Prologue To A Proposal

A couple of years ago, I read the perfect explanation to give aspiring writers about the importance of putting in their 10,000 hours perfecting their craft before calling in every favor they can exploit to get their manuscript/screenplay/proposal into the hands of an agent/editor/publisher/studio executive etc.  It was written by a professional screenwriter, Josh Olson (A History of Violence). It was called I Will Not Read Your F-cking Script.

For experienced book editors/agents/publishers who have themselves put in the work perfecting their own craft (finding stories that will compel people to part with their hard earned money and invest in a fifteen hour reading experience), this statement from Olson is especially true:

It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.

If you’ve read thousands of proposals and manuscripts that have been vetted by other professionals before they even reach your inbox, and among those thousands, you’ve chosen to fight to publish perhaps 200 of them in a twenty year career, you’ve earned the right to stop reading after a sentence.

That’s right.  A sentence. Most editors and agents read far more than a sentence before tossing the proposal in the reject pile, but I don’t think they owe anyone more. Is that harsh?

If you’ve never studied medicine but always thought you’d be good at it, would you feel comfortable asking your friends to get you an appointment with a highly regarded surgeon and asking her to help you try laparoscopy?

Why then do amateur writers who don’t understand the complex structural and thematic nuances of a well told prose story think it appropriate to jot something down on a whim and ask their Uncle Fred to call his old college roommate who has clawed his way into a relatively secure job at a publishing house and ask him to read the first draft of their masterpiece?

I think one of the dazzling qualities of Art—especially a well told story—is that it has the appearance of being easy, effortless. A great story feels as if the writer has crawled inside of your head, pulled up an easy chair, and whispered the written words into your ear. That magic seduces all of us. And like the precocious child at a birthday party, we want the magicians to tell us their tricks.

This brings me back to the art of the narrative nonfiction proposal…

The advice I offer is not in the realm of trickery.  There really are no tricks to fine writing.  It’s trial and error. Lots of error, just like playing the piano, cooking, or throwing a slider. But there are pieces of sheet music, books of recipes, and diagrammed finger positions to ground and guide the dedicated. I’ll try and present the equivalent to the aspiring nonfiction storyteller.

A great proposal is about structure and voice.  How can a writer structure a proposal so that he can dynamically “show” what he wants to create as well as entertainingly “tell” his target reader (agent, editor etc., not Aunt Millie) how he plans to do it?

As an agent, the first thing I tell a potential client who has an idea I think could appeal to editors and publishers (notice I didn’t write “appeal to book buyers”) is to open the proposal with a prologue of not more than two thousand words.

The prologue is the SHOW.

The prologue must be equivalent to reading the prose of the final draft of the manuscript…the one after copyediting and proofreading, the one that is given to an interior book designer. The prologue is the entire book boiled down to a single overarching story, with short tangential mini-stories that inform and support the main attraction.

The prologue has to “turn.” It has to take the reader from one place to another.  It has to surprise the reader.  Done well, a dynamic prologue is crack cocaine to an editor. She will read the proposal straight through if you nail the prologue.

As straightforward as it seems, the prologue is the white whale of a proposal. It will shake you to your core. It will keep you up at night. It will bury you if you are unsure of what you want to SAY.  A great story says something.  It elicits an emotional response from the reader. If you want to report and not say anything, you should find another idea.  Wikipedia is filled with reports and they are valuable research tools, but they aren’t stories.

It’s impossible to do all of that—overarching main story supported by mini-stories that surprisingly takes the reader from one place to another and elicits a predetermined emotional response from the reader—in two thousand words or less.  Right?  Give us an example…

Okay.  Say you wanted to write about an event that turned the tide of history.  It’s a perfect little story about a benevolent King who is killed by a cabal of ambitious upstarts who pervert the truth to gain power. In order to get an advance to write the story, you have to write a proposal and hence a dynamite prologue.  You ask yourself some questions:

1)      What point of view should I feature in the prologue?

Third Person Omniscient?

The King?

The leader of the cabal?

A court jester?

The Queen?

A shepherd who witnesses the murder?

2)      How can I make the prologue turn?

Maybe the King takes his “friend” out to lunch to thank him for his service and through the course of the meal discovers that his friend is there to kill him?  The turn would be from loyalty to betrayal? Nah, too reminiscent of Harold Pinter.

It takes you about three months to finally figure out how best to SHOW what you want your book to SAY—Ezekiel 25:17.

You decide to look at the story from the point of view of a soldier close to the King. Now that the old guy is dead, his ties to the past regime put the soldier in serious danger. He can either kiss the feet of the new guys in power, or he can fight.  But to fight alone is folly. The stakes for this guy are huge, life or death.  If he doesn’t succeed, evil will reign. You decide to have him publicly comment on the death of the king. But you have to “turn” the story.

One writer solved the problem this way:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interréd with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest—
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men—
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

Two hundred and sixty eight words and my heart’s in Caesar’s coffin too.


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  1. Jeremy on July 1, 2011 at 5:55 am

    What a great way to start the writing day! The analogy of asking to sit in with a surgeon is hilarious — I laughed at the phrase “try laparoscopy.”

    And I’m grateful a friend sent me Mr. Olson’s essay a few years ago. The line I keep coming back to is “you cannot discourage a writer.” If I have to tell a friend “No,” or “This stinks,” the writer in her–if there is one–won’t give up.

    What friends, friends of friends, family, etc. don’t always understand–in addition to the lack of respect toward the professional–is when they ask a writer to pass something up the chain, say, to an agent, that writer is putting his/her reputation on the line and possibly handing their agent something that will damage the relationship.

    If it’s a piece of crap, do you fork it over with a warning? “I know this is a waste of your time, but he’s my cousin.”

    Or do you tell her it’s a masterpiece, causing her to suspect your standards?

    What if it is really good, and your agent suddenly doesn’t have time for you because of all the deals he’s making? (Not saying this happens Shawn, but it is a selfish concern of mine.)

    All that said, I certainly had a few helping hands when I got rolling, and I want to do the same for others. The first step will be showing them this entire series, as well as Mr. Olson’s essay.

  2. Jeff on July 1, 2011 at 7:40 am


    Great stuff.

    I can still remember when “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script” came out. Very nearly peed my pants. I guess every profession comes with its own a hazards! If anyone hasn’t seen the always entertaining Harlan Ellison give a dramatic, Dr. Suess-inspried read to Olson’s essay, you can find it here:

  3. Tricia on July 1, 2011 at 9:23 am

    To diverge slightly:

    As a culture we like to think we have absolutes in terms of standards regarding knowledge and everything else (including writing); but these are simply strategies of the mind and nothing else.

    Those in the business who have ever offered me help have one common feature: they are both generous and discriminating with their time and energy, and this quality has nothing to do with the mind alone. And, they have also been able to say what they really think — both with decency and without concern for how others will respond —
    because their response always comes from the same place.

  4. Brandy on July 1, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    This was really helpful – thank you! It inspired me to change the first sentence of my latest blog post from a mediocre reminiscence to:

    “Yesterday I met a friend who made me very glad I didn’t kill her.”

  5. Bob Mayer on July 2, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    It’s all subjective.

  6. Chris Johnson on July 6, 2011 at 9:23 am

    Shit. Shit. Shit.

  7. remi on October 6, 2011 at 8:32 am


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