I love writing advice. I love writing advice blogs (like mine), I love writing advice YouTube videos made by AuthorTubers, I love writing advice Twitter threads by authors and agents… I love it all. However, I also think it can be detrimental to new writers. Let me explain why.Continue reading
Scenes. I love ’em. I love reading them, and I love writing them. My favorite thing to do is sit down and write out a random scene from one of the many story ideas kicking around in my head. It’s almost like a stress reliever, and it’s a surefire way for me to push past any writer’s block I might have. However, during my time at Columbia College Chicago, I learned that, for some people, scenes are difficult to write. It shocked me to learn that some people actually prefer summary to scene. I mean, don’t get me wrong, summary can be a great tool. We all know that not every moment in a story needs to be a scene. The last thing I want is a step-by-step account of how a character gets ready in the morning. But to write a story entirely in summary? Well, I’d argue that’s not really a story at all.Continue reading
When you go to Google and type in “Are creative writing degrees…”, the very first auto-fill that pops up is “worth it?” And, it’s a legitimate question. If you’re going to go to college and spend tens of thousands of dollars on a higher education, you want to make sure you’re getting some bang for your buck, right? Because the last thing you want when you leave college is to feel like you not only wasted your money, but your time. I get it. And, having gone through four years of college to graduate with a BA in Fiction Writing, I feel pretty damn qualified to help you make that decision. So, with that said, let’s get started.
A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post titled “The Allure of the Shiny Thing” in which I discussed how I was struggling to write one novel because ideas for a million other novels were vying for my attention. The phrase had been one I’d learned from a professor at Columbia College Chicago, and at the time I was adamant that pursuing the shiny thing was the worst thing I could possibly do. However, recently I actually did give in to the shiny thing. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
The title says it all. Dust off those vocal chords, because today we’re going to be talking about the benefits of reading your writing aloud!
“But Leighton,” you say, “why would I have to read my writing aloud? The whole point of reading is that it’s done silently.” To that, I say: Tell that to the audio book listeners out there. No, but seriously, this advice that I have to give you has nothing to do with whether your book will be read aloud someday or not (which, it totally will). It has to do with making your book the best it can be. That may also seem confusing, though. Like, how could reading a manuscript aloud make it better? Well, it helps in a few ways. Allow me to enlighten you.
First, it clues you in to how your novel’s language flows. As you’re reading aloud, you’ll be two thousand times more aware of any awkwardly-phrased lines, and you’ll be able to get a sense of the rhythm of your writing. For example, when reading your manuscript silently, those five sentences in a row that consist of seven words each may not even register. But when you’re reading aloud, the odds are better that you’ll realize the rhythm is starting to get monotonous, and then you’ll be able to pinpoint the problem and shake things up with shorter and longer sentences.
Second, repeated words and phrases will stand out to you more. As humans, we can sometimes become fixated on certain things. I’m especially guilty of this. Once I hear a word or phrase I like, I use it until I’ve run the well dry. In high school, I had this problem with the word “juxtapose.” I used it EVERYWHERE. The thing is, I didn’t realize I was using it everywhere. But if I had read my essays and writing aloud back then, it would’ve stood out like a sore thumb, and I would’ve been able to exchange a few of the “juxtapose”s with some “compare”s and “contrast”s. And, in case you’re wondering why it matters if you use the same word or phrase a lot, here’s the long and short of it: Word repetition just sounds clunky and lazy to a reader. The general rule is that common words (like “the,” “and,” “had,” “my,” “it,” etc.) can be repeated without someone noticing, but more complex words and any phrases should be used sparingly and interchanged with synonyms when possible. So keep your ears peeled for those repeated words while you’re reading your novel aloud.
Third, it gives you a better idea of your narrative voice and/or the first person narrator’s voice. When writing in your own voice, you want the narration to sound like… Well, like you! And when you’re writing in a character’s voice, you want the narration to sound like your character. As it turns out, this is easier said than done. A lot of the time, novice writers fall into the trap of writing awkwardly, for lack of a better term. They don’t use contractions, their language is stiff… There’s just nothing to the narration. And if a writer doesn’t read their writing aloud, it’s going to stay that way. If they do read their writing aloud, though, there’s a much greater chance that they’ll hear the awkward stiffness, and they can then work on correcting that. (On a related note, if you’d like me to make a post specifically about writing voice in the future, let me know in the comments!)
