Prologues Anonymous

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.

7 thoughts on “Prologues Anonymous

  1. Since some people DO skip over prologues, I don’t see why people get in such an uproar over it. I mean it’s EASY to skip a prologue if it isn’t your thing. If prologues help to get you interested in the story, then you can read instead of skip. To me it’s win-win. You pick up readers you might not have otherwise had, and the others can skip it.

    I found your prologue for Til Death very engaging, and if it hadn’t been there, it would have been harder for me to get into the story. In an age when we have to “grab the reader by the first page” prologues shouldn’t be a bad guy, because it allows that grabbing, without unnecessarily crippling the rest of the story.

    Save my Soul has a slightly slow build in the first chapter, but it’s important to the story. I don’t just get some wild thrill out of doing it that way. A prologue might help to let readers know what they’re in for, that it’s worth it, and where we’re going.

    It’s sort of the preview for the impatient. And a great way to show, like you say, an inciting incident that would be far less powerful worked into the story as a flashback.

  2. 😀 Well it’s nice to hear someone agree with me. I really am baffled, though, by skippers. I mean, you bought the book. The prologue is part of the story. Why would you cheat yourself out of part of the story? But then I’m one of those people who abhors abridged books, condensed movie versions, etc. I want the WHOLE STORY, darn it! I would be interested to know whether people in other cultures are as likely to skip stuff as Americans are with our inbred hurry hurry hurry instant gratification culture.

  3. hehe not sure, I think prologues work best when they’re short and sweet. How anyone can bitch about two or three pages that immediately pulls you into the meat of it, I have no idea.

  4. I can see how someone would be annoyed by a lengthy prologue that’s the same length as a full chapter (mine are, on average 12-18 pages). My prologues are typically short. A page or two, sometimes three. There are loads of movies that start with an equivalent of a prologue. Like one of my faves…Sleepless In Seattle. Starts at Maggie’s graveside. Then jumps forward. There are others and my mind is refusing to cooperate and provide examples…

  5. I don’t think there’s anything conceptually wrong with a prologue. (I use them myself.) To my mind, a prologue is the story before the story. Yeah, you can skip it if you want, and you just won’t get parts of the back-story that led up to all this.

    The problem I have is that so often prologues are mushy, unfocused, and boring. If the prologue is the story before the story, it should be written as a story. Yes, a prologue must be a brief story with very little detail, but it should be a story nonetheless, with setup, conflict, climax, and resolution. So often, however, prologues simply read like info-dumps, and that’s boring.


  6. Well now that’s a nice and compact way to explain it, Tim. The only thing I might have to disagree with you on is the resolution…I actually like prologues to have the setup and the conflict and the climax…but in many cases the novel that follows is the resolution.

  7. The fact is that if you have a great prologue, I doubt removing it is going to be an issue. Be sure that you do.

    I my mind, your TD prologue is about what incited you to think up the story. It’s your inspiration incident. In my mind, inciting incident is synonymous with conflict catalyst. There’s stuff that happens in your story— the story’s main conflict; the conflict catalyst is the thing that happens (changes) that sets your characters to take their first steps to resolving the story conflict. Now you can stretch that to say that Wyatt finding that body set him on the path to becoming a detective. But his becoming a detective has nothing to do with how he came to be at that house at that time in your story. His finding that body had nothing to do with why your killer killed the first time or continued down that path.

    It’s not superfluous, but it’s not necessary, either. And it’s not bad. It’s hard to say it’s a nice little narrative, what with him finding a body and all, but it is a nice little piece of writing with a decent hook. I probably wouldn’t put the book down because of it. I’d want to know what that had to do with the rest of the story and I would keep reading.

    I think what Sherry was getting at, however, is that we can get so attached to them as writers that we don’t want to let them go even if it is what’s best for the story. And that’s why she asks the $50K question. She’s saying if you need some help with your objectivity, here’s an imaginary check to help you explore another side of the issue.

    Sometimes I think a story really wants a prologue, and I can think of examples where it absolutely works. So I’m not wholly anti. On the other hand, I can see where a lot of the anti sentiment has come from because there are a lot of useless and uninteresting and or cheap-hook prologues out there. (I like a good villain and don’t mind a villain POV. But if I’m reading romance, the main characters absolutely come first. I want to be hooked by them because that’s why I showed up.)

    Uh on, gotta go.

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