In 2014 I began writing my debut, ‘The Sister‘, for fun. It was meant to be a short story. I hadn’t written any fiction as an adult and I hadn’t any qualifications other than a clutch of GCSE’s. I never believed I could write a book. I had always thought that to be a published novelist you needed a wealth of experience and a degree in creative writing.
When it got to the point that my ‘short story’ had reached 90k words I began to tentatively hope I could edit it to a high enough standard where I’d dare to submit it. Out of my depth, I was so grateful when a writer I met at an event offered to read the opening 3 chapters for me. I didn’t check where she was published, or how she was published. The fact she was in print led me to believe she knew absolutely everything.
Her overriding feedback was that my prologue was a huge mistake, “readers hate them, agents hate them and publishers hate them. If you submit something with a prologue it won’t be read.”
I felt my face burn with embarrassment. I didn’t know the rules and I’d been found out for the imposter that I was.
Immediately I deleted my prologue, but now, several books on and with over a million copies sold I’m familiar with most of the rules and (whispers) here’s the thing. There aren’t any.
That writer, as it turned out, was right that ‘The Sister‘ shouldn’t have a prologue, but not for the reasons she said.Her overriding feedback was that my prologue was a huge mistake, ‘”readers hate them, agents hate them and publishers hate them. If you submit something with a prologue it won’t be read.” That writer, as it turned out, was right that ‘The Sister‘ shouldn’t have a prologue, but not for the reasons she said.
The prologue wasn’t needed. It didn’t serve a purpose and in a novel, every single scene, every single word needs to earn its place, prologue included. After ‘The Sister’ spent two months at No. 1 I found the confidence to include a prologue in my second psychological thriller, ‘The Gift‘, because no matter what that writer said about people hating prologues, I don’t, and first and foremost I’m a reader. I don’t write one for every book because not every story warrants one.
So how do I decide when to use one? ‘All For You’ (currently 99p in the Amazon Kindle Deal) is my newly published thriller and I’ll use it as an example. In this story I wanted readers to know that teenage boys are disappearing and that Connor, my main character’s son, will be taken next. Then, in chapter one we jump to several days before Connor is taken so readers can watch it unfold and try to figure out who is taking the boys, and why.
All For you – Prologue
Something is wrong.
I’ve a deep, primal instinct screaming that I need to get home to Connor. It isn’t just because of the row we’d had. The horrible, hurtful things he had said, it’s something else.
A knowing that, despite being 17, I should never have left my son alone.
The flash of neon orange cones blur through the window as I gather speed until the roadworks force me to a stop. The candle-shaped air freshener swings from the rear-view mirror – its strawberry scent cloying.
My fingertips drum the steering while I will the temporary traffic lights to change to green. The rain hammers against the roof the of the car, windscreen wipers lurch from side to side. It isn’t the crack of lightning that causes my stomach to painfully clench, or the rumble of thunder, even though storms always take me back to the time I’d rather forget, but a mother’s instinct.
I’ve felt it before. That bowling ball of dread hurtling towards me.
Drawing in a juddering breath, I tell myself everything is fine. It’s only natural that worry gnaws at me with sharpened teeth. Every mother in our town is on high alert right now after the disappearance of two teenage boys. I have more reason to be on edge than most.
It’s not as though I’m thinking Connor has been taken, but it’s one thing for him to ignore my calls, he’d never ignore Kieron’s.
Particularly when he had asked Kieron to call him after his hospital appointment.
Why didn’t he pick up?
In my mind’s eye I see him, bounding down the stairs two at a time, balancing on a chair to reach the snacks he doesn’t realize I know he hides on the top of his wardrobe.
An accident, or something else?
My stomach churns with a sense of foreboding.
I’ve been under so much pressure lately that I’m bound to be anxious. Edgy. But . . . I jab at my mobile and try Connor once more. My favourite picture of him lights the screen. We took it five years ago during an unseasonably hot Easter. Before Kieron was diagnosed, before everything changed. We’re on the beach, the wind whipping his dark curls around his face. His grin is wide, traces of chocolate ice cream smudged around his mouth.
We were all so happy once. I don’t know how, but I have to believe that we can be again. The alternative is too painful to bear.
The phone rings and rings. Fear brushes the back of my neck.
I try from Kieron’s phone this time. He still doesn’t answer.
The lights are taking an age to change.
Next to me, Kieron sleeps. His head lolling against the window, breath misting the glass. The dark sweep of his lashes spider across his pale skin. The hospital visit has exhausted him. The red tartan blanket I always keep in the car has slipped from his knees and I reach across and pull it over his legs. The passenger seat is swallowing his thin body. At thirteen he should be growing, but his illness is shrinking him. It’s shrinking me. Sometimes I feel as though my entire family is disappearing. Aidan barely talks to me, never touches me. In bed there’s an ever-increasing space between us. Both of us teetering on our respective edges of the mattress, a strip of cold sheet an invisible barrier between us. My head no longer resting on his chest, his leg never slung over mine, his fingers not stroking my hair any more.
