To Prologue or not to Prologue

I’ve been a lurker on this forum for ages, as I didn’t really feel I had the experience to advise anyone. Software is awesome btw.

So, I have about 25% of my editing left to do on my first fiction novel but I keep wrestling with whether the opening chapters are punchy enough. I’m happy with them in terms of the story, but I don’t know whether I should have a prologue or not.

I’d like some advice if possible. What would be the best way for this forum?
Post the opening chapter and get views, or,
Post the opening chapter and the rough draft prologue for comparison (It’s in my head at the moment)

If so what’s the best way to post? In line as a post or linked to another document?

Any advice on the writing itself of course would also be gratefully received.

Greetings Lee Lurker,
Welcome to Scriv’s fora <— that’s a posh word meaning loads o’ the friggers. You’ll learn tons o’ stuff like that around here.

Why not post your first chapter in one post, and the prologue in the subsequent one. That way, the first chapter will stand or fall on its own merits. Smarter folk than I, may also like to read your explanation as to why you feel the need for a prologue in the first place.

Take care

Thanks Vic. Here’s the first chapter straight from Scrivener of course. Prologue will follow as soon as I get a chance to get it out of my head.

Agryl, 440BC
Pain burst into Alexander’s brain as the sandal stomped down on his hand, the carved chariot he held making a loud crack. He instantly forgot the race he had been recreating a moment before. He cried out and snatched his hand to his chest, dropping the pieces of the chariot onto the sand. Blood instantly poured from his clenched fist to cover the front of his tunic and dripped to the ground making the patch of sand match his red hair.
“Hey, watch where you’re going. Look what….”
The warning died in his throat as he realised with dawning horror that the ‘accident’ was intentional. The sun behind the figures above him made distinguishing their faces difficult, but he knew immediately who they were. Alexander raised himself slowly to his feet to face his adversaries, squinting in the harsh sunlight. He knew them by the names he’d given them. He did know their real names once but had forgotten them long ago. On the left was ‘Smiler’. He was the smallest of the three and his mouth looked like it was filled with yellow broken rocks rather than with even white teeth. He seemed proud of them though, as he snarled a lot, showing off the ruin in his mouth. He snarled now at Alexander. On the right was ‘Sweaty’, or ‘Piggy’ as Alexander sometimes preferred depending on his mood. Today was Piggy. As always, his tunic hung onto him clinging to the rolls of his fat, damp with sweat. The fat on his cheeks and his neck wobbled as he looked from Alexander to the broken chariot to his leader with glee, eager anticipation showing in his too-small eyes.
The tallest of the three, ‘Beetle-Brow’ smiled down at Alexander. His forehead protruded over his eyes, framed with thick eyebrows that looked like two black beetles, scurrying around his forehead when his expression changed. His humourless smile didn’t reach his eyes. It was a cruel smile of enjoyment at the turmoil of the twelve year old Alexander, surrounded by three older boys.
Alexander wished he were somewhere else. A few moments before he was at the Olympic Games, watching the chariot race, in his imagination at least. Now he wished he was where he should be, in class learning his numbers, but he didn’t see the value, so he was here instead, in the shade of the olive trees marking time until he went home. He wished that the time he tried to rub charcoal into his light skin to make him look like the other Greek children could have worked. He wished he was a full Greek like everyone else, instead of half Thracian, a race that the Greeks hated and that made Alexander stand out. He hated his weakness, his size, his age, his inability to fight back. He hated his looks and features, his red hair and pale complexion that made him stand out. His father was an Athenian and looked exactly as a Greek should. Black hair, dark eyes, tanned olive skin, just like everyone else. His mother, Kallias, was Thracian and had red hair and a pale complexion, which he had unfortunately inherited. If they lived in Thrace, he would probably have been relieved he looked like a Thracian, but he didn’t. He lived in a village just outside Athens where the people hardly saw anything but Greeks. He was an outsider. He imagined for a moment that he was half Spartan instead, descended from his hero Chionis, big and muscular, instead of small and wiry. These boys wouldn’t bother him then. He immediately felt ashamed of himself for wishing he was someone else. His mother told him often enough that he should be proud of who he was, part Greek, part Thracian, the best of both she said. Either way, wishing wouldn’t help him get out of this. He glanced left and right to see a way of escaping, pushing his red hair back up his forehead as he did, but the tree behind him and the three boys boxed him in.
