on writing: prologues

When I started writing my crime novel, I had this ridiculous grand idea that I would circumvent every cliché known to criminal/literarykind. It’s the same mindset I had when I was pregnant: I am going to be very special and different and everything will be perfect. Turns out, to get to where you need to be, you do need to sometimes feed a kid junk food just to keep your sanity; you do need to sometimes stick in a bloodthirsty prologue just to keep things sufficiently violent.

Prologues, those dastardly things that have you seeing the crime from the criminal’s point of view, or from decades earlier when something deadly and vaguely-to-desperately relevant happened, or from the end of the book as someone clings for life and regrets the turn of events that brought them here—we’ve all read them. They aren’t the measure of whether a book is good or not, but I usually found them frustrating. Just get into it! I don’t want the killer’s italicised thoughts all over the first three pages. Stop giving me spoilers! I hate spoilers.

Then without even realising, I’d written a prologue that had a sinister lead-up to the crime in my book—a murder—that was not entirely relevant and set months before the core events. Good work, brain! I’ll high-five myself right in the forehead. So for my third draft I ditched it, thinking the book would be stronger for it. And perhaps it is, but there’s one thing missing: criminal tension. Instead, I’ve had to set up the circumstances leading to the death and how my protagonist gets there, and while things trip along there is not much in the immediate way of danger. And if, like me, your crime doesn’t happen smack at the start – if it needs a few wheels oiled, a few characters introduced or a few blissfully unaware days to pass – it can be worrying to an author that things aren’t, well, criminal enough. “Is this even crime?” a reader may lament as twelve pages are spent with bunnies leaping through dainty meadows. Of course, on page thirteen there’s a cyanide-laced rabbit trap in the grass or a sniper out for revenge on the bunny that killed his mother, but readers aren’t to know that. So how do you rope them in and tie them to a chair if the peaceful meadow is necessary? Well, there are a few options: make it unnecessary and cut out the first few pages that you wrote a year ago that were a masterpiece then but, possibly, a bit incoherent now; or put in a prologue. Make it violent or up the stakes. Threaten the person we’re going to officially meet on page one. Steal someone’s money. Travel through a creepy house. Kick a puppy. Make it known that this is a crime book and shit is going to get real. Do that, or do it early in chapter one.

So here’s my one piece of barely-professional advice: write a prologue if you must, but for the love of genre fiction, don’t do it in italics. I know, guys, I know. But don’t.

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