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Monday, June 25, 2018

How Structure Affects Pacing

Last week I talked about 8 Common Problems with Pacing and discussed pacing overall. Today I'm going to get more technical and talk about how structure affects pacing, and how and when to use structure to speed up or slow down, and then follow up with an example.

How fast and how slow you go in a chapter, scene, or paragraph depends on the content, story, and the effect you want the reader to experience. 

Speed Up


Speed up when you want a moment to feel more intense, snappy, energetic, or even the obvious one, quick.

Often (not always) you want to speed up moments of action, especially fights. Intense scenes, quick thinking, and arguments can work well too.


Speed up the story in these ways.

Shorten - Shorten the chapter, scene, paragraphs, sentences, or even words. This makes the moment feel faster (for obvious reasons).

Short Syllables - Use words that have few syllables. Choose the word "dance" over "promenade," for example.

Familiar > Unusual - Choose words and concepts that are more familiar or common to the audience. For example, choose "guess" instead of "hypothesize."

Simple > Complex - Similarly, choose words and concepts that are simpler. The more technical you get, the more the audience needs to slow down and digest.

The field that Steve stumbled upon was prodigiously verdigris with anthophilia circumnavigating every inflorescence.


The field that Steve stumbled upon was largely green with a love of flowers sailing around every floral arrangement.

Use More Telling - Telling is faster than showing. Tell what's happening when a quick pace is absolutely needed. Showing always takes more time.

Note: Often beginner writers will write action blow-by-blow, which might work in some entertainment mediums, but can be boring in the writing medium. It slows the pacing down, especially if the action is too complicated and technical. Sure, some writers know how to break this rule well, but as a generality, you usually don't want to write blow-by-blow passages. Instead, simplify and shorten the moment, and make sure to infuse it with your character's thoughts and emotions.

Note: Fast doesn't mean sloppy.

Slow Down


Slow down to create a more dramatic effect; to take time to be more serious, weighty, intellectual, technical, or leisurely; to give the audience important details; and to let them catch their breath and digest.


You would think that slowing down would be most effective by doing everything opposite of what it says above and some of that is true, but it depends on the situation. Yes, writing longer sentences will help slow a passage down, but if you simply do the opposite of everything listed above, you can easily run into The Purple Prose problem.

Often the best way to slow down is to add more showing, details, and/or concepts.

It's like watching slow motion in a movie. The audience can see more detail. We get specific shots. Time itself seems to slow or even stop.

Slowing down in a story can work in the same way.

Notice how this moment (from an action scene) in Harry Potter slows down by getting more specific and more detailed. Up to this point there has been fighting and action, and then something important happens, so it slows down and gets detailed.

It seemed to take Sirius an age to fall. His body curved in a graceful arc as he sank backward through the ragged veil hanging from the arch.

And Harry saw the look of mingled fear and surprise on his godfather's, wasted, once-handsome face as he fell through the ancient doorway and disappeared behind the veil, which fluttered for a moment as though in a high wind, then fell back into place.

But here's the thing about slowing pacing way down for dramatic effect, and an aspect that I see writers get a bit mixed up on a lot. Do not try to slow it down by repeating the same information the same way or even the exact same information in the same way.

That doesn't slow the pacing, it positively kills it to a dead, annoying stop. Instead, add more ideas, images, and concepts, as I explained in more detail in the second half of this article here.  (I'll also touch more on this in the example below).

Sometimes you can slow down in a novel simply by the content of the scene. Two characters trying to figure out what just happened through a dialogue exchange will help the audience digest it themselves and catch their breath.

If there is something complicated the audience needs to understand, you may need to slow down, just a bit. (Just make sure it doesn't turn into an info-dump.)

Example: Hamilton

The duels in Hamilton are a perfect example of when to speed up and when to slow down, and the effects of each.

The first duel has what I'll call an establishing, even pace. It explains to the audience how duels work, but in an even enough pace so that it doesn't feel like a boring info-dump (the information is balanced by the quickness of the actual music.)