He quickly calculated whether he could talk his way out if this, but then the pain in his hand, still cradled in the other hand against his chest, changed his mind. He was Thracian, and the Thracians were a warrior race just like the Spartans. That’s why everyone hated them, and him. He drew himself up taller, stuck his chin out and faced Beetle-Brow. The two beetles worked their way up on his antagonist’s forehead in a look of surprise. Usually Alexander stoically accepted the pushing and shoving, name calling and catcalls. He could see the expression on Beetle-Brow’s face change to a mixture of bemusement and confusion.
“What happened to your little baby toy, Thracian scum?” Growled beetle brow.
Alexander didn’t reply, torn between the desire to run away and the affront he felt. He was getting tired of running.
“At least you’ve got another one.” Beetle brow laughed eyeing the other chariot. “But you won’t have soon.”
Piggy let out a girlish giggle.
Alexander looked down at the beautiful carving, a gift from his father, Lysander, before his last campaign. He looked back up at Beetle-Brow.
“You wouldn’t dare.” Alexander challenged.
The three boys all laughed. “Is that so Thracian scum?” pitched in the Smiler, echoing Beetle-Brow’s earlier taunt.
“Who do you think would stop me?” asked Beetle-Brow, joining in the laughter, the challenge clear in his voice. Alexander teetered on the edge of giving flight or standing up to the three boys. He knew the latter would end painfully for him so he decided to make a dash for it. Before he could move, Smiler gave Alexander a push away and leaned down to pick up the other of the carved chariots. Alexander stumbled into Piggy, who grabbed his arms, but Alexander immediately responded by kicking sand and dirt at Smiler, the sharp grit flicking into the boys face and mouth as he bent down. The boy recoiled and spat back angrily, but held back, looking across at Beetle-Brow for encouragement.
“Who do you think you are, savage?” growled Beetle-Brow, taking a threatening step towards Alexander.
He could take being called ‘scum’, but for some reason being called a savage cut him deep and he felt rage well up inside him. “I’m Thracian, and if your army can’t beat Thrace when they outnumber them three to one, then I’ve no reason to be scared of you three.” He spat, hearing the sentiments of his mother spill out of his mouth before he could stop them. Beetle-Brow’s face registered his shock at the comment, Alexander’s dissent taking him by surprise. His black eyebrows scuttled higher up his forehead, then immediately scurried back down to arrange themselves into a frown as the meaning of the words penetrated.
Alexander struggled to release himself from Piggy’s grip but Beetle-Brow stepped forward and punched him hard in the stomach. The breath exploded out of him and Piggy let his arms go. He doubled up and fell to his hands and knees on the floor retching. He sucked in the hot air as fast as he could trying to recover his breath. He could now fight back or lay down like a baby and cry. He gritted his teeth. He had only one real option. He had to get up, stand and fight. He started to rise and Beetle-Brow kicked him in the ribs, flipping him onto his back. He coughed again, a long and laboured rattling sound.
They didn’t let him rise, they started work on him while he was still recovering from the kick to the side. His first ever fight wasn’t something he would look back on fondly, a detached part of his mind decided. It wasn’t going very well. The three boys were older and bigger. The most disturbing thing for Alexander was that they did not seem to be angry or in a rage. They gave him a controlled beating. They bent over him raining punches and kicks down on him and when he collapsed into the foetal position, curling as tight as he could to protect himself, the boys simply knelt down and carried on. They took it in turns to punch him, mercifully avoiding his face, but they took turns to beat on his exposed sides and body. When he could stand no more on one side, he rolled over onto the other and the boys just continued without pause until they were satisfied.
It took him a moment to realise the blows had stopped landing. It must have stopped suddenly but his body was numb and it hadn’t registered. The boys had taken no more than a few minutes at the beating but it felt like hours to Alexander. He took a chance to lift his head slightly from his hands to peep out at them. The boys were were spent and sweating, all their tunics wet with perspiration and dusty at the bottom where they had knelt in the dirt. Piggy’s was drenched and his face looked purple from the exertion.
“See if you’re better than us now,” said Beetle-Brow, panting slightly. Smiler sneered at him. Piggy giggled again. Then they stood, turned their back on him and walked away. Alexander watched from the floor as Beetle-Brow tossed the undamaged chariot to Smiler.
Alexander lay in the dirt for a while until the pain subsided, trying to hold back his tears but failing, pain, frustration and helplessness betraying him.
