4 Warning Signs That Your Prologue Should Be Dumped (and How Rowling Pulled Hers Off Anyway)

If there’s a prologue in your manuscript, be aware that interested agents and editors will most likely try to talk you out of it. Prologues are out of vogue. They’re seen as cumbersome beasts that only weigh a story down. But did you know that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has a prologue? Chapter One takes place 10 years before Chapter Two so it’s a prologue, if not in name. Rowling’s prologue obviously didn’t kill her book’s chance at publication, but was it necessary? Could the story have been stronger without it? It’s important to ask critical questions of even the most successful books because, until you understand a rule, you won’t know when it’s best to break it.

How a Prologue Should NOT Be Used
  1. To introduce characters. A prologue should not be used to give characters some alone time in the spotlight – no matter how important or special they are. A good way to avoid this pitfall is to look for action in the prologue: Is something happening? If not, kill your darling (before your reader does it for you).
  2. To warm up the reader. Writing a book is not like playing baseball. In baseball you can take a couple of swings before you get to the plate, but when it comes to your book, you’d better be at that plate and swinging for the fences on page one. Do not warm up with a prologue – swing, baby, swing! (Find out here if your first page is a homerun.)
  3. To entice the reader. This is the opposite strategy of trying to warm up the reader. You copy a chunk from an exciting scene in the middle of your book and paste it at the beginning (or you paraphrase it – same concept). This is usually a sign that your beginning needs an overhaul: If it isn’t interesting enough on its own, it needs work.
  4. To give background. This is probably the most abused reason for including a prologue. Instead of carefully depositing background throughout the story, this writer just dumps it all in the beginning.
Was Rowling right to include a prologue?

“The Boy Who Lived” is one of the most famous chapter titles of all time. In this chapter, Rowling immediately introduces us to the Dursley family and draws a connection between them and Harry Potter. She also gives us a glimpse of the wizarding world Harry is leaving behind and will hopefully return to someday. She writes the prologue from a mix of third-person limited and omniscient, while the rest of the book is seen through Harry’s eyes. (Randomly jumping POV’s is typically a no-no as well, but, since Harry is a baby in Chapter One, there’s no way around it.)

What is the purpose of Rowling’s prologue?

To introduce characters and give some background.

Well . . . . looks like Rowling broke the rules. Her prologue supposedly doesn’t pull its weight – so why was her book successful anyway?

Because she understood that all writing rules serve one almighty purpose:

To engage the reader.

If you know you can break a rule and still engage your audience (and you have a good reason to break the rule), then have at it. Rowling already knew she needed to hook her readers, prologue or no prologue, so it wasn’t about breaking the rules but about finding a balance between telling her story and making her readers curious enough to turn one page and then the next page and the page after that – which she obviously did with great success.

But I still don’t think the prologue was necessary. Rowling could have easily tossed it out and incorporated that information into the rest of her book. (Don’t believe me? Think of all the intricate character backgrounds Rowling somehow managed to weave into the story without stopping to write an entire chapter about each one of them.)

But that’s also the beauty of writing: It still is – and always will be – an art. A hundred writers could have the exact same idea and the result would be one hundred completely different stories. Rowling obviously believed that how she wrote Chapter One was the best way to start her story, rules or no rules. (And she supposedly rewrote Chapter One upwards of 15 times.) She followed her gut and it paid off. Big time. But remember that Rowling wrote many unpublished stories before she struck gold with Harry Potter. She had to learn the rules first and then practice (a lot) before she knew when and how to safely veer off the path.

*Photo by Public Domain Archive / CC0

5 Ways Rowling Hooked Us on Page One

The Famous First Sentence

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Looks like a pretty simple sentence, doesn’t it? But within those twenty-two words Rowling has hooked us by using five powerful yet simple writing tools.

1. Character

Rowling immediately introduces two main characters: Mr. and Mrs. Dursley. Specifics draw readers in; generalizations drive them away. We might not know much about the Dursleys, but Rowling already has us imagining who they could be.

2. Location

Rowling includes a specific locationnot a city or a town, but an actual address: number four, Privet Drive. Again Rowling is bringing her story to life with details. Real characters have real addresses.

3. Mystery

Rowling’s insistence that the Dursleys are “perfectly normal” foreshadows that something abnormal is certainly going to happen. She’s promising us that the story will be intriguing.

4. Warmth/Humanness

Lastly, Rowling adds warmth—a sort of humanness—when she ends her sentence with “thank you very much,” as if Mr. and Mrs. Dursley are speaking directly to us.

Rowling packed all of that into the first sentence. She continues to reel us in with her second sentence:

They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

5. Suspense

Rowling now has us convinced that something abnormal is right around the corner (or page). She’s building suspense. (Notice again that she adds warmth to her sentence by adding “because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense”.)

Rowling only has two more paragraphs to convince us to turn the page. So what does she do? She spends the entire second paragraph talking about how normal and boring the Dursleys are:

Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

That paragraph might seem like a waste of space for a first-page hook, but Rowling has something up her sleeve.

With a more detailed description of the Dursleys, she’s painting an even starker contrast between them and strange happenings. Great writers know that the more unlikely it seems that a certain something will happen, the more the reader will want to know if it actually does (that is, as long as the writer has made the unlikely believable).

One Last Big Hook

Rowling only has room for one last sentence to push her readers over the edge and onto the next page. Here’s what she writes:

The Dursleys had everything they ever wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.

Rowling lays it all out there, dangling the most tantalizing sentence yet.

Being so bold at the beginning of your story can be scary, because that means you had better deliver. Some writers try to avoid this by starting out slowly, like a train gaining momentum, but that’s a battle lost before it’s even begun. If a story has to hobble out of the gate, it’s not a good story. You have to go big or go home, and Rowling went big.

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7 Ways to Create Original Characters

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

—Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I recently read and enjoyed Brandilyn Collins’ Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors. In her book Collins explains how the method acting theory can help writers create interesting, original characters. She doesn’t advocate going to extremes (like Christian Bale when he lost a third of his bodyweight for The Machinist or Robert DeNiro when he paid a dentist $20,000 to ruin his teeth for Cape Fear), but she offers helpful ways to flesh out three-dimensional characters beyond the typical, bland advice of “keep a journal for your character.” She titles her seven secrets:

  1. Personalizing
  2. Action Objectives
  3. Subtexting
  4. Coloring Passions
  5. Inner Rhythm
  6. Restraint and Control
  7. Emotion Memory

If you want to take your character development to the next level, check out Getting into Character.