An Agent's Perspective on Prologues by Seth Fishman
As a literary agent, I receive hundreds of queries a month and find myself in a tricky situation of being forced to make decisions without properly examining the entire query set in front of me. The query letter, of course, is the big problem most writers have but so is the first page, the first paragraph, the first sentence. While I can think of plenty of books that started slow, when it comes to increasing your odds of publication, you want to hit the right note off the bat with your reader. This understanding, this aim for opening line greatness occasionally calls for a few cheats.
That’s why I want to take a hard position here against the beloved institution of The Prologue. I’ll start right off and say that there are certainly exceptions to this rule, and that there even some books that sell amazingly despite poorly constructed prologues (Twilight, for instance, has a bad prologue but a good chapter one and compelling narration), but for the most part, I’ve learned over time and through many many queries that prologues tend to be created from fear. In general, the prologue serves as a trick to bring the reader into an ‘exciting’ point in a story. Usually near-death moments, we open the book and find ourselves fighting for our lives, and then, just like that, it’s over. No conclusion, no reveal, just that we’re in a calm place with seer-like knowledge that the tranquility won’t last. Again, I’m not denying the occasional effectiveness of the device, but I’ll say this straight up: most of the time that you see a prologue it is because an author is afraid that his/her beginning is boring. The author thinks, hmm, no one will want to read on from here, so I better take an action sequence, or mysterious moment and shove it into the front of the book to get a reader hooked, then we’ll go from there.
The point I’m trying to make is that you should always strive to be confident in every page, to the point where you should never need a crutch like a prologue. Instead, the beginning needs to be amazing. Not necessarily adrenaline-filled, not necessarily action-oriented. Just damn good. Every page of your book should be, at the very least, strong and interesting writing, and your opening should have the tangible hooks of the ‘problem’ we feel in this book, even if they are only tugging ever so gently. If you have a prologue its worth examining the real page one and making it stronger, finding your real beginning, having faith in your book and your writing. If it doesn’t hold up, prologue or no, the book won’t work.
My own book, The Well’s End was roughly inspired by a true-life event that happened in my home town when I was a kid. Jessica McClure, a toddler, fell down a well and was stuck, and the entire country was riveted, watching rescuers try to dig her out. I’ll say here, crystal clear, that the book I wrote has nothing to do with the actual Jessica McClure – I have no interest in invading her space and memories and privacy. Instead, I was just over and again fascinated with a different type of backstory for a young woman. No parental abuse, no family death (well, there’s that too), but instead an out-of-the-ordinary event that plays upon all of our fears and provides pretty easy access to a part of my mind that helps me envision the type of character Mia Kish (my protagonist) is. I loved writing the opening of my book because just by describing Mia’s past, it allows readers to understand what kind of fears were inside her. It allowed me to shove a lot of really compelling personality and depth into my main character with just a page or two. That sounds very clinical – it wasn’t. I found myself sitting at my computer staring into the darkness out my window trying to imagine what it’s like deep within a well, stuck, unable to move, the sound of diggers on their way. I’ve always wondered that, ever since the real Jessica McClure fell down that well. I had to find out, and Mia led the way.
Killer opening lines (the first two, I can’t help it, are BOTH elevator scenes):
“The elevator continued its impossibly slow ascent. Or at least I imagined it was ascent.” Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
“It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.” Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (classic one, suggested to me) – Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude.
“The beet is the most intense of vegetables.” Tom Robbin’s Jitterbug Perfume
About The Author
When not writing, Seth is a literary agent at The Gernert Company, and thinks writing and agenting are the two very best jobs in the world.
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About The Book
Sixteen-year-old Mia Kish has always been afraid of the dark. After all, she’s baby Mia, the one who fell down a well. That was years ago, though the darkness still haunts her. But when her classmates and teachers at ritzy Westbrook Academy start dying of old age from a bizarre and frightening virus that ages its victims years in a matter of hours, Mia becomes haunted by a lot more than the dark. Their deaths are gruesome and Mia worries she and her friends may be next. In order to survive, Mia and her small crew must break quarantine and outrun armed soldiers in hazmat suits who shoot first and ask questions later.
And there’s only one place to go—the Cave, aka Fenton Electronics. Mia knows it’s somehow connected and hopes her dad, Director of Fenton Electronics, who has always been strangely secretive about his work, has the answers she needs, and more importantly a cure to save everyone before the whole town succumbs to the mysterious virus. Unfortunately, it’s not answers Mia discovers, but something far more treacherous and impossible than even the virus itself.
A high-stakes, fast-paced adventure with imagination and heart.
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