Should You Wave Your Prologue Goodbye? (When Prologues Work and When They Don’t)

Does your book-in-progress have a prologue? If so, that might be a problem. According to the dubious wisdom of the blogosphere and the crotchety advice of literary agents who see too many duds in the slush pile, prologues are frowned upon. Agent Kimiko Nakamura wrote in Writer’s Digest that “almost every agent agrees that poorly executed prologues are the quickest route back to slushville. Prologues reflexively cause agents to skip to Chapter 1 without a look back.”

With warnings like that one, it’s no wonder writers cut their prologue for fear of ending up in the trash folder. As a freelance book editor, though, I’ve seen writers alter the strongest parts of their manuscript because of a one-size-fits-all decree they’ve read on an agent’s (or another writer’s) blog. By deleting your prologue, you might be deleting the best part of your book—the part of your book, even, that would get an agent to request more pages.

So what makes a good prologue good, and a bad prologue bad? I’ll delve into detailed examples below, but first, here are a few rules of thumb.

Good Prologues Oftentimes…

… Occur in a different time and place than the rest of the book. (But they shouldn’t be used as information dumps for backstory. Details about past events should be integrated throughout the novel via exposition, dialogue, or a character’s inner thoughts.)

 … Showcase a narrative perspective that diverges from the rest of the book. (An omniscient prologue, for example, in a third-person limited novel.)

… Are written in a different tone than the rest of the book. (Heightened prose if the book’s prose is simple; minimalist if the book’s prose is florid.)

… Provide key information that the novel’s primary narrator doesn’t know about. (Again, though, this should be a limited, strategic piece of information; prologues shouldn’t be used as information dumps.)

Bad Prologues Are Generally…

… Conspicuous information dumps for information and backstory. (Yeah, this happens a lot.)

… Written as exposition rather than as a compelling scene/s. (Prolonged exposition is a sign that your prologue is an information dump.)

… Written in the same point-of-view or narrative perspective as the rest of the book.

… Written in a melodramatic tone. (This often corresponds to a scene that’s a failed hook.)

…. Focused on a dramatic scene that doesn’t end up connecting in an interesting way with the rest of the book.

… Written after the rest of the book was finished because the writer worried that Chapter 1 wasn’t good or didn’t have an enticing hook. (It’s better to work on fixing Chapter 1.)

Prologues as a Whisper to Your Reader

Author Bharti Kirchner wrote an excellent article for The Writer magazine in which she explains that a prologue, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy novels, “can provide readers with a basic understanding of the setting and culture of an alternate universe before the story begins.” Consider the prologue of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. In it, three men of the Night’s Watch —a military group guarding a great northern wall — search the wilderness for eight dead bodies. As the three men discuss what killed these people — did they freeze to death? — the reader is overhearing their conversation, thereby learning all sorts of tidbits about Martin’s fictional world.

After the men discover that the bodies are missing, they’re attacked by a group of mysterious creatures. One of the Night’s Watch men, Will, watches as a terrifying shadow confronts Royce, his Night’s Watch compatriot:

A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. It stood in front of Royce. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees.

Will then witnesses an event that will become pivotal to the Game of Thrones universe for five books to come (and counting). He sees that Royce doesn’t stand a chance in fighting this fearsome apparition because its weapon causes Royce’s sword to shatter:

A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles… He [Will] found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning.

This prologue notwithstanding, Game of Thrones is written in the close third-person, with each chapter told from the point-of-view of a different main character. At the book’s outset, none of these characters have seen an “Other,” as these creatures are called, so Martin used his prologue to establish a delicious, suspenseful case of dramatic irony: The reader knows that the Others are real, but the book’s narrators don’t. In an interview with The Writerauthor Jennie Shortridge described this situation well: “I like to read prologues because I know the author is whispering a secret to me,” she said.

Many newbie writers withhold information from the reader for too long in an attempt to create suspense. But why should a reader care about a mystery if they don’t even know its parameters? In Game of Thrones, Martin provides just enough information to make the reader terrified of the White Walkers (let’s just drop this “Others” nonsense), but little enough to let the reader join the book’s characters in solving the myriad mysteries surrounding them.

Prologues That Are Actually Chapter Ones (And Chapter Ones That Are Actually Prologues)

As an editor, I often notice that the first 50 pages of a manuscript contain a handful of sections that could each be the book’s first page. The author didn’t know where to begin, so instead of choosing a beginning, they chose two or three, and then struggled with how to sequence them. I call these “false starts,” and they’re usually well-written because the author imagined each as the grandiose opening sequence. These paragraphs stand out because they don’t integrate well with the surrounding material.