He tasted the earth and sand as his face rested half-buried in it, tears burning down his cheek, humiliating him further. When he eventually dragged himself to his feet he struggled to straighten his body. He leant on the tree for a moment as a wave of dizziness washed over him. Hanging his head, he closed his eyes, swallowing down the pain taking deep breaths while he waited for the nausea to pass. The nausea passed so he started back towards home, slowly shuffling along, his upper body feeling bruised and tender where the countless punches had landed, his breathing laboured and painful.
As he made his way back home he fantasised about how his father would extract retribution on his aggressors and it made him feel better. He imagined their cries as Lysander beat them while Alexander looked on. He knew who they were and where they lived and consoled himself by looking forward to what was coming. The people in the village were scared of his father. He was a hoplite, a soldier, in the Athenian army. He was a veteran of many campaigns and he was tall and powerful, his body hard from marching, training and fighting. He kept his beard thick and bushy in the manner of the fighting men, instead of short and trimmed like the other men in the village separating him even further from them and making him stand out, if his size didn’t already accomplish that. It was the intensity of his gaze that made people look away, and although Alexander didn’t really understand it, he could see the impact it had on people.
Would his father deal with his attackers all together or individually? Would he force their parents to deal with them? Would he allow Alexander to take his own revenge? That last thought lifted Alexander’s spirits as he imagined exacting punishment, the other boys having to take a beating, unable to fight back through fear of his father. He created a romanticised image of how it would go, not really taking into account how little impact he would be able to have on the bigger boys, especially in the condition he was in now, but it distracted him from the pain he felt as he made his way home.
Lysander stood waiting in the yard of the smallholding where they lived, watching Alexander intently as he came down the track but making no move to go to him. Alexander couldn’t read his expression and continued past him into the house, followed by Lysander, and flopped on the bench. He explained what had happened, leaving nothing out including the words he had used to trigger the attack as his parents listened without comment. He saw the hard look Lysander gave to Kallias but couldn’t fathom any meaning from it, so he paid it no attention. Alexander was still thinking about his revenge but his pain receded when his father asked him if he knew where the boys would be, Alexander nodded his assent.
“Come on, we’re going to see them all” said Lysander, striding out of the house paying no attention to Alexander’s struggles to keep up. Although it wasn’t far from the farm to the village, a ridge between them made it impossible to see the village from anywhere on the farm. They followed the track up the ridge which skirted the area where they kept the few dozen cattle and goats. Once they crested the ridge, they continued down the slope into the village. They could see the rough assembly of dwellings and buildings that surrounded the village square at the centre and from their position coming down from the ridge, they could see the Panathenaic stadium on the far side where the slope levelled. As they entered the village they followed the houses around, skirting the main square. His father obviously knew where he was going.
They found the boys together and with their fathers. The three men were in the middle of a heated discussion as one of the boys spotted their approach and tugged on his father’s tunic to alert him. The three adults stopped their discussion and looked over as one, fear etched on their faces. The three boys could not raise their eyes to meet them and Alexander noted that the ground at their feet seemed to be terribly interesting at that moment.
One of the fathers started to stammer out a greeting but Lysander stopped him dead with a gesture of his hand. The man’s mouth slammed shut, eyes wide. Beetle-Brow shuffled from foot to foot, still studying his sandals. Alexander tried to hide the smile that threatened to explode onto his face.
“Alexander, apologise to these boys and their parents,” Lysander said, his voice hard and uncompromising. Alexander’s head snapped up to look at his father staring at him in confusion, eyes wide and mouth agape.
“Wh, what?”
His father hit him with a single, back-handed slap. The blow was shocking, a whole beating in a single strike, much shorter but much worse than the first beating from the three boys. It was not really a beating, but it certainly had the impact of one and he would have rather taken a repeat of the first one than suffer this one.
“Do it now or you will learn the true meaning of remorse,” he said in a cold voice, his expression still unreadable.

