Prologues. Now there’s something that’s been hotly debated in the writing world for YEARS. First they’re in. Now they’re out. I remember when I was pursuing the traditional publication route that there was a huge backlash against prologues and I was having to consider whether to include one in the book I was writing at the time so that New York would look at me.
I look back at that now and think…how stupid is that?
Here’s the thing. I like prologues if they’re done well. That would be a key…the IF THEY’RE DONE WELL part. None of this taking some climactic moment from the end and plunking it at the beginning, then flashing to “Previously”. I’m sure all these prologue-haters who actually SKIP the prologue (WTF? It’s there for a reason people.) have gotten ahold of one too many of that kind.
One criticism often lobbied at prologues is that the information contained therein can be presented in the text in other ways.
I really don’t agree with this blanket statement. Yes, sometimes this is the case. But often those “other ways” are equally or even MORE lame than a prologue.
Exhibit A: The classic As You Know Bob (AYKB, a phrase originating from the fantastic comedy classic What About Bob wherein Bill Murray is constantly giving information that is already known and common knowledge to the folks in the story). Now this can be gotten away with on screen–especially in cases like Supernatural. You give us a couple of hot guys and they can do the “Well as you know, Sam/Dean” all the live long day, and we don’t mind that much. Mmm, Dean. But on paper it comes across as amateurish and clunky. It’s why there’s some information I choose to put in a glossary at the beginning of my Mirus books. Because nobody in that world would ever DEFINE this stuff without looking like an utter moron because they all KNOW it all ready.
And now, I give you, exhibit B–the flashback.
Now I carry as much vitriol for the flashback as others do for prologues. Because flashbacks generally take you out of the now when you’re already in the MIDDLE of the story. Or even worse, they’ll be done in a DREAM–oh how original (which is not to say that this can’t be done exquisitely well–Zadist’s flashbacks to his time as a blood slave were exceedingly well done). The flashback often seems to be the vehicle of writers who are too afraid to write a good prologue and introduce the information we need on the front end. They’re often offered up as a second class explanation for why some character is behaving in such a manner. I have a MUCH BIGGER problem with this than I do with prologues and I can absolutely recall a WHOLE LOT MORE flashbacks that were crappily done than I can prologues.
So why isn’t there a great debate against FLASHBACKS, I’d like to know.
The reason I prefer prologues to flashbacks is that by the time you get to a flashback, you have already been exposed to a fair amount of information about these characters. Their actions have informed your opinion of them, so a flashback feels intrusive and clunky. I choose to use prologues in many of my books because I want to present that character in a certain way to show where they STARTED–BEFORE you know everything you know later in the story. That affects how the reader interprets that character.
In my last romantic suspense, Til Death–the one I was working on when I was still considering New York–, I start with a prologue that shows the hero as a boy when he finds a skeleton on the back 40 of his grandparents’ farm. I tried it in a dream/flashback later and it was a disaster. Because I wanted the reader to see him as that vulnerable boy at that moment that winds up defining who he becomes as a man. And I wanted them to see that BEFORE they saw the man.
Now that’s not to say I never use flashbacks. I think you simply can’t make blanket statements about any story device, but simply have to give consideration, as an author, to how you want the reader to see your characters. Which device you choose absolutely affects that.