A clumsy solution to this multiplicity of false starts is to make one of them the prologue. In an interview forThe Writer, author Jennie Shortridge said that “the most common mistake I see when writers try to use prologues is that they’re simply writing Chapter 1 and calling it a prologue.”

While a good prologue stands apart from the rest of the story — taking place in a different time, or told from a different point-of-view — an unnecessary prologue is often told by the same narrator, and written in the same style, as the rest of the book. Even if well-written, this type of prologue might turn an agent off because it indicates that the author simply couldn’t figure out how to integrate the prologue’s material somewhere else. “They [prologues] are sorely overused and seem like a cheap device,” literary agent Andrea Hurst told The Writer. “Better for writers to be creative—come up with ways around them and start the novel with a great first chapter.”

The Book Thief is an example of a prologue that’s good, but might as well have been called Chapter 1. In it, the book’s omniscient narrator, Death Himself (a grim reaper type figure), tells the reader about the book’s protagonist, a girl who he calls the book thief. He (Death) informs the reader that terrible things will happen in this girl’s future, and Chapter 1 begins by detailing the first of these terrible things.

Alluding to future (or past) events in an omniscient voice is classic prologue material, but in this particular case, it turns out that the entire book is narrated by this glib Death guy, and he oftentimes alludes coyly to future events. The Book Thief’s prologue could easily have been the the first chapter. The litmus test is to simply imagine that the prologue is labeled “Chapter 1,” and that the current Chapter 1 is labeled “Chapter 2.” If everything still makes sense (or reads even better, as might be the case), then you probably have a chapter, not a prologue.

We also see Chapter Ones that would have made great prologues. The first Harry Potter book is a perfect example. Remember that opening scene where Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, and Hagrid bring baby Harry to his aunt and uncle’s doorstep? That scene conspicuously stands apart from the rest of the book, which is mostly told from the limited perspective of 10-year-old Harry. In the opening, though, an omniscient narrator holds the reigns, and we glimpse the inner thoughts of Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid, and Harry’s aunt and uncle.

Yet that opening is labeled Chapter One. The commencement of Harry Potter’s POV starts with Chapter Two, and Chapter Two begins with a sentence that effectively bridges the 10-year gap between the two chapters: “Nearly ten years had passed since the Dursleys had woken up to find their nephew on the front step, but Privet Drive had hardly changed at all.”

This little quark in one of the world’s most widely-read books reminds us that “chapter” and “prologue” are just labels, after all, and while there are widely-recognized formats for which label correspond to which narrative tactic, authors sidestep the rules all the time. In his masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez evaded the issue altogether by using unlabeled breaks between chunks of text rather than parts and chapters. Marquez’ unique decision reminds us that whatever the label, those spaces of white between sections do seem to be vitally important. Whatever the case, most remember the opening to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as being a prologue; indeed, a quick Google search revealed bloggers using it as an example of an effective prologue.

Another Chapter One that’s really a prologue is the first chapter of Fight Club, where Edward Norton, errrr, the book’s unnamed protagonist holds a gun to his throat/Tyler Durden’s throat. Who knows, maybe someone told both Chuck Palahniuk and J.K. Rowling that literary agents don’t like prologues, so they slapped on a Chapter One.

So… Should I Keep My Prologue?

If you’ve carefully considered the components of a bad prologue and are still convinced that yours is good, go ahead and keep it if you’re planning to self-publish. If you’re querying agents, you can tailor your strategy query-by-query. If an agent has specified that they don’t like prologues, you should query without it, or make your prologue the first chapter instead—absolutely don’t this, though, if changing the prologue to “Chapter 1” creates a bad transition into Chapter 2. If you don’t know an agent’s stance toward prologues, the safer bet might still be to cut the prologue since prologue hostility seems widespread.

That being said, agents dislike prologues only because they’ve read so many bad ones. It takes only one sentence to recognize good writing, so if your prologue has a good start, the agent will keep reading. A friend of mine received offers from two agents (and requests for full reads from many more) based on a submission that included a prologue—a very good prologue. In the end, it’s the writing that counts, and they’re not just saying that.

