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Writing Books/Prologue Layout

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Question
Hello,
    I'm a new writer, working on a fantasy book with my cousin. We've both been a bit lost lately about what to do with our prologue. So far, we have a few pages written, but are wondering where we should stop!
    My mother, who is also a writer, suggests that we should stop where we are, but I still don't think we've explained enough of the background (we're going to have about a 12-year timeskip). Any suggestions?

Answer
Hi, Seth.

Here's my rule of thumb when it comes to providing "background" information:  If the reader does not need to know this information RIGHT NOW, don't tell them.

See, the problem with providing a lot of background... especially if it's in a situation like yours, with it being stuff 12 years in the past... is that you're giving yourself too many ways to "lose" your reader.

Consider this:  Just the very act of including a "prologue" first, and then moving on to "chapter one," is really giving your book TWO "beginnings."  So you have two places where you're required to capture and keep your reader's attention, thus you've got two places where you can screw up.

By providing a large segment of "background," you're also not really into the proper story, itself.  So you run the great risk of boring your reader... because there's probably not much really "happening" in this "background" you're providing.

Here's a story I tell all of my students.  I'm sure you've heard of a little book called "Frankenstein."  Well, when Mary Shelley wrote this book, she gave it to her husband for his opinion.  He said something to the effect of, "You haven't provided enough background!  Who IS this Dr. Frankenstein person?  What about the town?  We need to know all this stuff, blah blah blah..."

Truth of the matter?  He was dead wrong.  Mary began the story right at the moment that Dr. Frankenstein is about to bring his creation to life.  And that's the perfect place to begin.  Because that's where the story begins.  Her husband (Percy Shelley... great poet, lousy novelist) is responsible for the two or three chapters she then wrote and put in the beginning of the book... none of which is necessary for the reader to know.

So, to get back to what I said at first...  Unless the reader MUST know this information RIGHT NOW... there's no need to tell them.  If they simply cannot understand the story without it, then okay.  They need to know.  But otherwise, I'd recomment ditching a prologue altogether and working "background" stuff in, little by little, over the course of the story.

Hope that's helpful.

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Vincent M. Wales

Expertise

I am a speculative fiction novelist (fantasy, science fiction, and so on). While I may be able to answer questions on non-fiction, my specialty is fiction. Please keep that in mind when asking questions.

Experience

For four years, I taught a series of fiction writing classes in Sacramento, CA.

Education/Credentials
BA in fiction writing.

Awards and Honors
My 2004 novel, ONE NATION UNDER GOD, won BEST FICTION in Fresh Voices 2006, BEST FICTION and BEST YA FICTION in the NCPA Book Awards, and placed as a finalist in BEST BOOKS 2005. In 2002, my novel WISH YOU WERE HERE won awards for Best Fantasy and Best Fiction/Drama in the 8th Annual SPA Awards. My latest work is a trilogy titled THE MANY DEATHS OF DYNAMISTRESS (a superhero memoir). The first book, RECKONING, was released in 2013 and won the SF category in the 2014 San Francisco Book Festival, took second place in the 2013 Royal Dragonfly Book Awards for the SF/Fantasy/Paranormal category, second place in the SF category of the 2013 Reader Views Reviewers Choice Awards, and was finalist in Foreword's 2013 Book of the Year Awards, Fantasy category. The second book, REDEMPTION, will be released in early 2015 and the final book, RENAISSANCE, is scheduled for release in late 2016.

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