Writing a Strong Antagonist

The antagonist, the villain, the bad guy of your story is the main person standing the way of your protagonist reaching his goal. Of course, your story may have the main conflict be the environment, natural disaster, or within the protagonist’s mind. However, if the chief conflict in your story is a person, it’s important to remember that that character is just like every other character. He has his ambitions, goals, dreams, fears, regrets, secrets, and beliefs, but most importantly, he thinks what he is doing is right—for himself, for his friends, for his family, for those around him. He views himself simply as the misunderstood hero of a story but won’t complain or voice his opposition. He does what he needs to do, and no one will stop him. He may take advantage of his reputation to do what he deems is right even if no one else sees it.

At least, that’s how antagonists should be considered. Too often they’re cast as a cardboard villain. The only reason for their existence is to hinder the hero from reaching his goal. Usually their motives are revenge or world domination.

This is shallow.

It usually happens this way because the writer is so focused on finding out everything there is to know of the hero that they never even think about learning all they can of the villain. However, each character should be created equal, and the author should set aside time to ask the antagonist, “Why are you doing this?” If you ask this of your villain, be completely non-judgmental, openminded, and sincere. Yes, you know they’re going to be wrong, but you need understand that they don’t think they are. They may surprise you.

Now, some writers won’t ask their villain this question because they don’t really want to know the answer. Why? Because they’re afraid the real motive behind all this might change the face of the story as they know it. They really want the hero to be the good guy, but what if the villain isn’t absolutely wrong? What if he has some really good points although his solution may be wrong? What if he makes the hero look weak, shallow, and selfish? Writers may shy away from this because they don’t want to accept the possibility their protagonist isn’t perfect, but what makes the hero a stronger character is a stronger and more concrete villain.

Now though, for a fun exercise that could confuse your villain and maybe even add immediate depth to him, don’t have your hero shout at the antagonist, “You’re wrong! You’re evil!” But rather, have your protagonist pause and look at the villain from another point of view and then say, “You know what? You are actually really intelligent. I can respect that. Doesn’t mean I agree with you, but I can respect where you’re coming from.” This would totally throw your villain for a loop because they may be trying so very hard to show everyone their mean self, and when that suddenly doesn’t work, they falter and stumble a bit. They’re caught off guard. It’s easy for them to live up to the expectations of being cruel or such. If someone says, “You’re so mean!” The villain will merely laugh, “Bwhahahaha! You think this is mean? I will show you MEAN!” and goes to an extreme. However, if the comment is, “You’re quite intelligent,” the villain will automatically want to say, “I will show you INTELLIGENT….” but then pause and realize that makes absolutely no sense. Or even, “I realize it now. You’re doing what you think is right. You’re just misunderstood,” and the villain, “I’ll show you MISUNDERSTOOD!!” As you can see, it simply doesn’t have the some effect, but it is fun to do. Never know what would come out of it.

Now though, it is true that in real life some really bad people do horrible things for absolutely no reason whatsoever. They may be mentally mad or something. You want your story to be real, and that is real, so why not write a villain who just simply doesn’t care? This is entirely up to you and whatever you deem best for your story. However, don’t use this as an excuse not to explore all angles of your antagonist because you may never know what you will discover when you start looking there.

If your antagonist has some really good points, it forces you to develop your protagonist’s view to counter him. So, when you take the time to develop the villain of your story, you are actually investing in your protagonist, and you learn much of both of them! This is better for your story.

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A Unique Kind of Character Interview

Character interviews and character questionnaires—the point of these is for the author of the character to get to know him by asking him rounds of questions. If it’s a questionnaire, it will look something like this:

Name:

Age:

Height:

Hair color:

Eye color:

Parents:

Siblings:

Favorite food:

Favorite color:

And so forth. This is a way to find out a lot about your character…but most likely stuff you may never, ever use because it’s not important to the story. I’m not saying questionnaires are wrong and useless—quite the contrary. They can be very helpful and useful to some writers, but other writers may find them overwhelming.

Now though, there is such a thing as ‘character interviews’. In these, the author asks the character a question, and the character shows his or her personality through the answers. These work exceptionally well in order to get to know your character for yourself, but there’s only one problem. You interview your own character, and the character is in your head, and your own thoughts could influence the character’s response. This isn’t bad because this is just a fact of writing, but what if there’s a better way to interview characters? This is something I’ve explored with multiple authors.

This new format is very similar to the new kind of author interview I introduced a few weeks ago. A fictional scene is set, two of us meet, we write in third person, questions are asked, questions are answered, and you see the character in action rather than merely hearing their responses. For the Character Interviews, I allowed the authors to choose the setting—something from their story world—so their character would feel comfortable on their own turf.