In my view - which isn’t worth a lot - don’t prologue. Unless the context/environment/circumstances of your story will be so, so alien to your intended reader that he or she really will not be able to understand or be intrigued by your first few pages otherwise. Instead feed the unique features of the environment into the story itself as and when necessary to that story.

In other words, tell the reader what she needs to know - but only when she needs to know it.

(Because, for one reason amongst several others, in choosing to read your story, your reader will have already read several clues - title, blurb, promotion and so on - that will have given her some idea of what she’s embarking upon. You’re not writing for nineteenth-century readers.)

i,ll keep my comments general to avoid breaching my rules of engagement.

like hugh, i,d argue against the prologue. this is based on your stated reason for wanting one… that you fear the first chapters aren,t punchy enough. this is the wrong reason to have a prologue. the answer to this problem is to rework the first chapters, not to start the story earlier.

what is a prologue. it,s just a new chapter in front of the one you,ve already written. so the question should be… do i need to start my story earlier. in my experience, the way to make something punchier is to make it more focused, to strip away the unnecessary, and often to start just a little bit later. so not to start earlier.

why are prologues called prologues instead of just another chapter. because they are distinctly separate from the rest of the book in some way, usually in terms of time. why have that. only if you absolutely need to. that backstory should be absolutely vital to setting the tone of the work, should change the way the reader interprets the events as they unfold, and should be an essential part of the jigsaw puzzle of your plot that is echoed in the last third of your book.

so based on your stated reasons, i say don,t have one.

Agree with Hugh and Floss. I’ve read a couple books lately — no names, protect the innocent, all that — with Prologues which might as well have been labelled Chapter 1. They were not, except for typography, significantly outside the realm of the main narrative.

If you have a good beginning, why not make it Chapter 1? Italo Calvino used prologue-like segments, but didn’t call them prologues. They were simply where his books began.

That said, a prologue can be effective. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye doesn’t have one prologue, it has two (as I remember it; can’t find a copy).

Do what works. Most of the time, that will be to begin at the beginning of the story — which does not have to accord with linear time.


Hugh, PJS and Floss
Thanks for the feedback.

The story for the whole book is written from a single POV, that of Alexander. I have written it chronologically, starting at an important point (the bullying) to avoid retrospective as when I did that on the first draft, the flow of the book just didn’t feel right. This feels much better overall, but I’ll be judged on the first few chapters when I’m submitting and I don’t know if it gets the story off and running quickly enough.

If I had a prologue, it would be the only chapter in the whole book that would be from a different viewpoint, still in chronological order (something that happens just before the chapter above) but in a different place that does not involve Alexander at the point, but it is the backdrop of the rest of the story.

That’s my reasoning for one, I hope that makes sense, although I still can’t decide.

The general advice so far seems to be no, but no-one has said whether I need a different opening chapter yet. Don’t be too polite guys. I’d rather know. :smiley:

the sacred incantation had almost been used. the words so tantalisingly close, but without the necessary true understanding. as a likeminded friend of mine once said,

[flicks her tail in anticipation]

That’s gone completely over my head Floss.

Floss is an editor who has been known to give feedback on the forum from time to time. A while back she said she would only give feedback to someone who directly invites her to respond. A quick search of her past posts should tell you why… She can be pretty blunt (brutal?), and – as Jaysen has pointed out several times – makes no allowance for the fact that some people write for a hobby.

She’s quoting Pinhead from Hellraiser (thanks, Google), which should give you paws for thought.

You have been warned!

