So, one thing that doesn’t work in a prologue, generally speaking, is a big battle scene where a lot of people die. This is because the reader has not been given a reason to care about these people, so no matter how many of them die, there’s no real emotional impact. Blow up a whole world and well, that’s a shame, but is there a reason to actually turn the page? Not really, because so what? Those people have not been made real to the reader. They don’t have the backstory, the personality, the depth, that makes a character real, so it’s impossible to care about them.
On the other end of the spectrum is annoyingly transparent tearjerker manipulation. Stephen King’s later books are bad that way. Oh, there she is! The nice female character who’s going to die a tragic death. With some of King’s books, you can literally spot that character the second she walks on stage. No matter what contortions King has to go through to make sure the protagonist fails to save her, she’s doomed. I gave up reading King some years ago because he did that in a bunch of books in a row and as I say, the technique became super transparent and obvious.
In between ho-hum mortality and manipulative tearjerking, though, is a wide range of character death that has to happen to move the plot along, and which ought not be skipped across lightly.
When I wrote the first draft of TUYO, there was a scene right about in the middle where a lot of people died, and that scene lacked emotional heft because none of those characters had been made real for the reader. That scene is still there, so if you’re about halfway through TUYO, I expect you know which scene I’m talking about. But when I realized how little emotional impact that scene had, I specifically set out to nudge the reader into caring a lot more about the real tragedy that takes place in those few pages. The decision was so explicit that I am able, for a change, to draw back the curtain and explain what I did that I think makes this scene work much better in the final version.
What I did was take one minor secondary character who dies in that scene and make him real. I gave him just tiny hints of personality in the first half of the novel, just the minimum necessary to justify a moment when he tells Ryo a little bit about his personal history. This is very short, about a page. Then he gets a few final words. Then he dies, plus a lot of other people, but this one character carries that scene. Rather than letting the reader skim across this scene and hardly notice that a lot of people just got killed, the reader cares about this character and that spills out across the scene and makes all those deaths tragic.
Or that’s how it’s supposed to work. I think it came out rather well.
As a side note, I’ll add that usually, not always, I write a book straight through from front to back. There are variations on this theme, but generally that’s how I do it.
In TUYO, though, I wrote the first half. Then, at the point our protagonists meet the bad guy, I was like ooooh no, this is going to be really awful. And I skipped ahead to the big escape scene, I expect you know the one I mean, and wrote almost all the rest of the book from there. Only after the ultimate victory did I go back and wrote those scenes in the middle. I’ve never done that before, but thinking about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything quite that awful to a character before either, so maybe that’s why.