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Friday
Jun182010

Face Off Friday: Prologues

 

Fighter Face-off

 

 

 

I'm back!  I had a great visit with my mom and enjoyed my one week vacation from blogging and writing.  But I wanted to thank everyone for giving my guest bloggers such a warm reception.  And of course, thanks to my crit buddies for volunteering to guest post this week.  I learned a lot from their articles and I hope y'all did as well.

 

Now today, I'm resurrecting an old debate--the loved/dreaded/maligned prologue.  The rumor is that writers love them and agents/publishers hate them.  Some quotes from our favorite blogging agents:

  

99.9% of the time, the prologue is vague or doesn’t really give me a sense of the writing or the story that’s going to unfold. I skip them as a general rule. --Kristin Nelson, Pub Rants

It is 3-5 pages of introductory material that is written while the author is procrastinating from writing a more difficult section of the book. --Nathan Bransford's definition

  

Previously, I talked about the written and unwritten rules of writing I have discovered along the way.  The one that many of you had pain over was the fact that prologues are frowned upon.  So, I thought I would delve deeper into that topic today.

 

First, let's define a few types of "pre-chapters": 

Prologue is a preface to the story, setting up the story, giving background information and other miscellaneous information. --wiki

preface is an introduction to a book written by the author of the book. A preface generally covers the story of how the book came into being, or how the idea for the book was developed; this is often followed by thanks and acknowledgments to people who were helpful to the author during the time of writing. --wiki

foreword is a (usually short) piece of writing often found at the beginning of a book or other piece of literature, before the introduction, and written by someone other than the author of the book. --wiki

 

Okay, so what most of us are dealing with is the first one, as the preface and foreward are typically used for non-fiction works. (However, Twilight breaks this rule--what's new--and uses the term preface for its prologue.)

 

Prologues are seen in all genres, but are particularly popular in fantasy/sci-fi and thriller/suspense. In fantasy, the prologue often provides information to help the reader understand the strange world that they are about to enter. In suspense, a prologue can contain the killer's point of view or one of his first victims points of view to ratchet up the tension instantly.

 

So those seem valid reasons to use one, right? What's the problem?

 

The problem can lie in the fact that the prologue is almost always a big chunk of backstory. And backstory can be dangerous--it risks boring the reader and makes your pace drag. Prologues can also be a sneaky way to hide a slow-moving first chapter. (I have NEVER used this device for this sordid purpose, *cough*.) The latter is how it's used in Twilight. We get a glimpse of the end action--an unnamed victim being stalked by a unknown predator--before we enter into chapter one where nothing much interesting happens for many pages.

 

However, prologues aren't always terrible. Hush, Hush had a prologue. The brief pages showed a scene that explained what happened to one of the characters to make him the way he was. In this novel, I didn't mind the prologue and its purpose was clear. Could the story have been sprinkled in later? Perhaps, but the prologue was a big shining billboard that said--"hey this is about angels!" and the scene had tension and action, not just flowery language about some random legend.

 

So when is it a good idea to include a prologue and when do you need to cut it?


Prologue vs. No Prologue

 

For love of the prologue:

  • Fantasy/Sci-fi/Paranormal can be difficult to jump into without explaining a bit of the mythology/legend/world first.
  • Some of the greats used prologues
  • It can build tension early
  • You have a helluva twist coming later that you need to foreshadow
  • There is history that is vital to your story that must be introduced early

 

Nix the prologue because you are probably using it to cheat and do one of the following: 

  • Set the mood/atmosphere because you failed to do so in the opening chapter
  • Info dump because you can't figure out where to sprinkle in the backstory
  • Create tension because your chapter one is slow and you can't bear to edit it again
  • Not trusting that your reader is smart enough to understand the world you created
  • Your story or fantasy world is overly complicated and you want to get the reader a school lesson on it first

 

Another thought:

 "Writers hope to create suspense and interest by writing a prologue about the person who turns out to be the villain but without identifying that person by name or gender. Sorry, but in my opinion, that's a cheap parlor trick and your reader knows it. You're better off doing the hard work of creating suspense and tension with your hero and heroine."--author Carolyn Jewel 

I have to admit that I am guilty of loving a prologue. The one I had for my first novel was unnecessary and I was using it as a cheat (cheap foreshadowing). I cut it and saw that I never needed it.  In my romances, I haven't been tempted to write prologues, but that's not to say I'll never use one.  I've seen them done well  many times.

So what's your opinion? How do you feel about prologues in the stories your read? Do you have a prologue in any of your stories? Are you using it for the right reasons or are you worried it's a cheat? Do you think they should be used only as a last resort?

Reader Comments (14)

Hi,

I love prologues! But, there is a new way around them and a lot of authors are going the date/place route and not actually heading it Prologue!

Miami June 1999:

blah de blah de blah . . .

Chapter 1

New York January 2007:

Blah de blah de blah . . .