I then came in, and I am not a character—this was difficult for both author and character to comprehend, and they kept trying to tie me to their reality, but I had to stay outside their reality because it allowed me to ask questions that would probably get another character of the story killed. How exactly did I remain outside their reality? I set one rule: no touching. Even if a character did try to touch me, he would pass through me as through I were a ghost. This was incredibly helpful when I came face-to-face to some savage, bloodthirsty villains because I was able to ask them pointed questions they hated to hear, and if they lashed out at me, they couldn’t harm me. This accomplished two things: 1) took control away from the villains, and they loathe that, so it shows a different shade of them, and 2) allowed me to stay focused on the interview and questions rather than getting caught up in an actual story scene. The point of these interviews is to ask questions—not become part of a story. That is why I set that rule in place.

Not all characters I interviewed were antagonists. Sometimes I interviewed the protagonist, and depending on the character’s personality, it was either a witty and charming interview or it was a cautious, carefully probing questioning. Some characters were forthright and confident, but others were withdrawn, distrusting, and insecure. To each of these, I had to adapt my approach to ask them questions.

What does this kind of character interview accomplish? In this type of interview, there is the element of the unknown. Neither you nor your character know what I will ask next. You are confident that you know your characters very well, and instead of trying to trip them up yourself with difficult questions, you’re completely backing up your character. Both your character and you are absolutely engaged in answering the question—rather than you trying to come up with questions which your character may or may not answer. Having someone from the outside come in and interview the character in a story form really gives the author and the readers a chance to learn who that character is. Being able to use body language allows for the character to show his true colors without having to say anything. I once interviewed a villain who I enraged so much that he had to go and get a drink, but he was still furious and squeezed the glass until it burst in his hand…and then he answered my question. If we were just showing the question and answer, we wouldn’t have been able to show his full rage.

Since an outside person is asking the question, this allows the author to learn so much about their character because they are forced to dig deep and find answers to questions they may never have thought of to ask. Sometimes the author realizes their character is completely cliché and shallow. In these cases, I’d pause the interview and inform the author of my observations. If they wanted to know how to make a stronger character, I’d make recommendations, and then we’d redo the interview after they’ve had a chance to recreate the character. It is amazing to observe the difference between the two interviews once the author has really delved deep into his character and forced him to take shape rather than letting him be ambiguous. But most characters I’ve interviewed have been well-developed. It’s just a matter of probing deep and uncovering the truth behind their motives and the depth of their beliefs.

Here’s what a few of the authors, whose characters I interviewed, said about the experience:

Nan Sampson Bach

This was possibly the most fun I’ve ever had! I knew my villain had a short temper, even though he prides himself on being so controlled. Kelly managed to enrage him so much he completely lost it. It was hilarious! The questions really made me think too (seriously, it was getting hard to tell who was doing the thinking, me or him), about his motivations, his underlying belief systems and a host of other things. I thought I had a handle on it, but this interview brought up some good stuff I can play with. So not only a FAB time, but useful for me the author and hence for my readers too! Thank you, Kelly!

Matthew Dale

So I have to be honest, this interview was a mulligan. The first time Kelly interviewed this character, he did not perform well. I don’t have a lot of experience writing villains and it showed. That being said, this interview was a huge learning experience! Kelly was awesome. She was patient and encouraging, but was very direct about what could be improved. That directness was tempered with kindness and an attitude of wanting to see a fellow writer improve their craft, which cushioned her critique. The “redo” interview was much better, and I really felt like I got to know my own character. She really made me dig into his motivations, and she didn’t hold back in asking him tough questions. It’s helpful to sit down and actually role play a character, which is something I hadn’t really done prior to this interview. This was one of the best learning experiences I’ve had as a writer. I would encourage other writers who want to do this interview to be willing to listen to the opinion of others, and at least be willing to consider that opinion. You may learn something new about your character you never considered before.

Kristen Moger

I found Kelly Blanchard’s character interviews a fascinating journey into my own character. It is an interesting experience to take a character out of my own head and make them come alive for another person. As a writer, it is a challenge I loved as it brought me a greater awareness as to my character’s motivation and potential. Thanks, Kelly, for the opportunity.

Clint Brill

Kelly approached me to do a character interview and, for some strange reason, I agreed. I’d never done a character interview before so I wasn’t sure how it would work out. I was worried about it and considered making an excuse to get out of it. Even at zero hour, as I was typing up the intro to get the interview started, part of me was still trying to think of how to get out of it. I couldn’t think of anything and I’m glad I didn’t. The interview was a lot of fun, and I was sad when our time was up. Kelly has a way of putting interviewees at ease and make the interview fun. Janus, the character I used for the interview, is very reticent when it comes to talking about himself, but Kelly got him to open up and reveal more than he has in any of the stories he’s appeared in. She even got him to reveal his plans for the future. Those plans were a surprise to me because I didn’t know anything about them. Because Kelly was able to make the interview fun and interesting, I enjoyed the process and learned something about my character that I didn’t know before. Kelly is a skilled and delightful interviewer. She can interview me or my characters any time she wants.