Katherine Don is a journalist and author or co-author of eight nonfiction books, including Power of the Dog from St. Martin’s Press, Armchair Reader: The Book of Myths and Misconceptions from Publications International, and The Story of Harper Lee, a YA biography of Harper Lee from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. Katherine’s essays and journalism have appeared at Salon, The Atlantic online, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a regular contributor at and Her first screenplay, a short film that she co-wrote with a friend, was the first-place winner in the screenwriting category at the 2014 Los Angeles Movie Awards. Katherine holds a bachelor’s degree in biological anthropology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in literary journalism from NYU.


Genres of interest: Narrative nonfiction, academic works, books of journalism, essay collections, memoir, health/wellness, book proposals, and other nonfiction book projects.

Available for: Manuscript critiques, content editing, developmental editing, query letter editing, and private writing coaching.

Who Hires a Book Editor?

“Who hires a book editor?” was my question when I joined Yellow Bird and another online editing company in 2014. I had spent 23 years writing and editing for large, traditional publishing companies before getting into the online, edit-for-anybody business.

Many authors in search of an editor are aspiring novelists, and the quality of their writing varies dramatically. Some are professional level. Others are great storytellers but their grammar is a disaster—or vice versa. I’m amazed by the number of fantasy and sci-fi submissions. Some of these books are in excess of 200,000 words, with the author often asserting that his or her initial book is the first of a trilogy. I edited one author who penned a 130,000-word fantasy novel and said it was the first book of a three-trilogy set! What’s 9 x 130,000?

I have edited both fiction and nonfiction over the last two years, and I’ve been blown away by the variety of the subject matter. These are some of the online nonfiction submissions I’ve edited:

  • Brennan, a special-ops soldier, wrote about his experiences in Iraq—about his desire to kill and how fellow soldiers exploded into pink mist before his eyes. Derek, a jaded platoon medic, told Brennan: “That’s why we’re dying. People want training and the military to be all soft and cuddly but then wonder why their overweight, television-addicted little pussy got his arms blown off because he wasn’t looking around properly because he has the attention span of a hummingbird.”
  • Jeff, a former Hollywood prostitute and Colt Studios model, wrote about the famous gay men he slept with, including Elton John!
  • Keena grew up in the African bush as the daughter of paleontologists. Her diaries discussed her life-and-death adventures with lions, hippos, and crazy baboons…and the scariest creatures of all: junior high girls when she returned to suburban Philadelphia.
  • Rex penned a biography of fellow Vietnam War veteran Ace Cozzalio, an eccentric, heroic helicopter pilot who always wore an 1800s cavalry uniform, complete with white hat and saber.
  • Tina was raised by a coldhearted mother who adopted (basically stole) Tina’s two children and prevented her from seeing them for 15 years.
  • Author Damon reminded me of a black Forest Gump. He was confined to juvenile detention simply because his father wanted him to be more disciplined; was unjustifiably bullied by cops on the streets of L.A.; lived through the Watts riot of 1965; and explored drugs in Vietnam, which caused him to attack his officer.
  • David, who created the live play-by-play technology that you see on and, described his court battles with Major League Baseball, which tried to use its legal muscle to invalidate his patents.
  • Tana was looking for a roommate after her divorce. She found a seemingly nice fellow who owned a house in Florida who agreed to rent her a room…then turned psycho and wouldn’t let her leave the house!

What’s your story?

What Spell-Checkers Don’t Catch

By Yellow Bird Editor David Aretha

Before I edit a manuscript, I always inform the author that I’ll be checking the text for spelling. “That’s something you can skip,” one author told me. “I already ran it through the spell-checker.”

Ah, yes, the infallible spell-checker, invented in the 1970s and honed to perfection over the decades by multi-billion-dollar software companies. Given that a flash drive the size of a Bic lighter can safely store ten thousand book manuscripts, surely the spell-checker is bullet-proof when it comes to recognizing all the words in the dictionary.

Well, it isn’t. For example, it didn’t catch multi-billion and bullet-proof in the previous paragraph, which should be multibillion and bulletproof.

Unfortunately, the spell-checker is about as effective as this winter’s flu virus. It catches simple words and correctly leaves misspelled ones underlined in red, but it sheepishly tiptoes out of the room whenever it comes to certain compound words.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the word bible that most book publishers follow, loves to smash compound words together. According to this dictionary (and others), many words that we think are open compounds or hyphenated compounds are actually closed compounds. According to Merriam-Webster,boarding house—which slides through the spell-checker unscathed—is actually boardinghouse. The spell-checker will give the green light to first-hand, even though M-W spells it firsthand. When authors look at my edited manuscript, they are often surprised to see that I changed the spellings of dozens of their compound words in order to adhere to Merriam-Webster.