Notice the song is 1:47

In the second duel, the pacing is quick and the duel itself is only about 20 seconds long (starting at 2:30) . We understand how duels work now. Not only do we not need them re-explained, but because it's so short, it emphasizes the speed at which the action happens, and likewise emphasizes how quick life can change or be taken.

As another note, notice that one of the shooters only waits until seven to shoot instead of ten. (I'm not sure if this is historically what actually happened or just an artistic choice.) This increases the speed even more.

The final duel is more important and dramatic, and it slows waaaaaay down. In fact, you get like an entire song as the bullet is coming toward Hamilton (notice this duel is about 4:30 minutes long).

Now, imagine for a second if  Miranda wrote that song and it really did just sing literally about a bullet coming closer to Hamilton, over and over, for an entire song. It doesn't work. It's boring. It feels slow. It feels melodramatic.

Yet this is the mistake I see writers make when trying to heighten drama by slowing pacing. It's one of the aspects of purple prose that new writers slip into. They understand that a "slow-motion" moment can make the scene more dramatic, but all they literally do is slow down the bullet--they repeat the same information over and over, with or without different words. But, as I talk about in that post, it's the ideas, images, and concepts that are important.

So when the bullet is coming towards Hamilton, it becomes dramatic and significant because of all the culminating ideas, images, and concepts within that moment. It ties back to everything--his childhood, his family, his political journey, and perhaps most importantly the theme--how he will be remembered. It resonates with everything that's been established and builds off it for more power (both in content and in the actual music).

When you need to slow down for a dramatic moment, you do the same thing.

How much you slow down depends on how much drama the moment merits. In this Hamilton example, this is the climax of the story, so it merits a lot of attention to fulfill its significance. But if you tried to slow that much down elsewhere, it might come across as melodramatic because it's more than the moment deserves. It hasn't gotten the same level of build up. It's not as important.

So, make the moment dramatic by getting detailed, but make it more dramatic by adding more concepts and resonating with what came before. Everything should either be significant or contribute to the significance of whatever you are slowing down.

Then, notice also in this example how everything else seems to stop, including the music itself. It's quiet. It's only Hamilton and the bullet. All the focus is on that moment, nothing else detracting from it.

Finally, notice how something similar happens again with Burr. We get details. There's wailing in the street. He's getting a drink. He's told he "better hide." The music isn't fast and snappy, it's slower.

And that, my friends, is pacing according to Hamilton.

Monday, June 18, 2018

8 Common Pacing Problems

"Pacing" refers  to how fast or slow a scene, chapter, or overall novel is relayed to the audience. It essentially refers to the speed of the story. Some stories have more of a leisurely pace. Others may be fast-paced. In most stories, you will have slower paced scenes and faster paced scenes. When to use what depends on the story you are telling, but one thing is clear, pacing can have problems just like any other writing element.

When I started working in this industry, I figured that problems with pacing mainly related to how many words were being used to convey something--too much or too little. And surely (I thought) fixing slow pacing meant we should always "cut to the chase" (as they would say when making movies in Hollywood), or if it was too fast, we needed to add words to slow it down, but I soon learned that pacing has a lot more layers to it than that, and while that's not always a wrong way to deal with pacing . . . it's more of a beginner's way.

And even then, it sometimes doesn't fix the problem.

Sometimes the problem with pacing is that it's too "fast," but almost always, I've found for the majority of writers, the problem is that it's too "slow." (Why are these terms in quotes? Because they may not necessarily deal with strictly adding or cutting words to change reading speeds.)

But here are some of the reoccurring problems I've discovered and how to fix them.

Problem 1: Not Enough Potential Conflicts To Feed Enough Tension

Pacing actually has a lot to do with tension. And tension and conflict are two different things. However, they work together, because tension is the anticipation or potential for conflict to happen. Conflict is the actual problem happening.