Lia Rees

In my second interview with Kelly, I was able to explore the personality of a supporting character who previously hadn’t seemed real to me. The style of interview was vital to this exploration. Kelly entered the world of my character, Myriam, with curiosity and openness. She easily grasped the unusual setting, psychological climate and areas of conflict. She asked probing questions, gently suggested potential pathways, and showed a general spirit of empathy. Immersing myself fully in my character’s reality, I was able to draw from intuitive methods as well as intellectual ones to understand her better than I had before.

Virginia Carraway Stark

This is what it is like:

You open those doors in your mind that release your characters to be free in their world. When you go to those familiar places, you notice something different…A new door where there was no door before.

That is what it is like to be interviewed as your character like my character, Sasha Wheaton, was interviewed last week by Kelly Blanchard. It’s the same as writing in many ways but with the added dimension of penetrating, rational thought being added to the process. By adding this we don’t just stay in our character’s comfort zone but penetrate deep into their hearts and minds. You’ll find more there than when you first opened that door. A vital tool for all writers seeking to hone their craft, and if you’re a writer, you always are a seeker.

<~>~<~>~<~>

These are just a few examples of what people have experienced with this form of character interviews. I am currently still in the process of finishing all 25 interviews, and that won’t wrap up until next week. I will begin posting the interviews regularly once I’m finished, and you can find the interviews on my other blog: Meeting With The Muse

Writers have discovered this to be a fun and unique way to get exposure for their work as well as introduce their characters, story, and writing style to readers, and I intend to continue offering this service to writers. If you are interested, you may join my group on Facebook: Author Kelly Blanchard, and watch for the announcement when I open the invitation for more people to be interviewed.

You never know what you’ll learn in these interviews, and this is a very unique way to introduce you and your work to potential readers.

Creating Distinct Characters

When you write, sometimes you worry about have your characters sounding too similar. Our characters are our babies. We want them to be perfect. We want them to be equally awesome, but if we make one character different, then that could cause an imbalance.

This is our subconsciousness speaking, and part of this is because we may have unknowingly based the characters off of us, and you can read about that in my blog discussing Author-Based Characters. However, right now, I want to how to make characters different from one another.

We need to let the characters become real. How do we do that? Well, you’re going to have to have a sit down chat with them to figure out most of this, but here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • A moral standard (or a complete lack of moral standards).
  • Give them something they’d disapprove of or absolutely won’t do. One character may be fine with killing, but another character may have a real conscience against this, and there they are unique.
  • Relationships/history with other characters
    • One character may be perfectly quiet all the time, but they come across this one specific character, and that quiet character suddenly explodes and becomes irrational and completely different than usual. All the other characters may be complete strangers to this new character except for that one, and that makes things different.
  • Is the character a loud person or quiet?
    • Loud and confident?
    • Quiet and confident?
    • Quiet and insecure?
  • Positive person or negative person?
  • Secrets? Regrets?

Of course, there are more things you can answer as to determine why they’ll act the way they do—full questionnaires based on this—but what you really want is their distinct voice in your head. You want to know how exactly they act.

Do they walk quietly into a room, observe everything and slip into the shadows? Or do they saunter in as if they’re in absolute control and love being the center of attention? When they’re angered, do they raise their voice and begin to shout, or do they become deadly silent? Are they sarcastic? Or do they take things literally?

Now, let’s say you have two characters you worry sound like each other. Here are a few things to consider: are they related? Are they best friends? Did they grow up together? If yes, then it’s okay for them to sound similar although they will encounter similar situations and respond completely different because they’re different people. At times they may say the exact same thing at the exact same time, and this will cause people to pause and look at them then shake their heads and carry on. Other times, one character may say something that sounds like another character, and whomever he’s talking to can point out the similarities, “And here I thought I left Nagging Martha behind!” “Well, I’m her sister, what did you expect?”

If you’re writing separate stories, but you’re worried your main characters are sounding familiar, try giving the new character unique qualities that the other one lacks. Or change gender from male to female. But if you really want to see the differences for yourself between those two characters, write out a random scene where those two characters meet. See how they interact with one another, what they think of each other. You may discover differences you hadn’t realized before.

However, if none of this is working for you, and you’re still struggling with making your characters distinct from each other, go to your favorite TV shows and favorite films. Watch your favorite characters from there. Don’t steal characters outright, but rather borrow certain qualities from different characters to create your own unique character. For instance, take Jack Sparrow’s drunkard, flamboyant behavior, and add the lie-detector abilities of Cal Lightman from the TV Show ‘Lie To Me’. That would be one very interesting character. “I’m sorry, I’m sober at the moment. I can’t tell if the person is lying or telling the truth. Ask me again after a few drinks. Where’s the rum??”

These are merely some suggestions as to how to think creatively when developing your characters. Remember, they’re flawed—not perfect, but that’s what makes them unique and more relatable.