Fourth, it makes it easier to notice grammatical errors. When you’re reading your writing silently, you tend to skim. I mean, odds are you know your story inside and out, so skimming is only natural. The problem with this is that you can’t catch errors if your eyes are flying over the words faster than your brain can actually comprehend any of what you’re reading. When you read your work aloud, however, it forces you to slow down and actually read. When you do this, most of your grammatical and punctuation errors will be pretty obvious. They’ll make you stumble, trip over the awkward phrasing or oddly placed comma. For me personally, my biggest sin is accidentally putting a period where a question mark should go. Reading aloud helps me spot those moments and correct them without anyone else having to point them out to me.
Fifth, your dialogue will improve tremendously. It’s kind of like the voice thing I mentioned earlier. Many writers really struggle with writing realistic dialogue, and it’s because they allow it to become stiff and awkward. Reading the dialogue aloud, however, is the perfect cure. Doing so will help you recognize all of the parts that feel not-so-realistic. Then, you can work toward writing something more true to life. Sometimes I speak my dialogue aloud before I even write it down, in order to make sure it sounds how I wanted it to sound.
And if you take my advice and find that reading your writing aloud really does help to improve your writing, then I’ve got a challenge for you to take it one step further: Have someone else read your writing aloud for you. Or, at the very least, record yourself reading it aloud and then listen back to the recording. Trust me. Reading it aloud to yourself is one thing, but listening to someone else read your writing is so enlightening. You’ll be able to hear all of these things I’ve talked about in this post, especially if you recruit a friend to help you out and don’t just record yourself. This is because your friend won’t know the nuances of your story, while you do. So, with someone else reading for you, you’ll hear how your reader will perceive things rather than how you, the writer, perceive them. It’s like a beta reader for your ears. This, of course, is not as necessary as reading your own writing aloud, but it will make your book even better if you do follow through with it.
The most important thing to take from this post, though, is to take the time to make your book the best it can be. Dust off those vocal chords and really put in some effort to tidy up your story. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Today we’re going to be talking about one of the most dreaded words to a writer: “Cut.” The word that makes us quake and hug our manuscripts tightly to our chests. “No, please, anything but the cut!” we cry. No matter how much we hate the word “cut,” though, I think we all realize that sometimes there’s just no way around it. Some things just have to be cut.
Before we get into this dreaded topic, I wanted to remind you that I’m always looking for topic recommendations for these posts, which can be sent to me via Twitter and Tumblr Ask, or in the comments section of the corresponding YouTube video to this post, which can be found here.
Believe it or not, even if you’re an underwriter, you’re not immune to cuts. It isn’t something that only plagues the overwriters of the world. Even the most bare-bones underwriters can insert a fluffy scene that adds nothing to the overall plot, and that’s exactly the type of thing that needs to be amputated from your otherwise beautiful manuscript. It hurts. It sucks. But trust me, it’s actually not as bad as we make it out to be. Us writers tend to have an air for the dramatic. The truth is, if you cut something from your novel, by the next time you pick up your manuscript you’ll have forgotten it was even there in the first place.
So how do you know what needs to be cut? Well, if you have an agent or editor, a lot of the time they’ll tell you what scenes they think are extraneous and need to be given the boot. You don’t have to wait for an agent or editor, though. In fact, you can increase your chances of being picked up by one or the other by taking a surgical eye to your own manuscript and cleaning it up before it even reaches them. It’s definitely more difficult than being told by someone else what needs to go–because odds are, to you, everything seems important–but with a little practice you can definitely pick out a few scenes that really don’t need to be taking up space in your novel. So I’ve got a few tips for you when it comes to cutting scenes from your own manuscript.
1.) Is there a lot of pointless dialogue that goes nowhere? Cut it.
I’m serious. Even it holds some of the funniest lines you’ve ever written, it’s got to go. Your readers aren’t going to want to sit through a shit ton of banter that ends with no real conclusion or purpose. In fact, it may frustrate them enough to shut the book and never pick it back up again, and, like I always say, that’s not what you want.
2.) Is there a scene where there’s one or two important issues surrounded by fluff? Cut the scene and add the issues into a different, fuller scene.