Dealing with one conflict (or potential conflict) at a time is rarely enough to hold the audience through a whole story. Sure, in some scenes, there may be one overarching conflict, but there should be multiple types of conflict--however small, however subtle--in each scene. It might be the viewpoint character having an inner conflict about how to deal with the overarching conflict. It might be the protagonist and his best friend having some tension between them--a disagreement that wants to surface. It might the heroine worrying she won't get through the desert without dying from dehydration, while the main conflict is trying to rescue her sister from some outlaws. But in a scene, there should almost always be multiple potential conflicts in order to create tension (which is the anticipation of conflict).

Sometimes you can have multiple important conflicts at once. Other times you only need small, tiny micro-tensions.

But because tension is often so important to pacing, you need enough of it to pull it tight. Lack of potential conflicts and tension often mean the pacing feels too slow and boring. So brainstorm how to add more, even if they are subtle.

Note: In some cases, rather than adding tension, you can add intrigue, or something intellectually stimulating, or make wonderful promises to the reader, or appeal to particular emotions more powerfully, but usually you should still have potential for more than one conflict.

Problem 2: No Hooks

Someday I'm going to do a post just on hooks, but today is not yet that day. Hooks can relate a lot to tension and even everything in that "Note" above. They can often relate to how those potentials are actually written or addressed on the page. It's sort of what I talk about in this post "Mastering Stylistic Tension"

Often (not always) hooks work by giving the audience something to dread or hope for. They may offer promises (at the line level). Like the note above, they may be intriguing and intellectually stimulating. They may promise if the reader keeps reading, they'll experience a particular emotion.

Sometimes the writer has the right concepts and content for the scene, but there aren't any lines that are actually written in a hooking way. Work on mastering hooks to keep the pacing tight.

Problem 3: No Subtext

I was once editing a manuscript that had all the right beats and emotional draws and even the plotting was turning out to be pretty good. But it felt slow and boring. As I paid attention, I discovered it was because it had next to no subtext, and therefore, as a reader, I wasn't intellectually invested in understanding and figuring out the text, and though the emotion was on the page, I didn't feel it because it was so direct.

In this case, subtext needs to be understood, mastered, and added. You can study all about subtext and how to write it here.

Problem 4: Showing AND Telling

Another problem happens when the writer explains everything and doesn't trust the audience to "get it." They might "show" something and then write sentences or paragraphs "telling" the audience what they already put together. They don't need the author to spell out that Suzy loves Donald--they saw their interactions, and it was clear that Suzy loves Donald, so to repeat that with a long explanation slows the pacing down. If you are going to tell about it after showing it, the telling needs to add new information and value and meaning, not just restate what the audience already knows.

You can learn more about showing and telling in this post: Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Show, don't Tell."

Problem 5:  The Audience comes to the Right (Obvious) Conclusion Long Before the Characters

This is not to be confused with suspense, where the audience knows both what the protagonist and antagonist plan to do and are anticipating, sitting on the edge of their seat, wondering how that's going to play out.

This is often a problem of using a common, overused trope without changing it in any way. One of the most common ones is the "prophecy" story line, where the protagonist discovers there is a prophecy about him defeating the antagonist, but even though the audience has seen this story line a dozen times, the author still writes it as if it were the first. They might make the prophecy a main focus in the plot, then drag it out so that the protagonist discovers the "shocking" truth at the climax. (This isn't to say you can never use any kind of cliche in your writing. You can, but you need to do it right.)

If the audience has figured something out, and the characters are still acting like it's a mystery for pages longer, it's going to slow down the pacing.

Problem 6: Misunderstanding What's Significant 

Sometimes the writer spends too much time (or words) on things that don't merit that kind of attention. Other time they may not spend enough on what deserves more. They are misunderstanding what is significant in the story.

The more words you spend talking about something, the more the weight of the story shifts in that direction. If you are putting a lot of "weight" where it doesn't belong, it can make the story feel too slow. If you are skipping over things that deserve more weight, the pacing may feel too fast in those spots.

This is a case where adding and cutting words can be the solution to your pacing problem. Just make sure in adding, you aren't simply repeating the same thing, but expanding or deepening the subject.

More on this and how it actually works here. And more on discerning what's significant here.

Problem 7: Misunderstanding What the Target Audience Came for and/or Cares About

Imagine a Jurassic movie where the main plot centered on two characters working at the theme park falling in love, with no dino terror until the end.