How to Recap in a Sequel

The problem with writing sequels to a book is the inevitable recap to get people up-to-date on events in the previous books in order to move forward. The temptation is to do a major info-dump at the beginning of the story just to be done with it, or it’s dragged throughout the first few chapters, but both of these can be boring and lose the readers who are already familiar with the story. So then the temptation becomes to simply skip all the recap and dive headlong into the story because, after all, your readers should know all about this universe you’ve created, but you could be wrong.

I’ve picked up books that were in the middle of a series without realizing there were any books prior to the one I had in my hand. For the most part, the authors handled this well, and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. On the other hand, there have been authors who handled this poorly, and my impression is, “This person is a terrible writer!” But the truth was I had jumped into the middle of a series without realizing it. You don’t want this, and no, you can’t say at the beginning of the book, “READ PREVIOUS BOOKS IN THE SERIES FIRST!” Yes, it would be great if it worked like that, but of course that’s too easy, and real life never lets you have the easy way.

So what is a proper way to recap without boring your readers? First of all, do you recall what it was like when you wrote the first story? How you had to bring your readers up-to-speed about the universe of the story? Employ that same tactic here. Imagine the sequel is actually a solo story. All the previous stories do not exist. Of course, your fans and you know they do exist, but at the beginning of the new story, you have a clean slate from which you can build the story. This is where you can have fun and really play with your readers minds (especially those who have been reading since the beginning). Say you have one character who, in the earlier books, is the antagonist, and the readers come to hate him! But in this new story, a new character comes in, meets the antagonist and is instantly charmed by him. While your faithful readers are screaming, “NO! Don’t trust him!” and they constantly look around waiting for a familiar protagonist to enter the scene, any new readers may be intrigued by the antagonist, and of course they’re in for a shock when the entire story flips on its head.

How do you inform the readers on past events that are important for the progression of the story? Sprinkle it throughout the story. Mention it only when it is relevant, and only do it either in dialogue or when your character has paused to think and reflect. For instance, say a you’re in the third book of a series, and you have this character who disappeared in Book 1 and wasn’t in Book 2 but you’re bringing him back in Book 3, and you want to remind your readers of the tension he creates for the main character (MC). Now, you could go into great detail as to how this character had betrayed the MC at a crucial point in his journey, or you can simply show the resentment, creating questions for the readers, and eventually answering those questions at the right time:

Uh, general…not sure how to tell you this, but um..”

At Silas’ rambling, General Cephas took in a patient deep breath then raised his eyes to glare at the man standing in his doorway. Only, Silas wasn’t alone, and Cephas recognized the silhouette of the other man immediately beside him. “Blackwell.” He narrowed his eyes as he rose to his feet, but he fisted his hand, forcing himself not to walk around his desk in order to strangle the man.

General!” Blackwell smirked as he stepped around Silas, who withdrew to watch the confrontation from a safe distance. Blackwell approached Cephas’ desk. “Did you miss me?”

Hardly.”

You haven’t changed, I see, but hey, you got a new office—nice upgrade.” Blackwell motioned to their surroundings as he moved to sit on the edge of the desk.

Cephas folded his arms as he regarded the man before him. Derek Blackwell—his former second lieutenant but also chief tactician. He served Cephas for many years, but the last time he saw the man was at the disastrous raid of Selgove when the Galactic Army encompassed and trapped Cephas’ small force, and they had to fight their way out. In the midst of the fighting, Cephas turned and was taken back at the sight of Blackwell standing beside a nameless Galactic general observing the fight. Before Cephas could fight his way to them and demand an answer, a gunshot whizzed past his head, and he returned to the immediate fight around him.

However, after his men had escaped, Cephas had much time to contemplate Blackwell’s actions, and perhaps now he would get an answer.

What are you doing here? Playing spy for the Galactic Forces?” Cephas narrowed his eyes, watching every movement Blackwell made—ready to unholster his gun and shoot the traitor in the chest right here in the middle of his office if necessary. Yet he gave his former second lieutenant the chance to speak, but Blackwell merely wagged his head as he chuckled a little.

You’re always been quick to judge people, General.”

And so the scene could continue. The scene which Cephas recalled in this chapter would have been a scene which the readers would have witnessed in Book 1. It was summarized in a way that still showed but was brief and quickly returned to the present moment of the story.

In essence, treat each new book in a series as a stand-alone book although reading them in order will give the reader a better sense of unity than if they had read the series out of order. However, if they pick up a book from the middle of the series, at least you’ll be able to keep the new readers rather than discourage them.

You’re not obligated to give your readers ALL the information immediately, but it is important to set the story, establish the characters, and keep the readers informed as they progress through the story. Time each reveal just right.

This takes practice, patience, and an ear closely in-tuned with every moment of the story. You must pay attention to the characters, their thoughts, and their emotions as they encounter all their conflicts. Once you’ve completely honed into that moment in the story, you will know when it is right to reveal or to withhold certain information, and this is crucial with books which are sequels.