By this I don’t mean over-saturate an already full scene with even more information. But if you’ve got a nice, rounded scene that has room for one or two more bits of information, squeeze them in there. For example, in my novel The Forbidden Prophecy, my main character needed to learn a bit of information about his new teacher. Originally, I had him learn the information while being fitted for his school uniform, a scene that was mostly fluff with only a little bit of stuff. In one of my later edits, however, I cut the fitting scene entirely and gave the information to his new friends to tell him during a fuller scene that was all about learning about the teacher and the school anyway. It just made more sense, and made the novel flow much smoother.
3.) Is there a scene with information in it that really isn’t all that important? Snip snip.
This is similar to my earlier tip, but instead of moving the information, you cut it altogether. Obviously, make sure this isn’t information that’s pivotal to the plot or any of the subplots. This would be more like information about a certain character that isn’t really consequential in the long run. Maybe you learn that a character’s parents are getting divorced, but that information doesn’t really hold any weight in the grand scheme of things. If that’s the case, it should go.
4.) Is there a scene with too much information? Slice and dice, and sprinkle the information throughout the novel instead.
This is similar to tip number two, in that you’ll be finding scenes with space to add some information, but it’s different because instead of pulling from a mostly-barren scene, you’re pulling from an over-saturated scene. If you’ve info-dumped a ton of your research or your world building into one section, you need to split it up. I’ve actually made an entire post about fixing info dumps, which can be found here.
5.) Is there a plot device that keeps recurring over and over again? Get rid of it.
If we’re on the second or third time in the novel that your main character is having an argument with their significant other about how she wants to be with him but he’s too dangerous for her (I’m lookin’ at you, Twilight), and there’s no real progress being made, you’ve got to cut it. Each scene needs to reveal something new about a character, move the plot forward, or raise the tension. If you have a scene like this, where none of that is happening, why is it even in there? Kick it to the curb, my friend.
And remember, cutting scenes is important if you plan on self-publishing, too. Maybe even more so, because unless you hire a developmental editor, you won’t have anyone telling you which scenes to cut. It’ll be entirely up to you.
I know it may be tempting to just leave your manuscript how it is. To you, it probably seems perfect. Like no scenes are extraneous, like every single one has a reason for existing. This is where I stress that you should put on a hyper-critical eye, and view your novel not as the author, but as a reader. If you were a reader, would you really care about a scene where two characters exchanged small talk and then went on their way with no real reason for the exchange to have happened in the first place? Or would that drive you nuts? Of course, your novel should make you happy, but at some point you also have to think about what will make your readers happy.
Hopefully that gave you a better understanding of what to cut from your manuscript and when, and hopefully you’re able to walk away without too much emotional trauma. Cutting scenes from your novel is rarely fun, but trust me, it is rewarding in the end.
Info dumps. They plague the writing community, and nobody is immune. Amateurs and professionals alike can find themselves with a bit too much information to give, and when that happens the test of a talented writer is whether or not they can get that info across without leaving it in a messy pile at the reader’s feet. And that’s why I’m here! To teach you the best practices for avoiding the info dump, or for polishing up your info dump when you find there’s no way to avoid it altogether.
But before we get into today’s topic, here’s an obligatory reminder that I’m always looking for topic recommendations for these posts, which can be sent to me via Twitter and Tumblr Ask, or in the comments section of the corresponding YouTube video to this post, which can be found here.
In my earliest writing years, info dumps were my bread and butter. Why aim for subtlety when you can just get the world building and characterization out of the way right at the beginning and spend the rest of the novel writing the fun stuff? And I know of a lot of writers, be they aspiring or published, who think the same way. They stuff all of this really important information in the front of their novel, many times as a prologue, and never look back. They may even think that their world building and characterization is so unique and interesting that a reader will want to kick off their reading experience by learning all there is to know about this world the author has built or the characters they’ve created. The thing is, this isn’t usually the case. Kick off a novel with an info dump, and the reader will either completely skip it altogether (therefore missing out on some pretty important information that they’ll need to know if they hope to understand what the heck is going on in the novel) or they’ll just decide to read a different book.
The way I realized this lesson was after starting about seven or eight different novels and never making it past the info dump. It suddenly dawned on me that if I was getting bored writing these info dumps, the reader would inevitably get bored of reading them. After that, I found ways to incorporate the information I was dumping in the beginning of my novel into the actual meat of the story, and that made all the difference. So, my first tip to avoid writing info dumps is to refrain from telling the reader everything they may need to know in one large clump at the beginning. Evenly distribute the info throughout the novel, introducing it only when it becomes pertinent to the story.