PigFender, thank you for your enlightenment. Floss I have taken PFs advice and looked at your previous reviews. Thank you for your restraint. Consider yourself invited. I appreciate the fact that you’ve warned me to expect hell (again, thanks PF) so I’ll brace myself for the onslaught.
Although it’s my first novel and I had no expectation of anything better. In actual fact, I was kind of expecting a “a prologue is the least of your worries…” so knock yourself out, I appreciate the time spent after all!
(I reserve the right to take back that appreciation if I never recover)

I have never seen floss give bad advice. I would only suggest that hobbyists like me (not intention of selling works) can be a bit tender when those claws meet the flesh and bones of our babies. But if you are writing to make money… PAY ATTENTION TO FLOSS.

I liked it but it seems a bit labored. I do want to know what point dad was making though… I’d read a bit more but I hope it gets less ponderous.

Thanks Jaysen
I’ll have another look at it when I get back off the other end of the book. His father’s point is made in the first paragraph of chapter 2 :slight_smile: .

Too many words aren’t doing any work, or are explaining the self-evident-:

“Lysander stood waiting in the yard of the smallholding where they lived, watching Alexander intently as he came down the track but making no move to go to him.”

Lysander stood in the yard of their smallholding, watching as Alexander came down the track.

Ah okay, I see. The “where they lived” bit is obvious now you point it out. I understand what you’re getting at but I’m not sure the edited version after the comma gets everything across, although I can see mine needs improvement.

Thanks Ahab. :smiley:

the question being posed was… on the basis of this chapter, should your book have a prologue.

my answer is no.

let,s go one step further… what you,ve written here is not chapter 1, it,s a prologue. and to reiterate, you don,t need a prologue. you definitely don,t need two.

i say it,s a prologue because i,m pretty sure that this isn,t where your story starts. this isn,t the action. nor does this feel necessary to me in order to appreciate what,s to come. i don,t know from this section if alex is a mighty hero or an evil supervillain but i do know that a bit of bullying didn,t turn him into either of those things. i know the perceived unfairness of a parent didn,t either. i know this because they,re common things. very very common. we all either were bullied or did bully or know someone who was or did bully at some point. very very few of us know superheroes. it took having his parents murdered in front of him to turn young bruce into batman. anything less than that doesn,t need to delay getting to the meat of the plot.

but here is some good news… your instincts were spot on. you realised it wasn,t working, and that you needed it to be punchier. my advice is to trust your instincts, but always look to solve by seeing what you can strip away first, before you contemplate additions.

just don’t go this far when paring down… somewhere between the two is what you are looking for.
Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 22.34.07.png

Thank you. That explains it perfectly. Interestingly, he does have his father killed in front of him very early. Maybe he is batman!
Hmmm. I need to get him to that situation without having too much of a retrospective on how he got there. When I originally wrote the opening chapters I started with the battle scene, got so far and then stepped back to how he arrived at it, but it didn’t flow right, it was too much of a jerk, so I rewrote it chronologically.
However, I understand that while it is pertinent, it is too ordinary to be very interesting, particularly as an opener, and maybe better as a post battle scene wrangle for Alexander as he tries to make sense of what has happened.
The bullying is something that is mirrored by someone far more vicious and lethal throughout the book, and the reaction of his father is the trigger for how Alexander ends up on a battlefield.

Thank you so much. I need to scratch my melon for a while. :mrgreen:

While i highly recommend anything Floss says be taken second only to mystical writing that appears on a wall, I would offer one thought as a counter…

Consider the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. While not the same genre, the prose is ponderous and very verbose. It would suffer much of the same scratches from Floss that your sample has endured Yet WoT is very successful.

Floss is likely to point out that the genre difference is the key, but then that’s why I do this for a hobby and Floss gets paid…

for every ,rule, there is at least one example of the artist who ignored it to great success. these people are rare. by all means ignore my comments and roll the dice. there are plenty of successful books out there that i wouldn,t have bought.

wheel of time, though… the series soooo long the author died before he finished it. this is what happens if your editor is also your wife.


I personally like WoT and I liked the sample. Much of what I enjoy reading is similar in style but I also know that the norm is lighter and less verbose. I was simply pointing out that exceptions exist. And Jordan’s success with the first 12 or so is NOT mirrored in the mess that is that last volumes. Quite a disappointment that was…