As I mentioned in my last post, most of an intern’s day is spent reading partial manuscripts that come into the office and writing notes saying what does and doesn’t work in each story. Recently, a lot of my notes have included comments on how the story opens and especially about prologues. Unfortunately, a lot of those comments have been negative.
Simply put, a book should start when the story begins. Instead of starting the story, a lot of authors spend more than a few chapters on the protagonist’s life before the story starts, giving background information and doing world-building.
While this information does need to get into the book, it doesn’t all need to be front-loaded into the first chapter. This is especially true when an agent asks for a partial because they only get to see a very small portion in the book (we generally ask for the first three chapters). If we read three chapters and absolutely nothing happens except that we are introduced to every person in the protagonist’s town even though we don’t know their role in the story yet, we’re not going to stay very interested in your story.
So the first chapter should contain the first scenes that show the major conflict in the book—when the love interest enters the protagonist’s life, when the strange newcomer enters town, or any other event that gets the ball rolling on the story. Yes, there is going to be world building or other introductory material in these first chapters, but if you don't have any plot, your reader is going to stop reading.
Prologues, on the other hand, serve a somewhat different role. A prologue is not simply the first chapter in your story; in fact, prologues really aren’t part of the “story” at all (and should be shorter than your other chapters). If the prologue is removed from a story, there shouldn’t be anything missing because the prologue is extra. Prologues are often used to hint at what will happen much later in the story (like the Twilight series, in which the books are opened with the protagonist discussing what happens at the very end) or to show a scene that happens far before the story begins but which is still important story. But even though it’s not necessary, the prologue is a great way to grip your readers and entice them to keep reading.
For example, today I read a partial in which the prologue was longer than any other chapter and provided all the back story of the story, including a lot of extra information about how the protagonist came to be where she was in chapter one that really could have been left out. Reading that much information before I even got to the actual story was a bit tiring—by the time I finished, I didn’t really want to go on to the next chapter. On top of that, I thought that, in this case, giving the entire back story at the beginning of the book detracted from the story and should have been revealed piece-by-piece later in the story to make the story more intriguing.
But I also read a very good prologue. It was only two pages long but managed to give the reader a taste of who the protagonist was, what his life was like before the story started, and the girl who was about to enter his life and turn everything upside down. It was to the point but extremely effective because those two pages made me want to keep reading.
And that’s what a good opening should do: make everyone want to read the rest of your book.