"First thing we do, let's kill all the prologues." ––Shakespeare (hack writer Chip Shakespeare of Schenectady, NY)
Last week we discussed one of those "fiction rules" that begins to get trumpeted about until it gets chiseled in a tablet as an unbreakable command. Here's one that seems to be developing: No prologues!
You hear this occasionally from agents and even readers. So it behooves us to ask if there's something to this mushrooming new "rule."
I think there is––and isn't.
Let me explain.
First, a definition. A prologue is a scene (or sometimes a group of scenes) that precedes in time the main plot. So the question to ask yourself is, if it isn't part of the main plot, why am I including it? And why should a reader bother with it?
Some reasons you might include a prologue:
• To start the book with intense action that hooks the reader.
• To set up an intriguing mystery that will pay off later in the book.
• To show a significant incident in the Lead's life that haunts him in the present.
• To demonstrate the evil deeds of the bad guy, setting up the stakes for the Lead.
What a prologue should not be is merely an excuse to give us backstory, the sort of information about the Lead that can wait to be revealed later. Only if the material in the prologue is absolutely essential, riveting and has real impact on the story, should it be used.
Maybe that's why agents are suspicious. They see too many prologues that don't need to be there.
Some readers report that they skip prologues. Why would they do that? Perhaps because it seems to them that it's just setup information and they want to get right on to the story.
So what should you do if you've got a great prologue that makes sense? That accomplishes just what it's suppose to?
Should you give up and bow to the blanket rule that you should never use a prologue? I don't think so.
Instead, be deceptive.
That's right. I said deceptive. You're a fiction writer, after all. That's what you do.
So here is a simple strategy: never label a prologue as "Prologue." That's an invitation for a reader, not to mention an agent or editor, to skip this part or toss aside the manuscript.
Instead, if it's in the long past, you can start with a date stamp, like this:
November 22, 1963
Or you can simply decide to call it "Chapter One."
Another option is simply not to put anything at all. I like this move. You just go halfway down the page and start your scene. Then, you can number the next scene as Chapter One. This was the strategy used by Harlan Coben in Tell No One. There is no call out that the book opens with a prologue. It simply gives us a riveting scene about a husband losing his wife and getting knocked out. Then, the next scene is headed:
Eight Years Later
But Coben wrote such a great opening scene that you don't stop and say, "Hey! He fooled me! That was a prologue! I want my money back!"
So here's my bottom line advice. Don't start with a prologue unless you have an absolutely clear reason for doing so. Make it short, too, unless you can justify the longer opening––as in, say, Mystic River, where the opening scenes, in the long past, are essential to understanding the plot as it unfolds. Dennis Lehane knew what he was doing.
Make sure you do, too, and then just don't call it a "Prologue." Problem solved.
Or is it? Do you tend to be let down if you see the word Prologue at the beginning of the book? Do you care? Is "Kill the Prologues" one "rule" we should nip in the bud?