So, I talked about prologues recently, and I wanted to toss out one more thought on them. Well, y’know, one more for now. This one’s an easy warning flag to look for as I’m trying to figure out if my prologue is worth saving or not. It’s not a guaranteed catch, but I’d bet at least three out of four times, that flag’s popped up for a good reason.
If you’ve ever followed along with my Saturday geekery, you know a common B-movie complaint I have is the opening where everyone dies. A bunch of people show up, have some bare bones character development, maybe flash some skin… and then die horribly. Usually by monster, but sometimes it’s a serial killer. Or lava.
Anyway, there’s a slight offshoot to this, and I’ve seen it in book manuscripts too. It’s when our main story doesn’t start until
SIX WEEKS LATER
You’ve seen this, yes? I’d guess 83% of the time that opening scene’s about someone dying. Or doing something vague and “mysterious.” Or maybe it’s really clear what’s going on but it just feels irrelevant because, seriously, who are any of these people?
And then we flip the page and see that header right under “Chapter Two.” Or maybe it got a page of its own. In the movie, they probably did a fade-to-black and then maybe a little chyron at the bottom of the next shot—Two Years Later
Like I said, this isn’t a guaranteed problem. Not so much a red flag as maybe a safety orange one.
And also, just to be clear, the problem isn’t the timestamp (so to say) itself. Just like with prologues, the problem doesn’t magically vanish just by saying “Okay, I won’t tell the reader it’s four months later, I’ll just let them figure it out.” This isn’t going to take care of anything and it’s probably going to cause more problems.
Y’see, Timmy, that tag is a warning to my reader—and it should be to me. It’s making it clear just how disconnected this opening is from the actual story on the temporal measuring tape. And if it’s that set apart from my main story… how important is it?
Seriously, look at all the different rules and conditions we’ve talked about before when it comes to prologues. No, go look—I linked to most of them up above. I’d bet you four out of five times, if the story opens with a scene or chapter that gets followed with SIXTEEN DAYS LATER (or something similar, don’t get pedantic), it’s breaking a bunch of those rules. Which means I’ve probably got an unnecessary opening. Heck, my manuscript might be a lot stronger without it.
Sure, this isn’t an absolute. There are lots of examples of stories that start here and then jump days, weeks, or months ahead. But there’s also really solid reasons why those examples work with those stories. We can break down exactly why that separation between then and now is so important for this book or movie.
So if you find out you’ve added that flag, maybe take a moment and give that opening a good look. Does that separated beginning really add anything? What does the big distance between them bring to my story? What does pointing out that distance add to it?
So says the guy who just started a new book, and the only thing on page five is
ONE THOUSAND YEARS LATER
Next time, there’ll be some more experience to share with you.
Until then, go write.
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Great stuff. The disconnect of the opening is absolutely a worry. However, if the prologue acts as the beginning of a solid mystery (like The Fold did), and connects well to the main story, then it can be done. Your opening is probably fantastic. I've always liked Dwight Swain's guideline for openings. (1) Uniqueness. (2) The unanticipated. (3) Deviation from routine. (4) A change about to take place. (5) Inordinate attention to the commonplace.