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In my current novel, the protagonist is driven forward throughout the plot by events that happened to him in the past. The reader needs to know these events, so I'd like to include them in a prologue. The prologue would take place nearly a year before the events of the rest of the novel.

Here's my question: How can I show how much time has passed between the prologue and chapter one? Is there some technique I can use that will seem natural?

Methods that won't work: Previously, I've included a bold header above the chapter, maybe with a date, maybe with a number of days later. I'm trying to veer away from this method though, because it doesn't lend itself to every kind of writing (this is just my personal opinion).

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I'll refrain from standard cautions about the advisability of prologues vs. weaving the back story into the main story and assume that you've definitely decided a prologue is the way to go. With that in mind:

I think just having the first chunk labelled "Prologue" cues most readers that there's a time separation between Chapter One.

Beyond that, I think your technique will depend on the content of your prologue. If you have Joe getting blown up in the Prologue, in Chapter One you can have Joe testing his scars and musing about how they don't seem to be fading any more a year after the injuries. If Joe watches his true love walk away from him in the Prologue, have him still trying not to think about her in Chapter One, or have a friend mention that it's been a year since Jane left and it's time for Joe to start dating again. etc.

Textual cues, I'd say. But I can't give you more details about what they might be without knowing what happens in your prologue.

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  • Thanks Kate S. This seems really obvious. So obvious, in fact, that I'm not sure why it didn't occur to me. :) As for the prologues, I actually don't think I've heard much in the way of cautionary advice about them. What might it be? (In my case, I am including the prologue in order to introduce a character around which the main conflict is built, but who does not appear until the end of the book.) – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Sep 27 '15 at 22:47
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    Prologues are kind of polarizing - there are stories of readers and agents and editors who hate them, feeling they're a sign of sloppy writing. And then there are some really great books written with prologues, so... who knows, really? – Kate S. Sep 28 '15 at 0:09
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What's the most natural way to show a passage of time between the prologue and chapter one?

I know this is not the answer you want, but the truth is that there is no most natural way. There are techniques that'll be adequate to the story you are telling, there are ones that'll be inadequate. Your judgement as to which techniques you'll choose and how you'll employ them is what can distinguish you and your story.

But it happens that, in your original post, you made a second, different question. Let's take a closer look.

Here's my question: How can I show how much time has passed between the prologue and chapter one? Is there some technique I can use that will seem natural?

Kate S. already gave you a great answer, but I'll expand a bit with some examples.

  1. Jorge Luis Borges' stories were often described as microscopic romances. They were often gigantic ideas that were quickly condensed into their most important aspects and summarized in one ow two pages. Borges accomplished that by ommiting detail, by writing in "broad strokes." He, often, did not give much time to describing what was accessory to the story, such as physical appearance of certain characters, climate, geographical location, etc. He gave only what was necessary and spared no words.

How can this show passage of time? Well, by this technique the reader is forced into filling the gaps on his/her own.

How can you apply this technique? You could drop the Prologue and mention it's important aspects in a vague way in the first or second paragraph of Chapter 1. Now, let me propose a short thought exercise. Take a look at the first paragraph of Kafka's The Metamorphosis.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

Kafka could have written a Prologue detailing the character's transformation from man to insect. But would that be good? We would have lost one of the most iconic first lines in all history of literature.

  1. A technique I have employed often is showing the reader an element that has changed, and then the passage of time can be inferred. You can describe the natural scenario where the story happens, and tell how winter turned to summer, how the rose buds showed their intense blood-red and fell when their time came, you can tell of the yound trees planted during childhood and felled by the same hands, now adult and rough and cruel. You can tell about time by describing the eyes of the elders, how they became cloudy and milky with blindness, by the teeth collected and cherished by a mother whose children have moved to faraway lands.

Be creative. (I planned this to be longer, but unfortunately this has extended beyong what I originally planned. I might update at a later date.)

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One way that may work for you:

Let's say, for the sake of the argument, that the protagonist is driven by the divorce of his parents when he was ten. Tell this part of the story from somebody else's viewpoint. Just about any character who sees a lot of the situation will work as this: Either parent, either of their lawyers, the family court judge, any social worker assigned to the child, or whoever you think can present the most interesting viewpoint.

Then start chapter one with the protagonist doing something that shows the passage of time. He can be clocking in at work, driving his car somewhere, signing a contract, ordering a drink at a bar, or anything else which clearly establishes that he is no longer ten.

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