Every writer knows (or should know) the importance of a story’s first few lines. They’re what make up the narrative hook, that element designed to entice readers into checking out the first few pages…
Which is a kinda important factor in whether those readers are going to buy the book or not. For the record, we’ll be talking about hooks in much greater detail going forward. Just not quite yet.
What every writer doesn’t know (but should) is that such hooks don’t need to lead into immediate explanations of every bit of backstory. They don’t need to break down the entire basis of the plot.
In fact, they’re typically better off leaving some significant level of mystery… inciting curiosity and prompting people to want to know more.
In this, I’ll quote Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, a book I’m never going to read and therefore can’t completely endorse. However, I will fully acknowledge that he has some solid statements in there, such as this one:
The most important things to remember about backstory are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.
The only thing I would add to that is this: Most of it isn’t relevant either.
That’s undoubtedly why so many literary agents can’t stand prologues.
Literary agents – the gatekeepers who stand between you and big publishing contracts – only have so much time in the day. And, to be perfectly blunt, you just don’t rank very high on their to-do list.
Not unless you make it really, really, really really worth their while. That’s why you want to know as much about them as you possibly if you’re going to try getting their attention.
Such as this…
Most literary agents hate prologues.
Before you write that dramatic backstory bit about why the main character thinks she’s haunted, or what made the villain a villain, or why the love interest swears he’ll never settle down... ask yourself if it’s worth it.
First and foremost, is it worth it to the story? Does your narrative need that absolute exposition? Or will it just make it cheesy? If you’re certain your tale really does need a prologue, then write it as amazingly as possible, knowing you’re working against a wall of disapproval.
Because, at the risk of being repetitive, most literary agents hate prologues.
You could, of course, say something along the lines of, “Forget literary agents! I’m going to self-publish anyway.” To be sure, that’s a legitimate conclusion to come to.
However, it doesn’t mean your prologue is any less ill-advised.
If your goal is to write a good story, then write a good story. Which means avoiding:
Information dumps (i.e., overshares on plot points, setting, character qualities, etc.) that would be better off spread more evenly throughout the story
Unnecessary details about where a character is coming from or why he/she/it is going to act the way he/she/it is going to act in the rest of the book
Dramatize a dramatic event to the point of making it melodramatic.
And if you can accurately swear that your prologue does no such thing, why not just call it Chapter 1?
No really. Think about it.