30 June 2010

Prologues and Passengers

Last month folks were discussing the value of prologues in novels; see comments from Nathan Bransford and his community and Dear Editor.

I’ve long heard that most kids don’t read prologues and other ancillary material. I did, but then I went into publishing. So did, I expect, many other people who grew up to write blogs about books. The problem is that authors have to aim for audiences larger than the kids who’ll read anything, even a bowl of Alpha-Bits.

As I’ve said before, I think writing the first chapter is like making a big airplane take off. You need a lot of forward thrust. Your readers are the passengers, wanting to feel that surge of power and be lifted away.

Flashbacks can break that forward momentum. Just as readers are supposed to focus on what’s happening right now and what lies ahead, flashbacks ask them to imagine some earlier time. Too many flashbacks (and I’ve seen manuscripts and books with handfuls of them in the first chapter), and readers don’t get a sense of narrative thrust. They’re back in the cabin, nervously muttering, “Come on, come on! Faster! Oh, god, we’re all gonna die!” Well, maybe not that last part, but some of them will bail out.

Prologues can produce a different problem. They can feel like a little puddle-jump flight before you get on the jet plane—you don’t cover much ground before you have to get off and do the whole boarding process again. Most people would rather take a non-stop. They can catch up on what they need from the in-flight reading material.

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