sets up and introduces several important themes at the core of the novel. I also do not introduce my m.c. in it, but introduce a vital one who reappears later. Hey, if "Prologue" is making squirrels nervous, I'll call it "Chapter 1" and renumber all the rest. Really, people. I had no idea there were so many nervous Nellies in this business, making a business out of rejecting what may otherwise be killer manuscripts. I've read many prologues, and I agree--many are stinkers. However, I'd like to think that I handled mine not only correctly, but that this decision resulted in a net plus.

    1. If a prologue establishes a level of quality and story-necessity that it is both compelling and drives the plot forward in some way, then, by all means, include it in your manuscript. I am only suggesting that a prologue may result in greater scrutiny and such scrutiny is not always positive. It's like good punctuation. If the punctuation is not noticed, then decision makers invest more thought in the story and less on distractions. This particularly true for first-time authors. Good to hear from you...Dean

  3. I always skip the prologues, if I can't figure out what's going on in the first two chapters I drop the book. If I need to I'll go back to it. I want to get to the meat of the story, prologues to me are like having to eat salad when prime rib is sitting right there.

    1. Editors know YOU. They are keenly aware of such reading habits. This is especially true in this rapidly evolving time for publishing. Strong hooks, compelling plots, and great characters will capture the interest of agents and editors. Prologues by neophyte authors generally begin with skepticism. That's okay, if, and ONLY if, the prologue is so compelling as to make the story better with it, than without it. My question for first-time authors is simple. Why take a chance on industry prologue-resistance when success rates for newbies are already slim? Thank you for your post, and I love your analogy about prime rib and salads...Dean

  4. I've found that generally most of the information/action in a prologue can be incorporated within the context of a story just fine.

    Beginning writers I've come across seem to desire to give the reader a history lesson, or try to hook them because the first few chapters aren't strong enough. Just a bad idea.

    If I read a prologue, I generally don't remember the contents and connection within the story later on.

    Trust the reader to figure out what's going on without the backstory--and if a good/interested reader can't, it's the fault of the writer. Even a solid prologue won't bridge that gap.

    Good post, Dean.

    1. The magic words in your comment are "trust the reader" to figure out the story. Build back-story or supporting information into the story. Why is that simple, yet so difficult for many writers to do? I suspect it comes down to confidence. Low confidence results it prologues.

      Thanks for your insightful comments, Terry.

  5. Thanks everyone. This newbie now knows how to proceed...NO prologues.

  6. Herb, prologues do have a place in fiction novels, but they require masterful writing and necessity. More importantly, this blog addresses the risk to first-time authors who are trying to earn that prized representation contract. Industry prologue-resistance by some acquisition editors and literary agents must be considered when crafting a novel. My attitude is simple--I want the maximum chance to make that final cut. If a prologue reduces that chance, then it's history. By the way, after I become a New York Times bestselling author, I'll do whatever the hell I want in building my stories. Until then, I'll kiss ass. LOL

    Thanks for dropping by...Dean


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