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Jul 22

The Perfect Prologue: Conflict and Setup

Earlier in the day I was given the opportunity to join a writing club. With many on vacation, this  invited new people to test the club out and help raise attendance. Several drafts of various stages were passed out to look over, and a trend began to appear:

 

At least half of the people in the room use prologues in their stories.

 

The reasons from person-to-person varied: “I want to give my main character appeal to my audience”, or “I want to elaborate on the background of my villain”. While these two examples and more are noble causes, many readers and professionals alike agree that prologues are still bad for a story. Prologues often slow down the pace. They can lose sight of the plot. They often bombard the reader with information overload. Any of these things can scare away readers, and if these errors are the only readable text on an Amazon preview, the book becomes doomed.

 

So what makes for a good prologue, if anything? This post will be one of many that address the fundamental issues here.

  •  Conflict

Rather than starting with what the typical prologue should not have, consider something that prologues often lack: conflict. Conflict is plot. Conflict grabs the reader’s attention. Without it, any detail the writer wants to use before the story begins, becomes boring. Here’s an example of a seemingly-descent prologue excerpt without conflict:

 

Mr. Hero stalks the mountain cliffs, gazing for something to kill. A goblin paces back and forth just ten feet below him. Mr. Hero grasps his blade and leaps from his hiding place.

Mr. Hero’s sword slices through the goblin’s arm. Flesh on any goblin is frail, separating at the slightest touch of metal. The neck is next. Mr. Hero beheads the goblin with ease. The head rolls down the dirt hill while the body tilts to its final rest. Mr. Hero nods, scratching the rugged whiskers on his chin. He checks the goblin’s pouch for loot.

Fifty gold, plus a nice leather pouch. Victory is his.

 

This excerpt has action, and quite a bit. The motion of a sword slicing through flesh. The beheading of the goblin. The goblin’s detailed death. Loot grabbed. Where’s the conflict? Nowhere. The fight was very easy. No motive for Mr. Hero other than gold. His reward was good. A small interruption about the weakness of goblins and his hairy chin. At best, this excerpt may belong in a chapter somewhere. If the whole prologue goes this way, readers will move onto the next book. Now imagine replacing this action-filled prologue with details on Elven politics. Ouch.

 

Can this section be improved to show conflict? Absolutely!

 

Mr. Hero stalks the mountain cliffs. His mind gazes back to the hungry mouths of his clan’s children. Without successful meat or gold to buy food, some of the children will not make it past dawn.

A goblin, with a full leather pouch on its waist, paces back and forth just ten feet below. Mr. Hero wastes no more time, leaping from his hiding place towards the goblin. His sword slices through a frail arm, and finishes with a swift beheading. He wants to gloat about this easy fight, but refuses to make his family wait longer.

The pouch is full of gold as he hoped: 50 pieces ontop of the fine leather. Mr. Hero’s clan will feast for a week on such findings.

 

Notice in this second variation, Mr. Hero has motivation to hunt: his clansmen and the starving children. The only thing standing in the way of his goal, is a careless goblin that roams about in the mountains.  Even though the fight is still easy, he cannot afford to lose. The reader has more reason to be interested in this story.

  •  The Setup

The next thing a prologue needs is setup into the book’s true beginning, chapter one. Somehow, Mr. Hero needs to tie the book to its setting and plot. In the first example, without any real substance, Mr. Hero has no good options for himself. His only setup is his victory over the goblin, so what will chapter 1 be about? His lust to slay idiotic creatures? How strong and amazing he is? His plans for his next kill? Ontop of making him an unlikable character, nothing helps setup a good plot. Mr. Hero has to do that on his own. Somehow.

In the second instance, thanks to the clear conflict, easy transitions are possible. Now for the setup. Perhaps Mr. Hero returns home and find his clan’s village was burned to the ground in his absence. Mr. Hero can search for those who killed his family. What if, after bringing the gold home, his clan leader takes the money and squanders it on rum? Now the story begins with Mr. Hero fighting the leadership while trying to feed the starving kids at the same time. There are a number of ways to roll the setup from here. This prologue has a much better chance at success than the average one.

 

The premise in these examples is basic, but nothing conflict and setup cannot fix. If these two elements cannot save your prologue, try starting over or scratching it altogether. Prologues aren’t for everyone, or for every story. More to come. For now, it’s time to get back to writing.