Draw Your Readers Into Your Story

Imagine your story is a sphere. The entire universe of your story is contained within that sphere. You’ve spent days, weeks, and maybe even months and years becoming familiar with every corner of that universe. You know all the characters and most of their backstories. You know what has happened and what will happen. You know the location of the story and where the characters will end up. Sure, some details might be vague to you now, but you know you’ll work through it.

However, with all that knowledge, there is the danger of forgetting your readers don’t know all that information. Remember, your story is a sphere. You are within it, but your readers are outside of it. Each book you write is a different sphere even if they’re all in the same series. Your task as the writer is to pull your readers into your story like you’re reaching out of the sphere from the inside and snatching the readers to pull them in. This is when the beginning of the story is especially important.

When a reader picks up your book, they are standing outside the sphere, staring at it—maybe they’re circling it trying to determine whether or not to actually invest all that time and energy to become completely engrossed with the story. Is it worth their while? They may give it a chance and open their mind to the words whispered by your tale. They draw closer to see the images of the story flashing across the surface of the sphere. If the images are too blurry or unclear and just glimmers of light, the readers will likely withdraw because it’s too confusing. They don’t want to take the time to sort through a poorly constructed beginning. However, if the images are flashes of ordinary life with mundane every day conversation without a central character to follow or real purpose, this reflects too much of real life, which is what the reader is trying to escape, so this also will turn him away as well.

When you begin a story, it is crucial to set the environment even if the character doesn’t know where exactly she is. Say the character wakes up in a dark room with no memory of how she got there, and she’s not even sure where there is. Just by her being in a room shows us she’s not in a cave, she’s not underwater, she’s not under snow after being overtaken by an avalanche. She’s in some kind of building. There might be no windows, so she could be underground. If there’s a light, then that informs us wherever she is takes place where there’s technology. If it’s a candle, we’re could be led to believe it’s sometime before electricity. There might be furniture or a lack thereof, and this also informs us a bit about the environment. You see, the first question you ask when you wake in a strange place is, “Where am I?” The reader asks the same question when they step into a new story, and you have to give them something concrete to grasp onto if you expect them to follow your lead.

If your story starts off with a chase scene, you still must establish (in brief passing mentions) the environment. Are we in a modern-day city or a medieval village? In a forest? In the desert? On a snowy mountain? Or on the beach? Where are we? When are we? The character you’re following may know exactly what is happening and why, and that information may not be indulged to us readers immediately since there isn’t time for that, but we trust as soon as there’s a pause in the action, we’ll get some kind of information even if it isn’t a lot—at least it’ll be something. We may not even know if the person we’re following is the protagonist or the antagonist. So, set the setting but in passing. If they’re running through an alleyway of a major city, have the character that’s being chased grab some garbage bins and throw them into the alleyway as obstacles for his pursuers. This immediately tells us we’re likely in a modern city. Gunshots could be fired, and this confirms the thought of it being in modern era. Have them race across a street, dodging cars at a stoplight, and the character could look down the street, recognizing a major landmark of the city, and this could identify the location without having to tell us where it is. But keep the action going because we don’t want the character to get hit by a car or shot.

If you’re starting in a full-fledged battle where everyone is fighting, it is important to set the scene. Maybe a soldier is sneaking through buildings or alleyways. Show the destruction of the city—this helps establish the location. Show the lives lost although you don’t have to go into gruesome detail. Maybe the soldier stumbles upon this child that’s hiding, and they have a brief whispered conversation of the child asking for reassuring that everything’s going to be okay, and the soldier says it will be, but then you show in his own mind how he’s doubtful of this and hates that kids have to witness things like this. Even if we don’t know what the fighting is all about or who is fighting whom for what reason, we get drawn into the story because there are concrete images we can relate to.

If you’re the kind of writer who wants to take your reader through dream-worlds where nothing is what it seems and the setting can shift with a mere thought, that’s all right, but before you can confuse your readers like that, you must first gain their trust through a more traditional approach. Even the film ‘Inception’, which is all about dreams and subconsciousness, starts in a seemingly normal environment. As you follow the characters, you come to realize things are not what they seem, and then you’re thrown into a world where people build dreams to plant ideas in other people’s mind. Even though that’s a far-fetched and strange idea, you’re willing to go along for the ride because you’ve become intrigued by the characters and the storyline. This is the kind of trust you must establish with your readers in order to take them into such a bizarre tale. It is possible, but it must be carefully and intentionally crafted. It’s not something you can just throw together and say, “My readers are smart. They’ll figure it out.” No—they won’t, and it’s not because they can’t but rather they don’t care to figure it out since you didn’t make the effort to give them a reason to trust you.

So, when you begin a story, although you may be the most knowledgable person about that sphere of a universe, you must keep in mind that every reader who approaches your book has absolutely no commitment to any book you write if the beginning is poorly presented. Even long-time fans may dwindle away because your work isn’t reaching the old standard you set with your other work.

