There are all kinds of writing 'rules' washing around the interweb: most of them, it has to be said, ignored by virtually every published book I've ever read. Don't write in first person present, for instance – not sure if it's coincidence, but all the books I've enjoyed recently have been written in that very tense. Or don't use the verb 'to feel' (as in, to use a generic example, 'I felt a nervous flutter in my stomach' as opposed to 'Nerves fluttered in my stomach'). Or even our old friend don't use adverbs. Every successful writer I know ignores that one – sometimes.
Of course, it's the sometimes that matters. The point is, like all rules, these should come with a caveat: unless it's for a good enough reason. In any craft, the novice breaks the rules because he doesn't realise the difference; as he begins to learn, he absorbs those rules and sticks rigidly to them, believing them to be absolutes. Yet as he grows still further in confidence and knowledge, he learns where the rules can be bent and where they can be broken. He learns that the 'absolutes' are really a set of guidelines. And thus the difference between the amateur and the professional is that the amateur follows the rules because, well, them's the rules. The professional follows them because she knows why they work – and when they don't.
This is all really interesting stuff, and bound up also with the wider question of style (because, after all, no-one can have style if all they do is follow the rules. That's just painting by numbers). But it's not what I set out to talk about. No, I came here to wave the flag for another much-maligned and misunderstood friend of mine: the prologue.
The rule there is simply don't use a prologue. And indeed, I've heard all kinds of bizarre statements about the poor persecuted prologue. No agent will touch a novel that starts with a prologue, it seems. If you have a prologue then you should consider making it your first chapter or cutting it completely. Some people don't even bother to read them and skip straight on to Chapter 1. Clearly no-one in their right mind would include one in their book.
Well, setting aside the fact that I simply cannot understand someone not reading a prologue – which, after all, is part of the writer's vision and put there for a reason – it seems to me there's an awful lot of confusion here. Certainly there are plenty of ways to write a prologue badly (the info-dump prologue, in which a fantasy writer pours out all the supposedly vital facts about the history of their world in a dry regurgitation of invented knowledge, springs to mind). But then, there are plenty of ways to write a book badly. Generalising about prologues is like generalising about books. Each one should be taken on its own merits.
If a book has a prologue then it's safe to assume the writer chose to put it there. As such, it shouldn't be treated by the reader any differently from a first chapter (though no doubt the writer has chosen it as a literary device because it fulfils a different structural purpose). Come across a book with a prologue you hate, and chances are you won't like the book. But come across a prologue you love, that intrigues you and makes you want to read more – well, then, it's done its job. It's the exception that proves the rule. Because, like all those other rules, don't use a prologue should be followed by except if it works.
How to make it work is another matter entirely, and one I don't claim to be an expert on, so I'll simply end by listing a few of the benefits that a prologue can bring to a book, if it's done well. It can add depth and richness, bringing a context or a viewpoint that wouldn't have been available from the main narrative. It can widen the book's sense of history by touching on another time and place. It can tease the reader with hints of what is to come, or give insights that are only fully realised once the book has been read. It can grab the reader by the throat and drag them kicking and screaming into the main body of the story.
Remind me again why you wouldn't want one in your novel?
Write Every Day: tip of the week
You know that scene you just can't bring yourself to write? The one that sits there like a big black hole in your manuscript, except instead of sucking you in it repels you every time you get near it? Well, this week is a perfect time to make yourself tackle it.
To do that, you need to work out why you're so reluctant to write the darn thing in the first place. If it's because it's boring to write then you should seriously think about cutting it, or changing it, because chances are it'll be boring to read as well. If it's because the words just won't flow then maybe you need to do more research (it's hard to write convincingly about something you know nothing about). Or maybe you're trying to force your characters into uncharacteristic behaviour for the sake of the plot and they won't cooperate – that's always a bad idea and you're probably better off listening to them. If you're struggling because the scene is too emotional and you find it painful to write, you just have to go with it. Pick a time when it doesn't matter if you end up bawling like a baby and immerse yourself in the very thing you're afraid of. Your readers will feel what you feel, and the scene will be all the better for it.