Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Writing Tip #23--The Problem With Prologues

(Author's note--not to be confused with a prologue: A couple of months ago, fellow Harper Collins author, Robison Wells, and I were debating the pros and cons of prologues. His take was that most people read prologues, and therefore my stand was wrong. My take was that the statistics would only prove my point. We did on online survey, the results of which I link to below.

Now, Robison may or may not be full of hot MBA air. But I want to point out that, at least prior to this post, we have been good friends. We share the same critique group, regularly have sushi together, and have taught at the same conferences many, many times. Shoot, he even uses the microphone I used for my Worldplay podcast on his Do I Dare to Eat a Peach podcast. Can you get any closer than that?

So while he my be totally off base in his thoughts here, and I must mock him mercilessly for it. We are still good friends. He is an awesome writer. And if you haven't read his amazing books, what the heck is wrong with you?

Carry on.)  

Wait, you thought I meant 100 writing tips in 100 consecutive days? That would just be silly, preposterous, er . . . um. Yeah, okay, that is what I was going for. But this crazy book thing has to come first, and lately I've been struggling a little with finishing up the Farworld series. It's harder than it looks. You want to make sure that the last book is the most exciting and powerful of all the books in the series, but you don't want to rush it. You want it to be something people will enjoy like a good meal.

But, excuses aside, I promised you 100 writing tips, and you shall have them. And just because I've made you wait, I'll jump into what may be my most controversial topic of all . . . wait for it, wait for it . . . Prologues.

Now just the title of this post might give you the wrong idea. (Not the writing tip #23, that's the right idea. The "problem" with prologues part, silly.) You might think I'm going to say that prologues are bad, that I don't read prologues, that you shouldn't read prologues, that you shouldn't write prologues, and that prologues cause cancer in lab rats. None of that is true. Let me repeat in all caps, NONE OF THAT IS TRUE. Believe me, I checked Snopes and the whole prologue cancer thing--a complete hoax. So let me state a few things for the record--just in case the troublemaker, Robison Wells comes snooping around trying to put words in my mouth.

1) I personally always read prologues. Not just prologues, either. I read introductions, author notes, epilogues. Shoot, I even read acknowledgements. And you know what? One of my favorite authors sneaks little Easter eggs into his acknowledgements. A little add on to the story. And just because I am mean, and think you should read acknowledgements too, I'm not going to tell you who the author is.

2) I write prologues. Not always. And not nearly as often as I used to. But I do. In my Farworld books I have one per section. I call them interludes.

3) I am not going to tell you prologues are good. I am also not going to tell you prologues are bad. What I am going to do is tell you why prologues are the literary equivalent of a spatula. (Let that sink in, baby!)

Wow! You know this is going to be a tricky post when I have to use three paragraphs and three bullet points just to set things up.

Let's start with the question that always comes up first. Do people actually read prologues? As it turns out, I have three different sources to answer this question.

Here's a poll done by agent turned author, Nathan Bransford, asking if people like prologues. As you can see, 12% of the respondents absolutely liked prologues, 16% did not, and the rest were undecided. Nothing conclusive. But it does give us a taste of the ambiguity prologues bring up.

Here's a poll done by Absolute Write, a writers' group.  In this case they worded it a little differently. Do you skip prologues? You would expect the result to be much more positive of prologues here, since most writers I know like to read and write prologues. And as it turns out they are. A whopping 76% of people who took the poll do NOT skip prologues. That's pretty impressive. Only a quarter of the respondents skip prologues always or occasionally.

Finally, here's a poll fellow author, Robison Wells did at a retreat we recently attended together. This poll probably has its flaws as well. Most of the respondents knew either Rob or me, so many of them are probably people who read or write a lot. But even then, we put in a question to see how many of the people answering the poll were involved in the publishing industry in some way. We also broke it down into even more detail: asking if people read prologues before buying a book, if they read them as completely as the rest of the chapters, and a bunch of other questions Rob put in because he loves charts and graphs.

First of all, let's look at the #1 question. Do you read prologues?

Holy rice on gravy, Batman. 84% of people taking the survey always read prologues. 84%! Well that's that. Robison obviously wins the debate. Right? I mean, 84 out of 100 people always read prologues, and only 4 out of 100 never do. And look at this response.

77% of people read the prologue just as deeply as any chapter.

Now, it's true not everyone reads prologues when browsing a book, as shown below.

In fact, only 20% of readers read the prologue when deciding whether or not to buy a book online or in stores. But as Rob (look-at-me, I'm-an-MBA) Wells points out, do people read anything when buying a book? He asserts that people don't read books before buying them, so this point doesn't matter. And hey, he might be right.