Also, remember, if you’ve written a series, a reader may go to a book that’s later on in the series without realizing there are books prior to it, but it shouldn’t make a difference. The reader should be able to read that book and slip into that world without a problem. They’ll just have a different viewpoint of the entire story since they started in the middle, but the story should still be clear enough for them to engage with it without a problem. I will discuss recapping from previous stories later, but here we are focusing on the opening of a story.

Keep it clear. You may use all the flowery language you wish, but if it’s not clear, it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying to write ‘simple’ and to dumb down your writing, but rather fine-tune your opening presentation and confidently captivate your audience. It’s a skill—not some superpower you wake up with one day. Sure, for some people, beginnings come easy to them, but even those people need to make sure they start sharp because any skill can rust given time.

Next week we’ll discuss how to recap events from previous books in a series without boring the reader.

To Use a Prologue or Not?

Prologues—to use or not to use? A lot of writers are hesitant about employing this tool in their writing because they’re constantly told, “Don’t use prologues!” So, should we retire the prologue from writing altogether, or does it still have a place? Again, as I often say regarding any controversial matters, yes and no. There is a time and place to use a prologue, but the use of a prologue can often be a cheap way out of a more complex approach to a story. Let’s break this down.

What is a prologue? What is the purpose for it? The opposite of a prologue is the epilogue, and together these two act like the front and back covers of the book—binding the story together. Within the prologue is often information that would bring the readers up to speed on the environment of the story. This is especially helpful in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction novels where strange new worlds and entire systems are foreign to us. Sometimes, though, it is voiced by a narrator who speaks of a time past before we shift to witness the event for ourselves. There are many ways a prologue can be done, but it’s main purpose is remains the same: necessary information. However, it is very important not to make the prologue an ‘info dump’.

What is an info dump? Something like this:

Humans finally left Earth and colonized planets beyond the solar system. Hyperspace streams were anchored by planets’ wells of gravity throughout the galaxy allowing for swift galactic travel. The further from Earth the humans went, the more they forgot about their homeworld. However, while they were busy building new worlds and forging new governments—elements of society the old Earth had already mastered—Earth went on advancing their knowledge in technology. The old planet remained more advanced in technology than the rest of the galaxy, but to show goodwill toward the younger colonies, they would ship tech out to them—just as soon as they’ve developed something even more advanced than what they were sending out. This worked for a long while since all the other worlds were preoccupied with other matters, but then, as their lifestyles began to settle down, people began to notice Earth’s underhand dealings with them, and they didn’t like it…

This is a very crude example of an info dump, but one thing you can notice is, it is ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. Yes, since we’re introducing a new world setting for our story, we need to establish the environment of the story, but is there a better way to do this? Try interweaving the information into a scene. Something like this:

Commander Jaketh marched through the corridors of her stalled ship. They had been yanked out of the hyperspace stream, and that never happened. The streams were anchored by the gravity wells of planets throughout the solar system, and the only way a hyperspace stream could be broken was if an anchor had been disturbed. That was something Jaketh didn’t want to contemplate.

She hastened her steps as she turned a corner and finally entered the bridge of her XT55 Battleship Falcon. She stalked up to the railing and overlooked the activity of the pilots, navigators, and gunners below. “Someone give me a report! What has happened?” As she awaited an answer, she moved to her commander chair and sat down.

Commander, it appears the hyperstream anchor between Tinelo and Heanita has been broken—” one of her lieutenants began, but she waved him off.

I know that! How could this happen?” She saw the lieutenant open his mouth again, and Jaketh glared at him. “Don’t answer that! But who did this? That’s what I want to know!”

Our computers picked up a ship’s signature just outside of Heanita before the hyperstream collapsed.” One of her engineered informed her, and his face grew solemn as he lowered the tablet in his hands. “The ship bears an Earthling signature.”

Jaketh fisted her hand. Of course, it would be Earth. They were the only ones with technology powerful enough to break the connection of a hyperstream. Though Earth was the homeworld of all humanity, hundreds of years ago humans left the planet and ventured beyond the stars to colonize new worlds. In the meanwhile, Earth always grew stronger and more advanced in technology. Now the rest of the galaxy wanted that tech, so they turned their eye to their old homeworld and began moving in.

With equipment beyond anything Jaketh could imagine, Earth learned of the galaxy’s desire to snatch this tech, and the old world put up its defenses. Snapping hyperspace streams though—that was a new one to Jaketh, and she rubbed her forehead. “How much longer until the stream is repaired?”

It could take weeks.”

She growled then fixed her eyes on the pilots. “How are Falcon’s manual controls?”

The pair of pilots exchanged a wide-eyed look with each other, and Jaketh knew why. They had grown used to travel by means of the hyperstreams, which, once the destination had been set, the pilots could sit back and do nothing until they slipped out of the stream and had to land the ship. This was how everyone traveled, and it insured for fewer accidents. However, each ship possessed the ability to fly outside the streams, but it required manual control. Although the pilots had been trained and tested for this, Jaketh hoped they hadn’t lost their touch.