This isn’t the only type of info dump out there, though. By this, I mean they don’t always come at the beginning. And in these cases, sometimes they’re avoidable, and other times they aren’t. This can be frustrating, because either way, correcting it is never as simple as if the info dump occurred at the beginning of the novel. In these cases, you really have to assess if the information needs to be in the place you’ve put it or not. Like I said, information should only be introduced when it’s actually pertinent to the story. So if your character is learning about a fantasy world you’ve created but they don’t need to understand the magic system just yet, don’t teach them about it until they absolutely have to have that information. Or, if your character is one who already knows everything about the world, avoid having them explain it all to the reader at once. Again, have them only explain something once it becomes pertinent. The reader will survive if they don’t know everything about the world or characters right away, and will probably really enjoy learning more about these things little by little instead of having them shoved in their face.
But what do you do when you have a lot of info to give, and there’s no way you can put it off any longer? This was something I ran into a couple of times in my novel The Forbidden Prophecy. I did my best to sprinkle the world building throughout the book, but sometimes there were moments where I just had to spit out a bunch of it all at once. Dread filled me when I realized there was no way around it, and I thought that my novel was doomed to be boring and hated by all who read it. Then, I stood up straight, rolled my shoulders back, and decided that, no, I was going to make these info dumps interesting, damnit! So that was what I did, and though they by far weren’t the most exciting moments in the story, my beta readers assured me that they worked and didn’t slow the story down too much. And, really, that’s all you can hope for in those instances.
So how did I do it? Well, I used a couple of tactics: Dialogue and Textbooks. I’ll preface this by saying that these methods work best with information that the main character doesn’t know. If your main character does have inside knowledge that the reader doesn’t, then you probably won’t want to use these methods, because they can sound cheesy. “As you know” dialogue is one of the biggest no-nos when it comes to info dumping. It makes the reader wonder why these characters are even discussing this information if all of them already know what’s going on. The only instance this would really work is if another character doesn’t have this inside knowledge, and you have your main character explain it all to them (and, in turn, the audience). But, if this isn’t an option, then you’d be better off having your main character and/or narrator explain the information to your reader directly through inner monologue. If you decide to do this, though, try to give your main character and/or narrator a unique and interesting voice that could make reading all of this information fun for the reader.
If your main character doesn’t know any of the information, through, then dialogue and textbooks (or newspaper articles, news shows, etc.) might be right for you. If you decide to use dialogue, don’t just make one character yammer on and on endlessly at your main character. Have the two–or more–characters interact with each other. Have your main character ask questions. Have some back and forth, some teasing or misunderstanding. Add some humor. Do something, anything, to make the information just a little bit easier for your reader to swallow. If they see giant blocks of text with no end in sight, they’ll dread what’s coming next instead of eagerly pushing on to learn more. This goes for textbooks and the other forms of info dumping I mentioned, too. I mean, readers will put up with a lot from authors, but at some point they’re bound to break, and horribly boring info dumps could easily be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Also, combining the textbook and dialogue methods was the best thing I could have done for my novel. I would get a lot of information down in a couple of short paragraphs in textbook form, and then I would have my main character, Cas, ask his friends or teacher about what he’d read, gathering more information and getting their differently-biased views on the topic. This way, the readers got the information they needed, and an element of intrigue was added by giving my characters opinions on the different topics. If there were moments where I could only use dialogue, I also made sure to give the characters obvious opinions on whatever they were teaching Cas about, and sometimes I even made it where the characters didn’t know they were teaching Cas. Again, it’s all about adding those extra elements in order to give your reader a reason to care about what they’re learning, other than the fact that it’s important world building or characterization.
Info dumps are, frankly, a pain in the ass. They can give you major anxiety when you have to get rid of them or, even worse, can’t get rid of them. But don’t fret. As long as you take the time to clean them up, they won’t ruin your novel. In fact, your readers may not even recognize them as info dumps, if you’re skilled enough at hiding them. So keep your chin up, and best of luck!