If you’re looking to self-publish without hiring a professional editor—or you want to appear as professional as possible when you submit your manuscript to a publisher—you should scroll through M-W and get a sense of all the smushed-together compound words. You’ll find stomachacheschoolteacher, andtransatlantic.

I have long come to the realization that I should scrutinize all hyphenated and open compound words. If I think such words have even a remote chance of being closed compounds, I drop them into the search box of Very often, my hunch is correct.

Below are some surprising closed compound words, according to the publishing world’s favorite dictionary. You don’t need to memorize these spellings, but I suggest you take two minutes to study the patterns. You’ll see, for example, that counter- and -up words may not always have a hyphen, and that the spellings of waitperson and congressperson indicate that other job+person words are also closed compounds.














































































































Don’t Give Me That Look! How to Improve the Emotional Cues in Your Manuscript

I’ve written blog posts about gesture before, but this particular one has been keeping me up at night! As I am about to embark on revisions for my upcoming novel (forthcoming in 2016), I keep thinking about how to capture the “looks” between two characters. It’s common to find “looks” within a manuscript. After all, how often does one character look or “gaze” at another in a moment of dramatic or even romantictension. Ooh La La!

I have a challenge for you, dear reader! Go to the story you’re working on, open the file, and do a word search. Find any incarnation of the word “look/looks/looking.”

Hurts, doesn’t it? YIKES.

In my WIP right now, I have 176 “looks.” I’m not sure how horrible that is as of yet because I’m still editing, but I know that I tend to overuse “looks” so I thought I would share some of my writing/revision process.

I keep wondering what it is that I hope to elicit from “a look” between characters. In cinema, we have the advantage of various zoomed in shots, savvy editing, camera angels, etc. On film, a look between two characters can say so much more than a line of dialogue ever could. Yet, in fiction, we have the hefty job of creating the cinematic experience in the mind of our readers. We need to create the camera angles and trigger an emotional response with our words.

We also need to ensure that a look will show us something about our characters and their world instead of just telling the readers that eyes are meeting. We can’t assume that the reader is going to understand what is being unsaid between two characters. It is up to us, the writers, to make the gaze mean more. As I revise and as you revise, I hope that these three tactics will help you make the most out of this kind of unspoken communication.

THREE WAYS TO MAKE “A LOOK” WORK HARDER (AKA I am trying to take my own advice):

1. Make sure that the look reveals something important/unknown about your character.

Who are the two people looking at one another? Why is the look important? If two characters make eye contact that doesn’t illuminate something about the characters or their relationship, then we don’t need it.

Now, I’m not saying that every single look in a manuscript has to carry weight. Generally, when you have two characters in a scene together and one looks at the other, you need to consider what is it you are trying to communicate. Here’s an example from my current WIP:

“Where are you going?” Mr. Hall says.

“You do what you want,” I say to Lila who meets my eyes and then quickly looks away. “Take the role. It’s yours. I don’t want any part of this.”

What I am trying to show there is that Lila is self-righteous. She’s hurt my character badly, but doesn’t want to make eye contact because she’s a jerk. Have I shown that? Nope. I need to make the moment work harder so that the reader understands Lila’s character through that shared gaze.

I don’t know if this is how I’ll ultimately end up revising but I could try something like this:

“Where are you going?” Mr. Hall says.

“You do what you want,” I say to Lila who snaps at her gum, eyes to her cell phone, and with a casual flip of her hand, tosses her hair over her shoulder. I’ve never hated the smell of bubble gum so much in my life. “Take the role,” I say to her smacking jaw. “It’s yours. I don’t want any part of this.”

I’ve added action, I’ve made Lila gesture differently, revealing her indifference and also employed sensory detail so that we know how my character feels about Lila’s behavior.

2. The “look”” needs to either be the focal point of the scene or it needs to push the plot forward in some way. Again, not every single “look” can matter but the ones that do should earn their place within the narrative.

Ask yourself: What can the look between your two characters change/reveal? If the answer is nothing, then think deeper and reveal the information between them in a new or varied away. This leads me to my last suggestion.

3. Deepen the gesture.  Is “looking” the only way that people interact with one another? No way!

Consider the emotional moment that is occurring between these two characters. Perhaps all of these “looks” are really a roadmap for you to go back and deepen the relationships between these two characters when you are ready to revise. As you draft, leave all the “looks” in as placeholders, but definitely go back.

When you do, ask yourself what other ways these two characters can interact? Sensory detail? Touch? Food? Action/Reaction? What is the look standing in for? What do your characters want to say?

