Friday, August 20, 2010

What's Past Is Prologue

Okay, I’m going on record here—I actually like prologues. I know I’m not supposed to. All the writing workshops tell you not to use them. Donald Maass claims, in his Writing the Breakout Novel, that his agency automatically rejects any book that has one (authors take note). The idea is that anything that goes into a prologue should probably go into Chapter 1, and if you can’t work it in, then the prologue is probably unnecessary. I get it—I really do. I still like prologues, though.

Let’s look at the things a prologue can be used for. First of all, it can provide a pivotal episode in the past that will indirectly affect all that follows. Nora Roberts does this with her Three Sisters Island books. The actions of the original three sisters have consequences that extend into the present, and seeing them act sets up the situation Roberts wants to carry forward. Yes, the characters do refer to the earlier sisters, but they don’t have to sit down and explain everything that happened, thanks to the prologue.

Then you’ve got the “key to the mystery” prologue where the author gives some cryptic clues about what’s going to happen here and who’s involved. Linda Howard does that in Mr. Perfect, where the brief prologue not only gives you a hint about who the nasty killer is but also gives you an idea of the twist in the plot. These types of prologues are often very tricky indeed since the reader may not be able to connect them to the story until much later in the plot, and by then the prologue may have been forgotten. That doesn’t make them unnecessary, just really, really clever and tough to do.

There are even “scene setting” prologues, where the prologue sets up the feeling the book is going to have while, perhaps, presenting a few interesting details about the plot. This kind of prologue shows up a lot in historicals, but Elizabeth Lowell uses it too in her suspense novels like Die In Plain Sight and The Wrong Hostage.

Now you may have noticed a couple of things here. First, all of these authors are very successful and very well known. And I could have added others to this list: Julia Quinn, for example, and Eloisa James and Mary Balogh. The idea that no good writer uses a prologue is just, well, silly. But the other thing you may have noticed, if you’ve read my Konigsburg books, is that I’ve never written a prologue myself.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I have, in fact, written prologues. I have also trashed those prologues. I’ll admit it—the current anti-prologue bias has me spooked. So I’ll go on being prologueless, at least for the time being.

Still, I have to come back to my original point. I like prologues for a simple reason: the prologue lets the reader feel like an insider. Think about it—the prologue usually gives you information at least some of the characters in the novel don’t have. You know what happened in the past to cause this situation. You know something about the murderer (although not enough to give the identity away too soon). You have a piece of the puzzle that the others won’t understand until later. If the writer is really good, that puzzle piece will let you begin to see the ultimate shape of the plot more quickly than some of the characters do. And that’s fun.

Far from being superfluous, a good prologue pulls the reader in and makes her a collaborator with the author in creating the scene. Or anyway, that’s how I see it.

So what do you think? Will you tolerate prologues, or do prologues make you want to throw the book against the nearest wall (always providing, of course, that it’s not an ebook because throwing a Kindle or a Nook could have serious consequences)?


Debra St. John said...

I don't mind prologues, if they're done right. I like how you said they make you feel like you're an insider. I don't want them to feel like just another chapter, but I want information I wouldn't get in the POV of the characters.

PG Forte said...

I love prologues. Love. Them. Sometimes they provide insight, a hint at what's yet to come...or even a warning.

Sometimes they simply serve to pique your interest. They're a tease, a taste. They can set the scene or the mood...and, yes, they can make the reader feel like an insider. Very well said! They can also make the reader an accomplice--complicit in events about which some of the characters might yet have no idea.

A lot of the time you can get away with simply calling them "Chapter One" but, really what's the point? Damning books because they start with the word "Prologue" is as silly as automatically skipping over every "Chapter Thirteen" out of a fear it's unlucky. makes me want to start a trend to do just that. lol!

Awesome post, Meg!

Leah Braemel said...

I've read lots of stories with prologues that work--including the ones you've pointed out. I've even written a story with one, though I'm still waiting to hear from my editor if it works for her. And I'm not sure if I called it a prologue or simply called it Chapter One and dated it 10 years in the past. (My cheating way of handling it.)

I think stating "no prologues ever" is a bit heavy-handed because they can be a really useful device. But here's the caveat: If they're done properly and serve a purpose for something other than info-dumping.