All the King’s Editors—Jim Dempsey

Jim’s post is part of the “All the King’s Editorsseries, where an editor from the Writer Unboxed contributor team edits manuscript pages submitted by a member of the WU community.

Each participating editor approaches a submission in a unique way, and speaks only for him or herself.

Remember, editing is as much art as science, and your take on the passage may differ. If so, feel free to join in the discussion at the end, but above all, be kind.

If you’re interested in submitting a sample for consideration, click HERE for instructions.


This is a short piece, and doesn’t need much of an introduction since it’s a prologue.

A prologue should give a sense of the story and hook the readers. As an editor, I have to ask if the prologue achieves at least one of those goals. As a reader, I ask: why start the story here and not with chapter one? In other words: do we really need the prologue? Let’s see …

[1] I took my life today. [2]

It was not an easy decision to make. There were numberless countless pros and cons that I had to consider. There always are when it comes to suicide. In my case, the pros outweighed the cons for the simple reason of being unable to because I couldn’t take living anymore. I couldn’t take hearing about all the reasons why we need to live in the moment or why we should cherish life while we can. People might talk a good game, but they don’t mean one word of that the bullshit that comes out of their mouths. [3]

The cold, hard truth is: the powers that be don’t like having blood on their hands. So they package little white lies inside easy-to-remember slogans to make us feel good about ourselves and make them feel content in believing their hands are clean. We end up feeling so good that we don’t recognize the deception taking place nor do we call them out on it. Instead, we turn the other cheek when tragedy strikes, and we go about our lives, taking solace in the fact that we had nothing to do with what had transpired. [4]

I am no stranger to this behavior. I am well acquainted with it and have been for as long as I can remember.

Even then [5], as When I stood [6] in the darkness of my room, I thought about all the people who’d flitted in and out of my life. The self-absorbed monsters that took advantage of me for as long as they liked and cast me aside when they grew tired. If only they knew the pain they’d inflicted was nothing compared to then would pale in comparison to what was taking had taken place above their heads them. [7]

At that point, I’d say the only thing on their minds was the free beer they‘ve been were consuming. The fact that it was after ten on a school night didn’t stop the beautiful creatures from senior class coming out to play. If it’s a weekend and you’re alone with large quantities of liquor, you can bet on half the senior class showing up and taking over your house for as long as they want. Either that or for as long as your neighbors can stand listening to them act like the total idiots they are. [8]

I can’t help but think about what will go through their minds after they find my body. Will the sight of death force their eyes wide open? Will the burden of guilt prompt them to admit their misdeeds? Will they feel anything at all? Whether they do or don’t, it doesn’t matter. They’re better off without me depriving them of their so-called happiness.

I wish I could have said the same about the people who used to stare at me from the framed picture on my nightstand. They were, by all appearances, a family of four enjoying a summer day at Carolina Beach, hoping to look back with fondness on a moment forever frozen in time. They had no way of knowing a medical diagnosis would turn their perfect world upside down. They thought it would never happen to people like them.

Then some smug little shit who didn’t know the first thing about medicine took what they never dreamed of hearing, and summed it up in one sentence: “It appears Nathan has a pervasive developmental disorder.” [9] – and caused tTheir lives came to come crashing down around them. From then on, everyone blamed Nathan for the events that followed that little announcement. I don’t blame them for thinking he ruined everything. It’s what I do.

No, that’s wrong. It’s not what I do. It’s what I used to do. For some reason, I keep forgetting I’m dead. It must be the shock. [10]