So it would appear this case is closed. Roll up the mat, shut the door, and turn off the light. The mystery is solved. The majority of people read prologues. But wait. Is that what the debate was about? Or is there more more to the story? Here is where the corn starch gets added to the grave. (Hint: The plot thickens.)

Earlier, I compared prologues to spatulas. And you thought, "This man is mad. How is a prologue like a spatula? You might as well ask how a raven is like a writing desk." Now, I may be mad. But bear with me. Google spatula and look at the pictures in the shopping section of the page . Go ahead, I'll wait.

Did you find this?

Or this?
Or something like this?

See, the problem with the spatula is that nobody is quite sure what it really is or how to use it. It's not that spatulas are bad. It's that you need to understand what tool you are actually talking about and what it's for. My issue with prologues is that many people don't understand prologues and they are using them the wrong way. So let's set aside all the fancy graphs and talk about something that might actually matter to a writer, like, say, writing.

First of all, let's define a prologue. A prologue is not a chapter. If it was, all the polls above would sound stupid. Do you read chapter one of a book? Duh? Of course people do. A prologue is a separate section of the book set off from the normal chapters. It comes before chapter one, and it may have a different point of view, different setting, different voice, and even a different font from the rest of the book. If chapters were knifes, spoons, and forks set on a table, the prologue would be something like a pretty rose laid in front of each place setting.

With that in mind, let's look at how and why some authors use prologues.

First, there is the slow chapter one reason. Often chapter one is your set-up chapter. It's not the most exciting thing to start with--introducing characters, setting, story, etc. As a writer, you are concerned that readers may look at chapter one, get bored, and stop reading the book. You know you need a bang to hook the reader. So you add an exciting prologue.

That can work. In fact, Rob even has a name for it. The Ice Monster prologue, taken from the prologue at the beginning of Game of Thrones. The problem is that based on our survey question above, do you read the prologue when browsing books, only 20% of people always did. So if you are using the prologue to hook a potential reader, you may be out of luck. Because most of them aren't reading it. While it may be true that many people aren't reading the book at all before buying it, I would argue that people browsing books, who haven't already made a buying decision, will normally begin reading chapter one. If they are bored, they will put it down and read something else. And if they buy the book without browsing, even in the best case scenario above, a full 14% of readers may never see the prologue and may get bored by the first chapter. And in Nathan's poll, where only 12% of readers like prologues it could be much, much, worse. Can you live with that?

Second, let's go with something else I've seen a lot in prologues. The back story prologue. This is the prologue where you have an awesome chapter one. An amazing chapter that sucks the reader in and doesn't let them go. The problem is, you have a bunch of back story you need the reader to know. Understanding that back story in chapter one may turn a reader off, you write a prologue chock full of boring back story stuff. Now you have the opposite problem. As many as 84% of your readers, who always read prologues, are going to get the first taste of your book with . . . back story. Maybe you meant to do that. Maybe.

Third, the important clue. Your first chapter is amazing. Your prologue is exciting. But you have a key clue you want to introduce early on and then come back to at the climax of the book. Put it in the prologue right? It's perfect. Except . . . here's the thing. Again, using the best case scenario above, you can only be sure that 84% of your readers will even see the clue. That might not seem like a lot. In fact, it is a huge majority. But let me put this into perspective. Let's say you sell 20,000 books. You won't hit any bestseller lists, but it's a good solid number. If 84% of your readers read the prologue, that means that there are 3200 people that won't understand the exciting conclusion. Over 3,000 people who won't have a clue how and why the story ended the way it did. 3,000 people who will say in their reviews, "The book was good, but I totally didn't get the ending." Again, I ask, can you live with that?

Now, at about this point, I imagine you are thinking I lied at the beginning of this post when I told you I wasn't going to tell you whether or not to write prologues. It sounds like I am against them. I am not. I am all for prologues used well.

What is my definition of a well-used prologue? First of all, write an amazing book--a book that can stand on its own without a prologue. Give me an interesting chapter one with some conflict. Give me all the clues I need to read and understand the book. Give me back story in judicious amounts spread over the course of the tale. Then, and only then, give me an exciting, interesting prologue that will add to the joy of those who read it and not detract from those who choose to skip it. Make it the cherry on my sundae, the rose on my plate, the clever after-the-credits Easter egg scene in my movie.

Now, that you understand the tool and how to use it, what if you still want to hide a clue in your prologue? Fine, you know what you are doing, make the call. Want to use it as your Ice Monster? I won't argue. You know the risks, and you're willing to take them. Like every other writing tip I have given before now and will give after, you can use it or not. It is an extra tool in your tool box.