For most people who go to that movie, it's going to feel slow. Really slow. They'll walk out at after and say, "Nothing happened until the end!"

This is one of the reasons it's important to keep your target audience in mind. It's also worth keeping in mind that you can't please everyone. Someone who likes a lot of magical action may not actually like Harry Potter, which is more of a slice-of-life magic mystery. Why is your target reader reading your book? Are you delivering on what was promised?

This can happen on a small scale. For example, when editing last week, I came across some nice descriptions of a side character, and while well written, realized the audience doesn't care enough about that character to get that much description in that moment. They care about what's about to be revealed in the plot.

Putting in what your audience doesn't really care about slows the pacing down in all the wrong ways. Speeding over something your audience picked the book up for can make pacing seem too fast.

Problem 8: Not Enough Variety

Hitting the same story element over and over doesn't make it more powerful, it makes it less. And in the worst-case scenario, it makes it not only boring, but annoying. Contrast and variety make a good story.

Comedies that only try to be funny won't hold an audience for long. It's why comedy movies are short and usually have a life lesson weaved in. If it's always trying to be funny, it's not funny. It will start to feel long and slow and bloated. Make sure your story is balanced out. If it's funny, weave in something serious. If it's about love, weave in some heartache. If it's about dinosaurs terrorizing people, weave in moments of dinosaurs looking beautiful and amazing.

Variety strengthens pacing.


The thing with pacing is that I think many writers eventually learn it intuitively. Often we can tell when pacing is off and sometimes even what to do to fix it, before we can consciously explain what's going on. This is one of the reasons why reading both published and unpublished fiction can be really helpful, because your subconscious will gain a better sense of pacing if you consciously can't put it to words.

I remember working on a short story in college, and cutting lines for pacing. I liked the lines, and they weren't bad, but I just knew that it would make the pacing better, even if I couldn't explain why.

Hopefully, though, this post will help by jump-starting the conscious part of your mind on what to watch for.

On Cutting

One of the reasons cutting is a good beginner's tool is because usually beginners write too much about the less significant stuff anyway, and you can cut and cut and it brings back tension into the story because there is less space between each tension line, each hook, and each moment of conflict. Therefore, you are getting more of all that on a page and condensing the story to the most significant, meaningful components.

More on Pacing

Today I talked about the overall problems of pacing, but you can break pacing down in more structural ways: chapters, scenes, sentences. Next time I'll talk about how structure affects pacing and how to use that to your advantage.

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Monday, June 11, 2018

How Prologues Actually Function & 6 Types to Consider

In a lot of ways, I'm an atypical person, but one of the ways I'm atypical is that I actually love prologues, and always have. As a teenager, I would be excited when I opened a book that said "Prologue"--years later I'd learn over and over again that a lot of people in the writing industry actually hate prologues! And the first few times I heard that, I was baffled.

I think some of the hate stems from not understanding how they actually function or when to best use them--two things I'm going to cover today.

First, let's talk about some of the reasons why people have said not to use prologues.

1. Some readers (can't remember the exact stats, but I think it might have been half) skip prologues anyway.

2. Story openings are very difficult to write, and by having a prologue, you are having to essentially write two openings--why would you do that to yourself? And you have to win the audience over--twice!

3. Prologues often contain unnecessary information, so you can just discard them. Start with the beginning of the story--chapter one!

I don't know about you, but all of these explanations left me wanting. And none of them felt like good enough reasons to ax prologues altogether (especially the second--if you want to be a writer, you probably won't make it far if you are scared of difficulty). Furthermore, a couple of years ago I perused bookshelves at a bookstore and found loads of novels that opened with prologues. Huh? Haven't I been advised not to do that?

You mean I don't actually have to hate prologues as much as I've been told?

Let's dig into them.

The Most Important Function of a Prologue

You can look all over online about when and why you should or should not use a prologue, and I'll touch on some of that in the types. But in my opinion at its bare bones--when you strip away all the differences between prologues out there--prologues are about making promises of one kind or another to the audience. That is the main function of a prologue.

