Sunday, April 25, 2010

Death to Prologues?

James Scott Bell

"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:

1

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?

22 comments:

  1. I always read the prologue and I can't think of a bad prologue in a published novel I've read. Have, however, critted some mss that were simply info dumps and could easily be cut with no loss to the story. Prologues are not evil--just sometimes misunderstood. 8-)

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  2. One of Clive Cussler's trademarks is a historical prologue in almost all his thrillers. Treasure ship sinks hundreds of years ago. Jump to present time as the race to find it kicks off. His readers come to expect it and it always works.

    Here's a test a writer can try. Once the book is finished, give a copy to a beta reader with the prologue and to another without it. See if the second reader understands the story as well as the first.

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  3. I’ve read several books where the prologue hurt the book more than it helped it. The worst well known example that comes to mind is Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. What I expected from the book was a story based on Hosea, or at the least a story about a man marrying a prostitute, but when I saw the prologue I was confused because it was a story about a girl growing up in the home of an adulterous woman. Once I got to chapter one, the story seemed fit my expectations better.

    That being said, I like a well written prologue. I believe a prologue should have an obvious connection to the main plot and it should obey the same rules of story structure that a regular first chapter must obey. As in a first chapter, we should be trying to define the problem that we address in the story. In Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court his prologue or as he calls it “A Word of Explanation” provides a portal to the world of the story, but it also presents the lead as a man who is “full of fight,” giving us an important setup element for the rest of the story.

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  4. I'm currently writing a story that I feel needs a prologue, despite the taboo. Thanks for this post, it helped define the reasons why I needed it, and they're good guidelines for future stories.

    ~Sasafras

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  5. BK, I like the way you put it. Not evil, just sometimes misunderstood. (Like writers)

    Joe, David Morrell did a string of novels in the 80s, starting I think with The Brotherhood of the Rose, that also had historical prologues. Sets up intrigue that has impact on the present.

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  6. Timothy, you bring up another interesting wrinkle with Twain. As I recall, Connecticut Yankee is a "frame story." Twain himself operates as narrator, saying how he met this stranger who then proceeds to tell the tale, then we end back in the "present" again. That's an old fashioned method that I still rather like. Didn't H.G. Wells do it in The Time Machine, too?

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  7. Sas, go for it. I don't think it's gotten to the taboo stage yet! Maybe this post will help stave that off.

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  8. I'll be at the L.A. Times Book fest soon, so probably won't be commenting until much later. Continue to save literature while I'm gone.

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  9. Prologues are like anything else: if done well, they're great. If not, well, then skip it.

    They can serve well for historical background, or to start things moving with some information that should be important later. Just don't make them purely expository, or boring. You know, like the rest of the book shouldn't be.

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  10. Most of the time I'd rather get on with the action and meet the hero on the first page, but in the interest of "saving literature", I'll agree that a well-written prologue works. Hard to argue with Harlan Coben.

    And I must say, I can't wait for the Early Bird at ACFW this year!

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  11. I like the idea that the prologue isn't evil just misunderstood:) I have no problem with them. I've used the date stamp concept - so that it's not named as a prologue but I agree the material has to be essential, otherwise just drop it.

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  12. Excellent advice. If a prologue is a "necessity," I think it needs to be as riveting as we typically say Chapter One needs to be. Plus, Chapter one has to start out with a great hook too.

    I just recently judged a contest entry that had a great prologue, but Chapter one fell flat. I encouraged the writer to pretend they didn't have the prologue and then re-write the opening for chapter one as if that's where the story starts.

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  13. Prologues never bothered me as a reader. Actually, I never realized prologues were considered potential problems until reading this post.

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  14. Great post! Since coming across this anti-prologue rule, I've been paying more attention to the prologues in the books I read. I was definitely leaning towards the death to prologues camp. But then I came up with a brilliant prologue to the next book I'd like to write, and I was torn. You're post has given me an idea as to how to slip it in without the label. Thanks!

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  15. I agree with BK and Dana King. In its traditional form, a prologue is used to provide information the reader needs to appreciate or understand the story. A prologue is critical where the immediate action would mislead the reader about the type of story he or she is about to read. It is crucial where the scene or information provided is about an event that is causal to the action we follow in the story, especially if we couldn't get that information in the story itself because none of the POV characters used in the rest of the novel were present at that initiating action. Where I become a little hesitant, and I suspect that agents and editors hesitate, too, is where you get a slew of Twilight-style "prologues" that simply pull out something from the climax and throw it at you to draw you into the story. These have to be done EXTREMELY well to work. And most of them aren't. By the time I get to the climax in one of these situations, I usually feel cheated and let down. That kind of a prologue is a trick, and whether you call it a prologue or a chocolate bar, it's still going to have the same result.

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  16. Didn't Father Flanagan say that there are no bad prologues, just misunderstood ones?

    Jim, your list of things that justify a prologue was spot on. The ones that meet these criteria are fine in my book...er, in anyone's.

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  17. Prologue or not, I tend to judge a book by its beginning. So I pick it up and read how it starts.

    Sure, when it's something labeled PROLOGUE I get a bit lazy ;) But if it's interesting, I'll be interested. The idea of not naming it prologue is a nice one.

    I must admit, though, when a prologue starts with something like "In 1957 there was a big storm yada yada" or sinking ships (I read the beginning of a Clive Cussler novel at the bookstore today, yaawn) or the like, I usually pick up the next one ;)

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  18. This is really good advice! At the SCBWI conference last year, a panel of agents specifically said that they don't like prologues. I had one, of course and I just wanted to crawl under the table because right after the session, we shared our writing with other fellow writers and an agent or editor. Well, the very agent who said she doesn't like prologues had to sit through the reading of mine! Lesson learned. I wound up ditching the prologue, actually. But if I had decided to keep it, I would have simply labeled it chapter 1 and maybe a marker with a blank page that stated "100 Years Later". I was able to flush in the backstory into my main plot and it actually wound up working better than having the prologue.

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  19. Great advice, Jim. I was just now struggling with a prologue. I deemed it necessary to the book, but felt readers would skip over it, as you mentioned. However, your suggestion to call it something different, eg, give it a title of its own, took hold and BANG! It works.

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  20. I always read the prologue because usually it should be called Chapter 1. Sometimes prologues do seem silly like the ones that show a scene that's going to happen later in the book. Those are pointless. My favorite prologue ever is in The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Now THAT'S the way to have a prologue!

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  21. Great advice, Jim. My WIP's first chapter is, well, I guess a prologue. It is very imoprtant to the plot and I was glad to read that I had included all the points it must contain.

    I think it's clever to not name it a prologue. I for some reason always want to start reading at chapter one.
    I read somewhere years ago to simply name your prologue chapter 1. Can't remember if it was dean Kootnz?

    Anhow thanks for hsaring this!

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  22. I caught this on twitter and thanks for posting it!

    I've read in a writing magazine about this, some agents/editors hate it, some are fine with it.

    My first story has gone back and forth with all these "rules". Ack. And now I'm back to considering a prologue because of other "rules" that we should stay in the head of the MC/storyline for 50 some pages or something before splitting off into another. We shall see. :-)

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