Let me set the scene. The main character steps up to his final showdown with the Big Bad. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. And as the battle starts, the Big Bad immediately gets a leg up on the main character, knocking the weapon from their hand… Except, wait, why is that a problem? The main character has telekinetic powers and can just summon their weapon back into their hand. In fact, why do they need the weapon at all? Can’t they just toss the Big Bad around with their powers? It isn’t like the Big Bad has any powers of their own, or at least not any more than the main character. Really, where’s the tension? This final battle kind of blows. Let’s go get Starbucks instead of watching this shit show…
Overpowered characters. They can suck any and all tension straight out of your book, like a biblio-vampire. I’m sure you can see, then, why you don’t want your own main character to be overpowered. So, today we’ll be discussing how to avoid writing an overpowered main character. But first, I want to remind all of you that I’m always looking for topic recommendations for these posts, which can be sent to me via Twitter and Tumblr Ask, or in the comments section of the corresponding YouTube video to this post, which can be found here.
For today’s post, I’m going to give you some ways to avoid writing an overpowered main character. You could use one of these suggestions, or combine a few, or even use all of them. Whatever you need in order to make your story work the way you need it to work.
So the first way to avoid writing an overpowered main character is to give their powers some limitations. You can’t just say, “They can do everything and they can do it perfectly with no issues and wow aren’t they the coolest?!” First of all, that’s stupid, and will leave your readers rolling their eyes. Main characters like this are the biggest giveaway that an author is an overenthusiastic amateur who wants their character to be the next Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Deadpool all rolled into one. Second of all, this leaves zero room for tension. If your main character can do everything and they can do it perfectly then why should I be worried whenever they come up against any obstacle? Obviously they’ll get through it no problem, because there’s nothing they can’t do. There’s a reason Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Deadpool can all do different things instead of being able to do everything. They wouldn’t be nearly as fun to root for if there wasn’t some chance that they might not win. I mean, hell, even Superman has limitations to his powers: He’s weakened and can even be killed by Kryptonite.
A good bookish example of a character who could have easily been overpowered but was given some limitations to their powers is Harry Potter. (The most minimal of spoiler warnings. If you do not want spoilers for this series, jump to the next paragraph.) I mean, magic can basically do anything in J.K. Rowling’s magical world, right? But in Harry’s case, he didn’t know anything about magic when his adventure started. Over the years he learned how to use his magic, but even by the time he had his final showdown with Voldemort he didn’t know everything. This absolutely added to the tension of every single book in that series, because it left the reader wondering, “How could a magical student stand a chance against one of the darkest, most talented wizards of all time?” Sure, in the end there were always a lot of lucky breaks and coincidences involved in his victories, but as far as his powers went, Harry never felt overpowered.
So find where weaknesses might lie for your own main character. It could be in ignorance of how to use their powers, or in an object that might have the ability to weaken their powers, or maybe their powers drain their energy every time they use them. Use your imagination. Get creative. And make sure it makes sense in the context of your story. You don’t want to give your main character a weakness that could interfere with the plot in a negative way, like making them unable to cross bodies of water but then needing them to somehow get to Ireland from America.
The second way to avoid writing an overpowered main character is to give them incentive to not use their powers. This will prevent ex-machina moments, where the main character uses their powers to solve all of their problems. I mean, it just isn’t interesting if every roadblock you throw up for your character can be solved in a matter of seconds. So, for example, say your main character’s powers drain their energy every time they use them. In that case, they may want to save their energy for when they’ll really need their powers. Another example is if their powers could somehow give away their position. Maybe there’s a spell or some kind of technology that can pinpoint where these powers are being used. That would definitely give your main character good reason to go about solving their problems the old fashioned way.
Let’s look at Kell and Lila from A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab. (Very slight spoiler warnings. If you don’t want to be spoiled, skip to the next paragraph.) Not only does Kell have a lot of magical powers (he’s able to control all of the elements, plus he can also control blood magic, which is super powerful), but he and Lila also get their hands on a magical stone that can literally create or do anything. I mean, hellooooo convenient plot device, right? And it would have been so easy for Schwab to use that stone to solve every single one of the problems Kell and Lila ran into during their adventure. Instead, though, she gave them a reason to avoid using it at all costs: The stone’s dark magic was dangerous and negatively affecting them each time they used it. By adding this element to the stone, it meant the two characters were able to use the it whenever there was no other option, but that in all other instances they would find other ways to solve their problems. Plus, the danger element of using the stone created amazing tension throughout the novel. Pardon my pun, but it really was two birds, one stone. *ba dum, tiss*
The third way to avoid writing an overpowered main character is to prevent them from using their powers in some way. Maybe the Big Bad is immune to their powers. Maybe their powers have been taken from them somehow. The key is to force your character to figure out new, innovative ways to get out of whatever kind of trouble they may be in. This is similar to the previous two options I’ve presented, but more extreme. In this case, you have to think, “If my character doesn’t even have the option to use their powers, how would they react? What would their next course of action be?”