Like all writing rules, there may be some exceptions to that once in a while, but I'd argue almost always prologues = promises.

Some might say that prologues only relate to giving out information that the audience can't get otherwise. I think it's fair to use them that way, but not all good prologues actually function that way, and even those that do still simultaneously makes promises. The promise comes from giving that information.

Prologues are also often displaced from the rest of the novel in some way--so one might argue that's what makes a prologue. But when I look at prologues, that doesn't quite hold up either. The only function that seems to, is promises.

Now, there are a lot of different promises you can make.

- You can make an emotional promise by communicating to the audience what kind of emotions this story is going to appeal to.

- You can make a promise about what kind of plot this story is going to have. Does the prologue cover an old unsolved murder case that's gone cold? The reader will assume the plot is going to involve that.

- You can make thematic promises about the theme topic or what sort of takeaway value this story might have.

- You can make promises about a type of character.

- About a relationship.

- About worldbuilding, setting, or a time period.

- Or about any kind of draws that your audience picked up your book or genre for in the first place.

- And you can make promises by foreshadowing

But most of the time, the most important function of a prologue is that it makes promises. For some, that might come strictly by providing information. But if you provide information with no sense of promise, it's probably a lousy prologue.

Some of you might be wondering if the first chapter of the story makes promises anyway, why do you need a prologue?

It's true that many, if not most, stories don't need a prologue at all. There are enough clear promises in the first chapter, and enough information in the actual novel, and adding a prologue would make the story weaker.

But for the stories that would benefit, there are a few different kinds of prologues with different functions that you might want to consider when you are wondering about packaging those additional promises (or critiquing someone else's).

Types of Prologues


I've talked in a previous post that in the film industry, there are two types of movie trailers: the theatrical trailer and the teaser trailer. (And what do trailers do? They make promises to audiences about what kind of movie this is going to be.)

A theatrical trailer is longer than a teaser trailer. It conveys the basic plot of the story. It communicates what the story is about. It gives us the setup. Here is an example of a theatrical trailer. (Notice how the setup is clear and chronological.)

Books are obviously a different format, but you can have a theatrical prologue in the same way.

The prologue promises what the plot is going to be about and clues us into the setup.

It simply introduces an overall plot of the story or series that may not be the main focus in the beginning chapters of the book itself--so it's a prologue.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater is a good example of this, and you can read it here.

This is the opening line to give you a good idea:

Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she'd been told she'd kill her true love.

The prologue goes on to introduce us to the sorts of magic the book includes (psychics and fortune-telling, for example). It introduces us to the setting. It establishes a particular lifestyle, or what's "normal" and ends on something (or someone) that changes that normal.

But the prologue continues to come back to the same topic: If Blue kisses her true love, he will die.

This gives us a sense of what this book series will probably be about. But since this is the first book, it's not going to be the sole focus, so the prologue is a good place for the introduction.


In film, teaser trailers are different than theatrical trailers. While theatrical trailers make promises to the audience by conveying the setup and introducing the plot, teaser trailers make promises to the audiences by focusing largely on raw emotional appeals.

Here is an example of a teaser trailer.

Notice how unlike the theatrical trailer, we don't really get a clear setup or plot. Sure, we see and hear snippets of it, but the trailer functions off making promises to the audience about what kinds of emotions they'll experience if they watch this movie.

Teasers lack context--that's one reason why they are so short (and why they are teasers). You can't hold an audience long if you don't give them enough context. But the audience knows that if they go to the movie, they will get the context and plot.

Some prologues are teasers. They promise a certain experience and also promise that if the audience reads the story, they will understand (aka, get the context) the event. I did a whole post on teasers here, so I'm not going to repeat everything.

I know a lot of people don't like Twilight, but I'm actually fine with the series. And I'm aware that technically the opening is a "Preface," but I'm going to grab it because it's an example of opening with a teaser nonetheless:

I'd never given much thought to how I would die — though I'd had reason enough in the last few months — but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.

Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something.