Well?” Her voice boomed through the bridge. “Can the Falcon still fly?”

Y-yes, Commander, but of course we won’t be able to fly as quickly as we would with the stream.”

Jaketh shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Get us moving and back on course. Once the stream has been repaired, we can slip back into it.” Then she sat back with a smug smile. “The good news is, at least everyone else taking this route will be moving as slowly as we are until the stream is fixed, but keep your eyes open! Now that we’re all out here exposed to space, we can see each other better, and some of our rivals may decide to play a few games of target practice. We mustn’t allow them to get to Earth first. Let’s see what our old world is really like, boys!”

Now, what I wrote isn’t necessarily a prologue but could easily be the first chapter of a story. However, as you can see, the details from the ‘info dump’ have been woven into this excerpt because there’s one thing you need to remember about your readers: Readers are smart people. You don’t have to spoon feed them. If you write something along the lines of, “space ship traveling through space” most people are going to think, ‘futuristic setting, more advanced technology, etc’. They might be wondering if the people are coming from Earth to explore new worlds or if they’re aliens going to Earth, or if it’s a whole different galaxy altogether. These are little details you can weave into the narration as I’ve shown.

So, if you think your prologue is an info dump, try taking all that important information and weaving it into your story subtly. It doesn’t have to all come out in the first chapter but can be spread throughout several chapters. Make it natural though.

Another way prologues are used these days is how I mentioned in my last post—opening the story with a bang. For instance, a writer may want to start in a suspenseful, action-pack scene, but this specific scene isn’t the beginning of the story. Rather, there is such a scene that happened prior to the beginning of the story that may mirror a future scene and therefore foreshadow an mystery, so the author includes it by making it the prologue. Is this the right use for prologues? Personally, these types of prologues are not my preference because this can become a cheap way to begin your story. I don’t like being yanked around in a story—especially when the prologue deals with characters that aren’t even mentioned until 20 chapters later.

Let me illustrate:

Let’s discuss apples and how they’re not oranges. You see, oranges are, of course, orange. They have peelings that can be easily peeled by hand. When the peeling is completely gone, oranges can be broken into eight or so pieces, and this makes them so much easier to eat. So you see, apples are not oranges.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably thinking, “That said nothing about the apples! You were talking about oranges the entire time.” And that is what it is like when you introduce a character at the very beginning of a story (in the prologue), and that character doesn’t show up until much later either in person or just mentioned in conversation. By then my brain has completely forgotten about that character because I’ve gotten wrapped up in these new characters and the situation they’re facing, so when you yank back something from the very beginning of the story that you hadn’t constantly woven throughout the story, I’m left standing there like, “I feel like I should know these people, but I really don’t know them…or care.”

Is there a way to introduce a character in a prologue and not bring that character back until later on in the story but at the same time not give the readers a whiplash? Yes, and that is done by constantly weaving little details and hints here and there, so when it does come to light, the readers can pull on that thread and see how it’s all tied together. They’ll feel smart for seeing the connections, and then they’re impressed that you, the author, managed to weave together that masterpiece.

So, is it yay or nay for prologues? Again, it is entirely up to you, but you need to keep in mind what is best for the story. Also, consider why you want to include a prologue? Is there any other way you can write the beginning of the story without a prologue? If there is a way, take that route. If there is absolutely no other way, and it is the beginning of the story, then use it.

The ‘Big Bang’ of Writing

The ‘Big Bang’ of writing has absolutely nothing to do with evolution. It has everything to do with the ‘hook’ of the story. It’s commonly said in order to hook in your readers and captivate them, you must use the ‘shock and awe’ approach. In other words, start with something drastic and loud. This could be a lightning strike, a gunshot, a scream, a crash, or simply absolute chaos. Is this wrong? No, but there are two aspects to this kind of beginning which makes it unfavorable. For one, the action might not be where the story begins, so you might have a prologue or have a story that begins after the first chapter with “12 hours earlier.” Or, due to its tendency toward chaos, this also leads to confusion, and confusion at the beginning of a story is incredibly delicate.

Sometimes the real beginning of a story can be rather boring. It could be two people meeting in a coffee shop just having a chat, but you’ve been told to ‘start with a bang’ in order to hook in your readers, haven’t you? And you know that there’s an event far in the past that is much more intriguing than a simple conversation, so you might opt for a prologue to explore that. Of course, this isn’t the only use of prologues, which I will discuss in more detail next week, but this is one reason people might include such a thing in their story. And this, honestly, is a very poor reason. You can do better.