A good example of a character going through something similar is (and I’m about to get nerdy here, so bear with me) Hercules. Yes, from the Disney movie. I know this isn’t a bookish example, but a story is a story is a story. And this element really worked with this story, and might work with yours as well. Think about it: When Hercules relinquished his powers to protect Meg, did he give up and go, “Oh well, guess the Titans are just gonna kill everybody”? No! He went out and fought them, and then for good measure he went scuba diving to save Meg’s soul even though he knew he would probably die. It wasn’t his powers that made him a hero, but his actions once he didn’t have his powers. This could work for your character, too. The true test of a main character’s bravery isn’t how many special attacks they can throw at the Big Bad. It’s what their actions are once they’re forced to act without their powers to aid them.
The final way to avoid writing an overpowered main character is to make sure your Big Bad is bigger and badder than the main character. And this doesn’t mean they have to be physically bigger and badder. Maybe they’re a hundred times smarter than your main character. Or they’ve got deadlier powers. Or maybe they’ve got a full-blown army backing them up. The point is, your Big Bad needs to pose a threat to the main character in some significant way. This will create a the necessary sense of tension for the reader when the main character finally faces up for the final battle. Sure, maybe the character has telekinetic powers, but the Big Bad has them too, and is even more skilled with them. Your main character can walk through walls and disappear, but the Big Bad can literally pick the main character up and toss them around like a rag doll.
You guessed it, I’m throwing in one final example. Not that I really need to. I mean, any novel worth its stuff knows that the Big Bad needs to be, well, Big and Bad. So you could pick up any piece of genre fiction and find a decent example. But for the sake of this blog post, let’s just go back to a tried and true example: Harry Potter. (Decently big spoiler warning here. If you don’t want spoilers, skip to the next paragraph.) Why is Voldemort such an intimidating villain? Is it his red eyes or lack of a nose? Or is it because he’s an incredibly powerful wizard who has practically made himself immortal by splitting his soul seven times in order to create seven horcruxes? I’m going to have to go with option B. Every time Harry faces up with good ‘ol He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, he’s infinitely outskilled and wouldn’t have a chance in hell of defeating him, anyway, since he has his horcruxes to keep him alive.
Something else to consider is that any dark wizard will always have a leg up on the good guys because they’re willing and able to use unforgivable curses, like the killing curse. So while the good guys are running around shouting “Expelliarmus!”, the bad guys are shooting magical bullets at them. It’s not a fair fight, which absolutely makes the bad guys feel like an even bigger threat, and that’s something you should consider when writing your own book. Is there something the Big Bad is willing to do that your main character isn’t? That can create a very interesting dynamic, morally or otherwise.
And that’s all of the wisdom I have to share with you today. Hopefully it was helpful! In the comments, let me know about any characters that you thought the author skillfully prevented from being overpowered. Or, even better, tell me about any frustratingly overpowered characters you’ve found in books. Let’s face it, there’s plenty out there.
Hello, and welcome to the newest series that will be gracing this blog once a month! If you enjoyed “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep,” you’re going to love this series, because in it we’ll be discussing all of the topics I wasn’t able to squeeze into a month! And I’d like to point out that I’m absolutely open to requests when it comes to the topics of these posts, so feel free to leave a comment or shoot me a tweet or tumblr ask if you have something you’d like me to discuss! Also, if you’re more of an auditory learner, you can hop on over to my YouTube channel and watch the corresponding video to this post here.
I really wasn’t sure what I should talk about today. I had a list a mile long of possible topics, but I really wanted to start this new series off right. Then I got to thinking: We’ve just started a new year, so why not discuss beginnings? Specifically, prologues! And so here we are.
For those of you who don’t know, a prologue acts as an introduction to a novel, usually setting up the events that take place in chapters one and beyond. For example, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin kicks off with a prologue in which three characters, whom we never really see again, face off against these creatures called the “Others” that then act as a looming threat over the rest of the novel. Because we know from the very beginning that the Others are very real and very dangerous, it creates tension for us as readers every time a character disregards them as a myth.