I knew that if I'd never gone to Forks, I wouldn't be facing death now. But, terrified as I was, I couldn't bring myself to regret the decision. When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it's not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end.

The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me. 

Notice we don't get a lot of context. We don't know exactly what's happening or how the character got here. But the passage makes emotional (maybe even thematic) promises to the audience of what will be included in the story.

Stephenie Meyer's The Host does open with a prologue that is teaserly as well. And so does I am Number Four. We lack a lot of context when we start reading, but it will become clearer as we get into the actual novel.

Dual Draws

Some opening chapters have quite different draws (or promises) than later chapters. A prologue might be a good way to bridge that and help balance the appeals for the audience.

The Greatest Showman is a perfect example of this.

The story really starts with Barnum being a child. He doesn't even come up with the circus until maybe a third into the movie. Filmmakers understand, though, that one of the film's major appeals is the circus. So what did they do?

They essentially opened with a "prologue"--promising the audience a set of draws that can't fit into the actual beginning--because Barnum hasn't made the circus yet.

It's arguably one of the best film openings today.

Here is the opening.

And here is the actual "first chapter."

This is a case in particular where having two "openings" really is a strength. By having dual openings, you can showcase the story's draws on opposite sides of the spectrum. So, within the first 15 minutes of The Greatest Showman you get a taste of the spectacle and the fantastical of the circus as well as the personal and intimate conflicts and relationships that Barnum has.

Use this prologue when some of the powerful appeals don't appear until later in the story, so that you can promise them to the audience right out of the gate.

Christopher Paolini's Eragon might be a a good example of this. In the prologue, we get a sense of battle and other creatures and magic and even dragons, but the protagonist himself doesn't really encounter those things until later in the story. The prologue promises that those things will come.

Alternative Viewpoint

For some stories, the audience would benefit from information or a perspective that the main viewpoint character or characters can't give. Sometimes prologues are in a different viewpoint to give the audience access to that information.

The City of Ember is an example of this.

The characters don't really have access to what the builders of the city knew. So the prologue is used to convey that to the audience.

When the city of Ember was just built and not yet inhabited, the Chief Builder and the Assistant Builder, both of them weary, sat down to speak of the future.

"They must not leave the city for at least two hundred years," said the Chief Builder. "Or perhaps two hundred and twenty."

"Is that long enough?" asked his Assistant.

"It should be. We can't know for sure."

"And when the time comes," said the Assistant, "how will they know what to do?"

"We'll provide them with instructions, of course," the Chief Builder replied.

"But who will keep the instructions? Who can we trust to keep them safe and secret all that time?"

"The mayor of the city will keep the instructions," said the Chief Builder. "We'll put them in a box with a timed lock, set to open on the proper date."

In any case, promises come through the information and context given to the audience (that the main characters don't have and therefore can't give.)

Sometimes the prologue may be different in how viewpoint is actually handled. It might be in second person when the story is in third. In third person with the novel is in first. But the decision should have a point and not be random.

Time Displacement

Use a prologue when you need to include scenes (in order to provide context and promises and/or foreshadowing or information) that take place during a different time than the rest of the novel--when it's out of sequence with the rest of the story. Usually this means that the prologue takes place in the past, but it can also mean future. It may or may not have the same viewpoint character.

Some of you might laugh, but the first chapter of Harry Potter is a good example of this. I'm aware that it's called a first chapter, but go read it again, and you'll realize it's really a prologue in disguise (maybe the people behind it didn't like prologues and thought it would be clever to call it chapter one). The entire chapter takes place about a decade before the rest of the story (also in other viewpoints), when Harry is a baby. It's out of sync with the rest of the novel and we don't meet Harry until the end. It also contains elements of the other prologue types I've outlined here. In fact, like many prologues, you could essentially skip the first chapter of Harry Potter--though that gives you an entirely different opening context since you don't have that information or those promises. (Sort of like starting The Greatest Showman with Barnum as a child.)


Like some of the others, this one can blend in and overlap with the different types, but just to help us with discernment, and because I have a few things to say about it, I'm making it its own category.