Now, say the story begins with the seemingly ordinary conversation in the coffee shop, but you know later on in the story the girl who is meeting with her friend there will be kidnapped from her own home later that night. Now, that’s much more interesting, isn’t it? So, you may be tempted to begin the story with her walking into her house at night, hollering, “Mom, I’m home!” No answer, so she continues calling out until she notices the backdoor in the darkened living room is slightly ajar. Going into the room (without turning on the light), she creeps forward, watching for someone or something out the window. Then from behind her, someone grabs her, clamping his hand over her mouth, and pulling her back into the darkness as her screams are muffled. And then you have “12 hours earlier.”

Every time I see this “12 hours earlier” I feel cheated in a way because it’s not natural for us to time travel. Yes, there are times when this is best for the story and really the only way to begin it. However, most of the time, it’s done just because the writer really wants to capture the reader’s attention, and this is a cheap solution. In that regard, I challenge you not to use this method but to find another way to hook in your audience.

Another way someone might begin a story is without a prologue and without skipping into the future briefly but starting the actual story at an eventful moment. For example, a character is being chased. This is an intense scene with lots of uncertainty. The readers are thrown into this without any knowledge as to where they are, when they are, and what exactly is happening and to whom it is happening. They have no details to go on, so they’re putting full trust in the author to masterfully handle the scene. The problem is, action-pack scenes—in and of themselves—are always difficult to write (regardless where in the story they’re located). Most people struggle writing something like a chase scene. It’s just hard. So, why would you want to make such a scene the opening of your book?

Let me put it this way, say you’ve never been in a fire, but the beginning of the story your character is trying to rescue people from a fire. This is a very intense setting, and there’s a lot that can be uncertain. You must use the full strength of your imagination to make the scene real. If you are at all unconfident about any element in the scene (as in having a complete, vivid mental image of the setting and how the character moves through the environment and reacts to the fire), then it will show in the writing. Yes, these scenes are loaded with confusion, but when the reader has a hard time envisioning what is happening and who the characters are and what is exactly at stake, it’s not as captivating as most people might think.

When a reader opens your book, you are asking him to invest his time into the story, and there are only so many hours in a day. So is beginning your story with confusion and uncertainty really a good idea? The reader hasn’t even had time to grow attached to the character, so he won’t care what happens.

Is it wrong to begin a story with such an action-packed, completely confusing scene? No—of course not. If that’s the best way for your story to begin, then do it. However, if the only reason that is your beginning is because you’ve heard the advice, “Begin with a bang,” then I would challenge you to review that scene and determine if it is really where the story begins.

It is okay to begin with a slow scene because it is all in the presentation of the scene which snatches the reader’s attention. Do you recall that scene I mentioned of ordinary conversation between two friends in a coffee shop? Sure, it has the potential of being boring—especially if you keep it completely ordinary—but how can you use such a scene to hook in a reader? Dangle a slight mystery in front of the reader.

Her iPhone buzzed again, and though Judith knew who was texting her, she still lifted her phone to see part of a text message displayed which read, “I know what you’re doing. I’m asking you, please, reconsider. Don’t…” That was all the preview of the message showed, and Judith wasn’t interested in reading the rest.

Instead, she set it facedown once more on the small table where she sat near the window in this small town coffee shop. She drummed her fingers. Lillian was late. She was always late. The one time Judith needed her best friend the most, couldn’t she just show up on time?

The chime above the door behind her sounded, and Judith let out a sigh then turned to greet Lillian, but the smile on her face froze when she realized it wasn’t Lillian. It was him. Even now, her mind went blank on his name though she was sure he had told her at one point.

However, he didn’t look at her but headed straight for the counter to order his coffee. Judith spun back around to keep her back toward him. Maybe he hadn’t seen her. Maybe she could slip away before he noticed her, but she wagged her head. He knew she was here. He knew that when he sent her that text message, and she shot a glare over her shoulder only to find him meandering the merchandise near the counter.

As if feeling her stare on him, he looked at her then smirked.

She quickly looked away just as the door chimed again.

Judith! I’m so sorry I’m late!” Lillian hastened around the table to sit across from her friend, and she dropped her purse on the floor. “Are you okay? Is everything okay?”

Yeah, I’m fine,” she answered quicker than she preferred, but then Judith paused and considered her friend…

And the scene would continue with the mysterious man lingering about and Judith fully aware of his presence, but she also knows that he is hoping his mere presence will keep her from telling Lillian her real reason for meeting with her. However, Judith is unconventional. She would likely couch her words with her friend to show this guy that he doesn’t control her.

So, in order to hook in your readers, do you have to begin with a ‘bang’? No. They say ‘hook them in’, and most people (some red neck fellas aside) don’t fish with shotguns. Rather it’s a skill that must be crafted, and this requires patience and trust in your approach. Sure, your story might require an abrupt beginning, but on the other hand, that might not be the best beginning for your story. So, when you’re trying to decide how to start your story, and if you have a ‘shock and awe’ approach, ask yourself why you’re using that method. Again, it’s not a bad method, but if your reason is at all based on “Because they always say begin with a bang!” then reconsider it. I know you can do better.

Next week, we’ll focus on prologues.