No man is an island, but I sure feel like one. I think maybe I should start a self-help group: Prologues Anonymous.
Hi, my name is Kathleen, and I like reading and writing prologues.
It feels like anti-prologue sentiment is rampant these days (and rampant is probably an exaggeration–I’m just overly sensitive and happen to notice it). Prologues have been declared a bad way to begin a book. Readers have been said not to like them and to even skip over them entirely (which I look at with the same horror as those who read the last page first…it entirely defeats the purpose. But that’s neither here nor there). My CP is entirely leery and paranoid of them after Miss Snark’s scathing opinion was disseminated. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her use one.
As Sherryl Clark has been challenging us to create Great Beginnings this week on her Left Behind & Loving It workshop and the sticky issue of prologues has come up, it’s put me on alert about prologues in my own work. A quick perusal of my backlogged WIPs shows that I use prologues about 50% of the time. Some of these WIPs are old, and were I to rewrite them, I’d wind up starting in a different place, I imagine (as I have learned a considerable bit about craft over the last five years or so). Even among my current projects, I still use a prologue to begin. But all these posts about it being a bad idea or newbie mistake make me paranoid about it. Sherryl poses the question:
But let me ask you this – if your book was about to be accepted for publication, the offer on the table was $50,000 advance, and the editor said, “The advance is yours and the first print run will be 50,000 copies – if you lose your prologue” – could you do it? If you honestly think you could, maybe you should seriously consider it.
Well I could do quite a bit if I had an advance on the table that size! I have to eat and pay the mortgage, of course. But I’m still not convinced that it’s in the best interest of the story. The sentiment seems to be that if the information imparted in the prologue can be delivered in some other manner elsewhere in the book, then it should be and the story will be better for it. The other side seems to be that prologues are almost always superfluous. I am, of course, biased about my own work, but I don’t feel like I write a prologue of superfluous information.
I suppose it would help if I lay out my reasons for using prologues.
I like a prologue if I’m dealing with an event that predates the rest of the storyline. In Til Death I open 20 years earlier with my then 10-year-old hero finding a body. For me this is the inciting incident because this is what sets him on the path to becoming a detective and it was also the first kill made by my serial killer–it’s what set him on the path that he takes. Pot took a different view of inciting incidents. She sees the set up of the hero and heroine by the hero’s soft-hearted grandmother as the inciting incident for the current story. In any event, I am second guessing using it as my opener because, frankly, everybody’s making me paranoid. But my other options aren’t as attractive to me. Either the hero remembers it in a dream or he tells the heroine about it in detail. Neither have the immediacy of him experiencing it at ten, which is what I like about the scene as is. We shall see.
I also like a prologue (in my own work or others’) when the story is starting out in someone’s head that isn’t the central hero or heroine. Most often this is with the bad guy. I read somewhere that it’s often considered a cliche in crime/mystery/suspense. Personally, I like having insight into a killer’s head. That’s my geeky forensic psychology/profiling side coming out. I like seeing more than just the actions of the bad guy. I like seeing into his twisted head. I like it because it gives an opportunity to show the killer’s logic–how his (or her) actions are perfectly rational in his own mind. That’s something you can’t know simply from seeing the end result. That goes beyond prologues, of course, but when I’m starting out in any crime/mystery/suspense novel, as a reader, I like starting with the killer/villain to set the tone because without the killer/villain, there’s no story (at least in that kind of genre).
I suppose those are really the only instances I use prologues myself. If I look on my bookshelves, most of the books I own with prologues fall into those categories. I understand fantasy and sci-fi often have long involved backstory/setting type prologues, and I can see how those would drag (you can tell I don’t read a whole lot in that genre). Overall, it seem to be a case of an entire concept being downed because a lot of people do it badly. Kind of like how some cities are banning pit bulls as a breed because there are a small number with bad owners or owners who are incapable of handling the very demanding breed.
Will I jump off the prologue train? I don’t know. I’m going to keep writing as I stand. If, when I finish, I decide to take a bit of time and rewrite the portion with the prologue information and show it elsewhere to see how it fits…well I’ll try it. But I still don’t see it as a bad thing.