Some people say that a prologue is only good if it contains essential information--but that simply is not the case. You could cut off a lot of teaser prologues, dual draw prologues, and even others and still follow the story. (Besides, if half of readers skip a prologue, then you sometimes have to weave that information in another way anyway.) Like I said, you could cut off the first chapter of Harry Potter and you'll essentially get all the information you missed in other parts of the story. This is why I argue that it's promises, not information, that is the driving force of prologues. You can cut off the opening of The Greatest Showman and you would miss out on zero information (what you miss out on is the promises).

But some prologues are strictly there to provide information to the audience, and in some rare cases a prologue might be the only way to deliver that (skip at your own risk). In order to be good though, that information is going to provide promises too (and not read like an info-dump).

Star Wars movies essentially start with an informational prologue--but remember, books and movies are different, and if you write a prologue like Star Wars does at the front of your story it will not be acceptable by today's standards. Lord of the Rings (both book and movie) has an informational prologue--which once again would actually not be acceptable to write in today's day and age in front of a novel. Why? Because it will come across as an info-dump and probably read kind of boring. (Does anyone actually remember the real book prologue to Lord of the Rings? It's basically a long author note about Hobbits.) The Fellowship's prologue on Hobbits worked in Tolkien's time, but it wouldn't get published today. (Because of film and technology, audiences today don't need that much help and guidance to imagine and understand something that doesn't exist in the real world.)

This is one way that I see prologues go wrong. The prologue should almost never read like an info-dump. Instead, think of the information you need to convey and see if you can convey it in a nice scene. An actual scene, with a character and event.

The City of Ember example doubles as an informational prologue. It's telling the audience the beginnings of the city. Notice that it has the audience focus on actual characters having a conversation, and isn't just a big long paragraph of the narrator giving out information.

Sometimes the information itself isn't essential, but is instead significant in some way. The other night I watched The Prestige (cause you know I love Christopher Nolan's writing and seeing Hugh Jackman performing spectacle shows in the 19th century). The opening works as a prologue, but the information isn't necessarily vital to understanding the story. Instead, it's important because it introduces a theme weaved into the movie. With the prologue the audience can watch the film with the idea that the knowledge will be significant in some way. (Notice how the film example doubles as a teaser.)

Here is the opening.

More Types

I'm sure there are more types you could categorize, and I'll have to keep my eyes out for them. And as I said above, many prologues fit into more than one type. But I still think it's helpful to have the categories, because it helps us understand them.

People often don't understand that because a prologue works differently than the rest of the novel--that's why it's a prologue and not just lumped in with everything else--it can't usually be criticized like the rest of the novel.

And because people don't understand the true core of their function (promises), prologues can draw a lot of (inaccurate) criticism from critique groups and others.

I've been to a number of writing conferences where editors have said they always skip the prologue in a submission. I used to think it was because they didn't like prologues--hated them even. Now that I'm an editor, I find myself doing the same thing--and I like prologues. It's not because it's bad. It's because it functions differently. And I'm geared up to be critical of the first chapter. So often I'll skip or just scan the prologue and come back later to take a closer look--a clearer look--when I have a better idea of how that prologue should be functioning in relation to the rest of the work (and the promises it should be making). For example, if the prologue is a teaser, I'll read through it, but often wait until I get more context to come back and edit it. But whatever the case, you should always be looking at the promises it's making.

Monday, June 4, 2018

How Theme and False Theme Affect Your Protagonist

I attended Amanda Rawson Hill's class on theme several weeks ago and was simply blown away with it and within minutes knew I had to ask her to let me share some of it on my blog. Theme is a topic that's been on my mind for the last few months, and I touched on it in my last post "Preach vs. Teach." When I attended Amanda's class, she put words to many aspects about theme that had been rolling around in my subconscious that I hadn't yet figured out and she also taught me completely new ideas about it.

Lately I've been looking at theme from a question and answer standpoint (the story asks us to consider and explore questions about a topic, and the thematic statement gives us the answer--illustrated through the story), which is great but only one way to look at it, and I loved Amanda's approach. So she's here today to share a section from her class: how theme and false theme affect the protagonist.