This is an example of a prologue being used effectively. Another example of an effective prologue is at the beginning of Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (and know that I say this begrudgingly). In this instance, the prologue is a flash-forward that immediately sucks the reader into the story by inserting them into a bit of action. Since the novel starts out somewhat slow, this prologue gives the reader a reason to keep reading until the story really gets going. Though, I’d like to note that you really shouldn’t lean too heavily on a prologue to keep your reader interested in your novel. The promise of something exciting happening can only keep them going for so long before they decide it isn’t worth the wait.
So what would make an ineffective prologue? Well, the worst prologues are the ones where the purpose is only to info dump a lot of backstory and world building onto your reader all at once. A prologue should never read like a history textbook, because that’s the one surefire way to get a reader to put your book down and never pick it back up again. Remember, a prologue is basically the first chapter of your novel, even if it isn’t called “chapter one.” It sets the tone of your novel and lets the reader know what to expect out of your writing. So if you drone on and on for four pages about the magic system, no matter how interesting it may be, the reader will just assume that the rest of your novel will read like that, even if it actually doesn’t. So don’t think a prologue is your “get out of jail free” card, where you can have your cake and eat it too by info dumping while still having an action-packed first chapter. It doesn’t work like that.
Also, keep in mind that a lot of people simply skip over prologues. Why? Because they’re animals. But that’s not the point. The point is that you can’t have any incredibly important information in a prologue. If there’s something your reader will absolutely need to know later in the book, you have to put it in the actual meat of your story. I know, it sucks, but there’s really nothing to be done about it. This is why J.K. Rowling’s first chapters in the Harry Potter series always read like prologues: because they basically are. But she was smart, and instead of labeling them as prologues and having people miss pertinent information, she simply bit the bullet and just titled them “Chapter One.”
Prologues can definitely be a useful storytelling tool, but at the end of the day you should probably ask yourself, “Do I really need a prologue?” Sometimes, like in the Game of Thrones example I gave earlier, it can really add an extra layer to the story that absolutely makes having a prologue worth it. Other times, though, it may just slow down the overall flow of your novel and keep you from starting in the action that would really hook a reader. If you think your novel would benefit from a prologue but you aren’t sure, go ahead and write it. Then, if it feels like it drags your story down, you know you should probably get rid of it.
I’d also like to mention that a prologue should never be too long. You shouldn’t be writing a prequel to your novel in your prologue. If you find yourself doing that, write an actual prequel. Prologues should be relatively short, sweet, and to the point, in order to keep your story moving and your reader invested. And, of course, it should always have a purpose, like I mentioned before. It should create tension in some way, either by:
1.) Showing the reader an event that will happen later in the novel, a la Twilight.
2.) Introducing a plot element that looms over the rest of the novel, like in A Game of Thrones.
3.) Providing a better understanding of the protagonist’s background (sort of like the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone, if J.K. Rowling had actually labeled it a prologue).
A prologue can also occur in the point of view of a character that is not the protagonist or regular narrator, in order to give the reader important knowledge that the protagonist or regular narrator would have no way of knowing. This could be in first or third person point of view, and it doesn’t have to match the point of view that the rest of your novel is told in. Plus, a prologue can take place at any point in time, be it in the past, future, or anywhere in between. So long as there’s a purpose for it taking place at that point in time, anything goes!
Prologues can be great tools, or they can seriously hinder your novel. When deciding whether to use one or not, make sure to really consider what is best for your book. And don’t just title your prologue “Chapter One” and think you can get away with it like J.K. Rowling did. No matter what you call it, a prologue is a prologue, and you need to make sure that said prologue belongs in your story.
Hopefully this post gives you a better idea of whether or not you should include a prologue in your work in progress. And let me know if you’re the kind of person who always reads a prologue or always skips a prologue. I’m very curious!
Happy Halloween, and Happy Day 31 of “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep”! We did it! We made it to the end of the month! Tomorrow kicks off NaNoWriMo, and I don’t think I could be any more excited! Let’s end this month and kick off November with a bang by discussing exactly how you (and I) can win NaNoWriMo this year. If you’re new and haven’t read the rest of the posts in the series, it’s never too late to catch up! Click here to read the other 30 posts, or click here to watch the corresponding YouTube videos.