  1. The text was originally in italics, but I changed that. No need for another font in a prologue. The prologue should be similar in look and style to the rest of the novel.
  2. Excellent first line, and leaving it as a paragraph on its own adds more impact. It will be very difficult for readers not to move on to the next line.
  3. For me, this paragraph was a little too long for two reasons: i) it’s better to keep the opening flowing, especially after the precision of that first line, and ii) this didn’t sound like the voice of a young person, and the approximate age of the narrator in this case should be clear quickly (so we realize this is a young person who has taken his life). It can be tricky for an editor to tinker with first-person voice, as it’s like dialogue and the characters should be able to have their unique ways to talking, but the narration became more succinct later and, after I’d read the whole piece, the tone in this paragraph seemed out of place when I read it back again.
  4. I think we could lose these two paragraphs and keep the prologue focused on Nathan, on his specific feelings (more on that later). The mention of the powers that be and so on are too general, too broad, and makes him sound paranoid, so I would only keep this in if that paranoia is a big part of the story.
  5. It’s not clear when this “then” refers to. It could be back as long as the narrator can remember. A new paragraph helps to separate these two thoughts, and changing “even then as I stood” to “When I stood” makes that moment clearer.
  6. For a while, I thought about the verb “stood” here. I wondered if someone in this position would just stand there in the darkness of the room. Wouldn’t you sit? Lie on your bed? And then I thought: standing there would be pretty odd, weird even. But we’re not dealing with someone who cares about that, and I think imagining someone standing in the middle of a dark room doing nothing but thinking paints the perfect picture for this situation. It’s not a “normal” situation. It’s odd. It’s weird. That’s what’s so intriguing about this opening. And “stood” is perfect here.
  7. This sentence wasn’t so fluent. I had to read it a few times to understand it. For example, “above their heads” could have been metaphorical instead of literal, and having that double meaning could be great, but those kinds of tricks shouldn’t get in the way of clarity. And since he’s already dead, the “was taking place” needs to change to “had taken place,” and then the “at that point” in the next para is also clear.
  8. I think most people know or can imagine how teenage parties can get out of hand, so you don’t really need this, and it’s already clear that Nathan doesn’t fit in with this crowd, doesn’t see himself as one of the “beautiful people.” Again, it’s too much of a generalization while this should focus more on Nathan.
  9. Making this is a new sentence adds extra emphasis to this point and to the diagnosis from the smug little shit.
  10. I have my doubts about whether the author needs this last line or not. I think ending on “I keep forgetting I’m dead,” is a stronger ending, but maybe it’s too much. “It must be the shock” sounds a little glib; it lightens the mood, which could work too. I’d have to know the tone of the rest of the story to make a final decision, but maybe the WU community could weigh in with their thoughts too. Either way, it’s a great last para.

When I first read this sample, I thought immediately of “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold. And that has a prologue.

Here are the first two lines:

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”

Note the third word: was. That past tense is almost lost as you contemplate Salmon as a name. And then that killer—pun intended—second sentence.

Our sample above has that great hook too. As I mentioned, you can’t help but continue to the next line.

The second paragraph of “The Lovely Bones” gives us more details of the narrator. We get her favorite quote, which she hopes will make her sound literary. She’s in the chem and chess club, is bad at cooking class, and her favorite teacher is Mr. Botte, the biology teacher. He is not her murderer, she says, and then tells she tells us who is and how he did it.

We get all that by page two. By telling us all this, she’s saying that this is not going to be a murder mystery, it’s something else. You have to read on to find out. And that’s when you learn this is a story about how this young girl’s family struggled after her death.

What do we know about the narrator of the sample above? That he’s young, has a “pervasive developmental disorder” (the author of the sample had included a note to say that the narrator was autistic), he’s an outsider, he has a least one sibling, and he feels he is to blame for his family’s troubles. And he’s now dead.

These are all important details, but I wonder if they couldn’t come out elsewhere in the story. They seem too general to me when what we really need here are details that no other character in this story could tell us. It would be great to get specific examples of how that autism diagnosis affected him and his family. Relate one representative scene where the family blamed him. Or describe the particular event that tipped him towards considering suicide. We don’t need a lot (a prologue should be short), but specifics would boost this prologue from good to great.

That’s what makes Sebold’s prologue great. She gives us the details of Susie’s short life and how she died from Susie’s perspective. We need more of Nathan’s perspective here, to know some things that only Nathan knows.

That’s not to say this should follow some formula or should copy  “The Lovely Bones.” This is a different type of prologue anyway. Sebold’s sets up the story that will follow, while the example above starts in media res, showing us a dramatic event—the suicide—from later in the story and, I’m assuming, chapter one will take the story back in time to show us how Nathan came to that point.

But it’s the details that makes Sebold’s prologue work so well.

And a prologue has to work well. Here’s why.

Many publishers see a prologue and are immediately turned off by it. Their reasoning is that you should start the story at the start of the story, and prologues tend to mainly be backstory (as appears to be the case here too).

When considering writing a prologue, you have to ask if you can’t fit in those backstory details elsewhere, without having to shoehorn them in, of course. You have to ask if the readers really need this information up front, before the story proper starts. Only then do you need a prologue.

Readers are wise to prologues too, and many people just skip them and go straight to chapter one where they know the story really starts.

In fact, one simple way to test if your prologue is really necessary is to rename it as chapter one. If the story still flows, then you don’t need a prologue.

Prologues have been debated long and endlessly in the literary world. We’d need to know more about how this story develops to say for sure if the prologue is necessary or not. The first and last paragraphs certainly hook the reader, and there’s some great writing in between too. I’d just like to know more specifics about Nathan, to get a more detailed look at his unique view of the world. Then I’d be convinced this prologue needs to stay.

What are your thoughts on prologues? Do we need them or are we better off without them? Have you ever skipped a prologue and gone straight to chapter one?

By Jim Dempsey

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