Well, that’s it for me! I hope that I’ve illuminated some tactics to try to deepen the way your characters inhabit the pages of your story!

I wish I could go on and on about this! In fact, I probably could.

An Introduction to Track Changes


Track Changes is the language of editors. As a writer, you need to speak it because, sooner or later, you will have to deal with it. This post is an introduction to the Track Changesfeature in Microsoft Word. I am a PC person, so I will be referring to how it works in the Windows operating system. If you’re one of those Mac people, then this post should still be helpful, although you may have to do some translating. (For context, here are links to two Youtube videos by Terence Jorgensen–one for PCone for Mac–that I think you’ll find useful.)

In my version of Word (2010), there’s a row of tabs across the top of the document window. If you click onReview (2nd from the right), you’ll see the editing tool bar appear (replacing whichever one you were in before, probably Home). You’ll also see it’s divided up into sections from left to right (labels along the bottom): ProofingLanguageCommentsTrackingChangesCompare, and Protect. I’ll just be looking at the buttons in the CommentsTracking, and Changes sections.

First off, in the Tracking section, you’ll see a button labelled Track Changes. Hover your cursor over it and you’ll see that either the top or bottom half turns yellow. That’s because it’s a split button: click on the top half (with the page and pencil icon) and you toggle the Track Changes feature on or off for the entire document. If you click on that part, both halves turn yellow signifying that Track Changes is on.

Click on just the bottom half and you get a dropdown menu allowing you to modify the Track Changessettings. The first option on this dropdown menu is merely a duplicate Track Changes toggle switch. Below it is the Change Tracking Options feature. This opens a window where you can customize whatTrack Changes looks like. Feel free to play around here a bit and get to know your options. Jorgensen does a great job explaining this part in his videos, so go there if you want to learn more about that. I mostly just use the default settings because they work fine for me.


The third and final choice on the Change Tracking Options menu deals with the user name. This is useful when you have multiple editors or authors working on a document. Or if you use a pen name or alias. To use this feature just enter the appropriate user name and initials in the boxes under Personalize Your Copy of Microsoft Word and click the Okay button at the bottom right. Keep in mind that doing this changes the author name for everything you do in Word from that moment forward. It’s not specific to the document you’re working on. So be sure it’s reset to the appropriate name after you’re done.

Next to the Track Changes button(s) you’ll see a stack of three buttons with little down-pointing arrows next to them: Final: Show MarkupShow Markup, and Reviewing Pane. Click on any of these to get their dropdown menus. Starting at the top, click on Final: Show Markup to see your four choices for viewing your document. These allow you to compare and contrast your original draft with your “final” draft (the one that has the changes in it).

The middle button, Show Markup, allows you to choose what changes, including comments, you see on the screen. Simply check or uncheck the boxes to customize what changes are highlighted. I like to keep them all in view.

And rounding out the bottom comes the Reviewing Pane button. Click on the left side where the words are and you get a list of all the changes that have been made. This can be useful when trying to decipher and navigate a heavily edited page. If you click on the little down-pointing arrow section of the Reviewing Panebutton, you can select a vertical or horizontal layout for your list of changes and comments.

Next, let’s move on to the mechanics of making changes and comments. Again, the videos give a nice visual of what editing and commenting looks like.

To make a comment in the margins of a document (as opposed to an actual change), simply click on the New Comment button in the Comments section of the tool bar (just to the left of the Tracking section). The three buttons to the right of New Comment (DeletePrevious,Next) remain grayed out and unusable until the document actually contains comments. Once you start commenting they “light up” and activate. They’re mostly self-explanatory, except Delete is a split button. Click on the down-pointing arrow and you’ll get a drop down menu that lets you choose to cut the comment you currently have highlighted, all comments shown (I have no idea what this does or even means; it’s always grayed out as far as I can tell), or all the comments in the document.

On the other side of the Tracking section, you’ll findChanges. This section contains the buttons you’ll use the most as a writer receiving feedback. Again, these are pretty self-explanatory, except to note that both Acceptand Reject are split buttons with tiny dropdown menus giving you more options.

There are two points the videos don’t touch on that I want to close with. First, if you right-click on a change or comment in the body of the document, a small window will pop-up. In there you’ll see Accept and Reject buttons. This is just another way to navigate the changes and comments. And lastly, never forget the Undo button in the very upper left corner next to the floppy disc (Save) icon. You can always hit that and make whatever horrible mistake you just made go away.

Happy revising!