I can't for the life of me think eds don't notice the similarity, but maybe they're too tuned to the word Prologue! ;)

best
F

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFrancine

The preface in Twilight (and the rest of the series) comes from a scene later in the book. It's supposed to grab the reader's interest because the first chapter is a bit slow. By reading the preface, you know the action is going to heat up. Claudia Gray did the same thing in her Evernight series.

I have no problem with prologues. But then again, the ones I read are in published books, and the agent and editors have decided the prologues need to be there.

Great post, Roni!

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStina Lindenblatt

This is a great analysis of the problem, and I think your "nix" list is something all writers tempted to rely on a prologue need to read.

Another point of view to consider is the reader. When I recently did a post on this subject, about 50% of readers said they skip the prologue entirely. And for the unpublished, writing a prologue is erecting an extra hurdle for yourself, since pretty much 100% of agents say they hate them.

I do agree that lots of classic fantasy writers use prologues effectively to establish tone and setting. But it's wise to wait until you're established yourself to emulate them.

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnne R. Allen

I USED to have a prolouge, then realized it was just a bunch of babble and didn't really add to the story, so I sprinkled it in elsewhere.

I don't mind reading prolouges as long as they're short and have a purpose.

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOddyoddyo13

If a prologue is succinct, takes places in a different time period from the rest of the action (Hush, Hush being a good example, I think. The prologue was one of the most interesting and relevant parts of the book, imo), and actually provides info that is necessary, then yeah, I don't mind a prologue.

The Twi-prefaces revolt me. What's wrong with writing a beginning that draws readers in on its own merits?

Movies get a little more leeway with this device since they're so visual, but if a book needs to drop you into the middle of the conflict to get you into the story, that's cheating.

Plus, when the "preface" (it's still a prologue, dammit! Prefaces are written by REAL effing people) is over, the story loses all forward momentum once the reader has to slog through what had to be a boring opening if such a prologue was deemed necessary by the editor.

Mysteries often have a scene from the murderers pov as the prologue, which I get, but in such a case, why not just make that chapter one? Especially if the murderer will have his/her own pov scenes as the book progresses.

Thought provoking post, Roni!

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTere Kirkland

It's not so much that I love prologues (although my favorite books all have them) but rather that I am tired of hearing about people hating them. I'm glad I don't have to actually know those people.

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTed Cross

you know, I don't have a problem with prologues, I really don't. (Except in twiglet, but then I have a HUGE problem with the twiglet saga in general)

I get that people use them badly - but is this a resaon to hate them all? God, there are enough bad chapter ones out there, so are they going to become dodgy territory as well?

Sometimes a prologue is a good thing. I really hate it when two characters go "well, as you remember, bob, on the fourth of june aliens invaded and killed out entire families..." at a random point in chapter five. Or flashbacks (and aren't flashbacks dodgy territory as well?)

It just seems stupid to condemn a literary device just because there are writers who use it badly. hell if we are using that argument, then lets just ban fiction in general.

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGemma Noon

I don't like prologues.

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVeronica

I experimented with a prologue but ditched it quite quickly.
I remembered that, when I'm about to read a book and it has a preface or prologue I skip past it and only check it out when I finish the book. So, not a big fan.

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElaine AM Smith

I love a short concise prologue. But I'm probably on my own with that. :)

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKathi Oram Peterson

Thanks for all the comments. Seems like it's still a heated debate. :) I think I'll stay away from the prologue for now because I agree with Anne--why risk pissing off an agent when it's already so hard to break through in this industry? However, once I get published, look out. ;)

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRoni @ FictionGroupie

I remember reading Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh where he had used a prologue concerning two characters he didn't label by name. When the big climax happened at the end of the novel, it was obvious that had we not known of the prologue, we would never have known what led up to the climax. But really, until then, I had forgotten completely about it. I even had to go back and read it with "new eyes" that had already gotten that far in the story.

So there was definitely a pro to the prologue in that it focused on the main climax and it gave us backstory. But, on the other hand, it was a con (or a conlogue? I couldn't resist) in that I had to stop where I was in the novel and go back and read it.

I still don't know if I liked that, but I absolutely adored Choirboys, so I may be biased.

June 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCourt Sherwin

My current WIP includes a prologue that, I feel, establishes my MC and the central conflicts of the story as well as grounding the world. Notice how much time I've spent rationalizing it to myself? I'm definitely having this to prologue or not to prologue debate in my mind.
Useful post.

June 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDominique

I think it all boils down to knowing your genre or subgenre. I write romantic suspense and they almost always start with a prologue. In fact, Allison Brennan's editor made her add one when she tried to go without. So, if it's what the readers and editors expect, go for it. Otherwise, you probably don't need it.

Lynnette Labelle
http://lynnettelabelle.blogspot.com

June 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLynnette Labelle

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