The theme of a novel can feel like a slippery thing. For many authors, it’s more of an afterthought. Once the book is finished and they know plot and setting and character, then maybe they’ll ask themselves what the theme is. But theme is key to creating an emotionally powerful and coherent novel, one that leaves an impression on the reader’s heart.

One of the ways an author can be more intentional about theme is by considering how it impacts their main character. We do that, first, by being able to verbalize what our theme is. Remember that the theme of a novel is a COMPLETE SENTENCE. It’s the message of your book.

Some examples of theme are

Moana: You know who you are when you know where/who you come from.

Hamilton: You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

Zootopia: Change begins with me.

Harry Potter: Love is the most powerful force on earth.

Now, if the theme is the message of the book, then it should be what you are leaving your reader with. It’s the truth that your main character finally understands at THE END of the story.

But that means they can’t understand or believe the truth of the theme at the beginning of the story. If they do, then there is no growth or change in the character and you have a boring book.

So at the beginning of the book, your main character either doesn’t believe or misunderstands the theme in some way. I call this the FALSE THEME STATEMENT. K.M. Weiland refers to it as “The Lie Your Character Believes.”

For example:

At the beginning of Moana, her family and everyone on the island keep telling Moana that she is just who she is right now, that everything is about the island and where they are right now.

At the beginning of Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton believes he can create and control his legacy by laying hold of every opportunity and not throwing away his shot.

At the beginning of Zootopia, Officer Hopps sees the bias in everyone around her and is bound and determined to prove them wrong by being the first bunny cop. There is no checking of her own biases.

At the beginning of Harry Potter, he is just the boy in the cupboard under the stairs. Alone, unloved, and powerless.

The FALSE THEME or “Lie” can take a few different forms. It can be something that is the complete opposite of the true theme. Like in Hamilton. It can also be a belief that isn’t taken far enough, for example not applying it to everyone or not applying it to oneself, like in Zootopia. It could just be a case of wrong priorities, like in Moana. Or maybe, it’s something your main character just can’t even really wrap their head around (Harry Potter) or feels some kind of shame around, like in A Quiet Place (think of how the theme is “You must protect them” and Jon Krasinski’s character is definitely trying but is reeling from his failure at the beginning of the movie. It’s not necessarily that he believes he can’t, it’s that he tried and failed before. And that guilt is haunting him and everyone else in the family.)

Once you have the FALSE THEME STATEMENT at the beginning and the true THEME STATEMENT at the end, you now have the beginning and ending points of your main character’s arc! And what the plot needs to do is effectively change your character from believing the false theme to truly understanding and internalizing the true theme.

Harry Potter ends up surrounded by loved ones both past and present, which strengthen him to overcome Voldemort's power through an ultimate act of sacrificial love and learns that his family "had never left."

The other thing the FALSE THEME STATEMENT provides for you is a starting point in creating your character. If you know the lie your character believes, then you have a foundation for building a character who would actually believe it.

You can create this character by answering questions like:

Why does my character believe this? What happened in his/her backstory to cause this belief?

What problems has this belief caused in the character's life?

How does this belief affect my character’s relationships?

What does the false belief make my character hide? What does it make them do?

Does it give them any quirks or habits?

Does it require any kind of self-defense mechanisms?

What does it make them push away? What does it make them welcome?

Because of the false belief, what will make my character scared/uncomfortable/happy/etc.?

There are many other ways that THEME should be an intentional part of your novel but building it into your main character is one of the biggest!

If you loved this and want to hear more about Amanda's approach to theme, she recently did a post at Writers Helping Writers on how theme relates to subplots, supporting characters, and tension. I highly recommend it!


Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in Southwestern Wyoming with a library right out her back gate. (Which accounts a lot for how she turned out.) After earning her BA in Chemistry at Brigham Young University, she lived all over the US, finally settling in Atwater, California with her husband and three kids. Her debut middle-grade novel, THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC, releases September 25, 2018 from Boyds Mills Press.