Connor is monosyllabic and moody in the way that 17-year-olds often are but he never was, before . . .
But it isn’t just that, it’s also this sickness that isn’t just Kieron’s. It’s everybody’s.
The lights change to green.
Before I can pull away there’s a streak of yellow. Through the rain a digger trundles towards me, blocking my path.
Kieron sighs in his sleep the way his brother sighs when he’s awake. Sometimes it seems the boys only communicate through a series of noises and shrugs. But that’s unfair. It’s hardly surprising Connor’s mouth is a permanent thin line as though he’s forgotten how to smile. It’s not only his concern about his brother on top of everything he went through before the summer that has turned my sweet-natured son into a mass of guilt and unhappiness, but the sharp truth that out of his friendship group of three, two of them have disappeared.
‘The Taken’, the local paper calls them, printing that out of those who were there that tragic day, Connor is the only one left.
But Connor knows this as he hides in his room, too scared to go to school.
We all know this.
Tyler and Ryan have vanished without a trace and the police have no idea why.
It’s up to me to keep Connor safe.
I glance at Kieron.
I’ll do anything to keep both of my boys safe.
The driver of the digger raises his hand in appreciation as he passes by me. Before I can pull away, the lights change to red once more. Frustrated, I slam my palms against the steering wheel.
Rationally, I know Connor hasn’t been taken.
He’s at home.
The door is locked.
But still . . .
He never ignores Kieron.
Despite the lights being red, I pull away. There’s no approaching traffic. I snap on the radio again. The newsreader relays in cool, clipped tones that the missing boys haven’t been found but police are following several lines of inquiry. Nobody else is missing. The unsaid ‘yet’ lingers in the air, and although I know Connor is safe, my foot squeezes the accelerator. Home is the only place my anxiety abates. When we’re all under one roof and I can almost pretend everything is exactly how it was.
Visibility is poor. Frustrated, I slow, peering out through the teeming rain. If I have an accident I’m no use to Kieron, to anyone. My heart is racing as there’s another crack of lightning. I count the seconds the way I used to with the boys when they were small.
A grumble of thunder. The storm is closing in. Everything is closing in, crashing down. My stomach is a hard ball, my pulse skyrocketing as a sense of danger gallops towards me.
The urgency to be at home overrides the voice of caution urging me to slow down. I race past the old hospital, which has fallen into disrepair, the white and blue NHS sign crawling with ivy, and then the secondary school. I barely register the figure cloaked in black stepping onto the zebra crossing but on some level I must have noticed him as I blast the horn until he jumps back onto the path. He shakes his fist but I keep moving.
My chest is tight as I pull into my street, my driveway. A whimper of fear slithers from my lips as I see the front door swinging open.
Without waking Kieron I half fall, half step out of the car, my shoes slipping on wet tarmac as I rush towards my house.
The table in the hallway is lying on its side. My favourite green vase lies in shattered pieces over the oak floor. The lilies that had been left anonymously on the doorstep are strewn down the hallway.
‘Hello?’ My voice is thin and shaky.
The cream wall by the front door is smeared in blood. Connor’s phone is on the floor, lying in a puddle of water from the vase. His screen is smashed. My feet race up the stairs towards his bedroom. A man’s voice drifts towards me. I push open Connor’s door just as shots are fired.
Instinctively, I cover my head before I realize the sound is coming from the war game blaring out of Connor’s TV. His Xbox controller is tangled on the floor along with his headphones.
His bedroom is empty.
He was here.
He was safe.
The front door was locked.
Quickly, I check every room in the house until I’m back in the hallway, staring in horror at the blood on the wall, trying to make sense of it.
Connor has gone.
As you can see, prologues are a great tool for grabbing attention, giving background, creating a twist , and for providing a hook. A question. The prologue must be set apart from Chapter One, either with a different point of view or a different time – past, present, or future.
I asked my son once, who is an avid reader whether he read prologues as I was genuinely shocked to hear some readers don’t.
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘but I never bother with the things at the end. The epilogue.’
‘Why not?’ I was horrified.
‘Because I already know how the story ends,’ he said.
Not in my books. There is often, as there is with ‘The Family‘, a twist on the very last line in the epilogue, but how to end a story is another blog post entirely.
‘A galloping pulse-pounder’ Heat
‘[A] gripping thriller . . . with perfectly observed emotions and red herrings that will boggle the mind’ Woman & Home
‘A full-blown, brilliantly plotted and written novel, with a clarity and originality that is wonderfully unique’ On magazine
‘You’ll be left open-mouthed by the turn of events’ Woman’s Weekly
‘A compelling page-turner’ Bella
Meet the Walsh Family
Lucy: Loving mother. Devoted wife. And falling to pieces.
Aidan: Dedicated father. Faithful husband. And in too deep.
Connor:Hardworking son. Loyal friend. But can never tell the truth.
Everyone in this family is hiding something, but one secret will turn out to be the deadliest of all . . .
Can this family ever recover when the truth finally comes out?