Thursday, August 30, 2012

The sin of prologue

Photo by Guenter M. Kirchweger,
available at
In Part IV, I committed the sin of prologue. Let's skip the attempts to rationalize, for a moment.

Why are new writers told not to write prologues? 
"This is irrelevant, but I'm going to tell you anyway." That's how prologues tend to come across. That's what a lot of them end up being. Because, honestly, if it was relevant to the story then it would be where the story began. If it wasn't a good place to start the story, it could be a flashback scene later on.

The "I'm going to tell you anyway" aspect makes a lot of prologues into an info-dump of sorts, and we've all read about the dangers of starting your story with an info-dump, yes?

But it's got lots of action and dialogue -- yes, but is it immediately relevant to the story? Does it introduce the reader to the main character? Maybe the reader does need to know that your character's older brother died tragically. But they don't know this is the character's older brother, yet; when they're reading the prologue, the older brother is the main character. And then he dies tragically. Now you want them to care about the main character and you promise you won't kill them too? (Are you GRRM?)

Why do people keep doing it?
Let's admit it: there are a lot of prologues out there. In published books. By good writers. Why do they get away with it when I can't?

Partly because they've proven that they know what they're doing, and I haven't. But he can't write his way out of a paper bag. No, it's not fair. I'm trying to rise above the dross of a vast, self-published market, so I have to hold myself to high standards.

Partly because it's hard to shake the feeling that this is important to the story, but it doesn't quite fit anywhere. It's some bit of character development, or world-building, or setting the tone of the story. It happened before the main event. Whatever the reasons are, the compulsion was there. Your gut demanded it, and as I've said -- trust your gut.

Do people read them?
I usually do, I'll admit, though I mildly resent them. Some readers skip them.

So why did I do it? 
Well, it is Part IV. It's not actually the beginning of Disciple -- we're a good 165k in by now. And the prologue ended up being larger than most chapters -- it would have been awkward to drop such a large chunk of flashback into the story later on. I did introduce a character I wanted the reader to care about, and I introduced something that will be increasingly important later on.

But this is all rationalizing. Why did you commit the sin of prologue?


D.G. Hudson said...

I've listened to the advice of a prominent female writer (a best seller of historical novels) from whom I had a critique (booked at a conference). She suggested a small prologue. Don't make it too long, make it like a peek to set up the story, she said. I didn't have one before this advice, that info was in the beginning of the story.

I'm giving it a try. Sometimes we have to test the rules. What works for one writer may not work for another.

So maybe your prologue just needs trimming? You could try that.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Because my publisher asked for a prologue for my first book. The next one didn't need one though.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I kind of like a prologue. I think those that don't aren't real readers. They are writers trying to get through a book as fast as they can so that they can be supportive of someone. In other words, it's a chore.

L. Blankenship said...

The publisher asked for one -- that's a new answer. Interesting.

And a short one, yes I could see that working in general. Just a page or two, maybe.

From what I've heard, people who skip prologues have gotten burned to many times by bad ones. People skip poetry and song lyrics in the text for the same reason -- I'm guilty of that.

Charity Bradford said...

Personally I love prologues too. When done right they can give the reader a chance to understand something about the character, care about the character before the action starts.

This whole discussion had me tied in knots for years with The Magic Wakes. My prologue takes place 200 (or 300, I can't remember) years before the start of the story, but the character is alive in the story. The only way I could start his part of the story smoothly was to do a short (4 pages) prologue.

I took it out and tried to work it in as a flashback but it ruined the story flow. The information however was vital to his story arc.

I put it back as chapter 1. It confused readers because Jaron is not the main character.

I took it out. See my problem? Finally I put it back but trimmed it considerably. I've had a couple of editors now tell me that I did it right (and then we worked doubly hard on chapter 1 because unfortunately a lot of people will skip the prologue. Their loss really. ;)

Liz said...

I just finished reading a book that had a prologue. I don't know if it needed it, but it helped me understand the characters a bit more (it had the main character and two of her cousins as children making a pact).

I think the problem with prologues is that so many writers do them badly. If the story needs it, the story needs it.

mshatch said...

I have no problem with prologues and I always read them. Goodness, why wouldn't I? It's part of the story!

Rachel Morgan said...

I have mixed views on the prologue. If it's simply a scene that's happening sometime later in the novel that author/publisher decided to just paste into the front (like a preview), then I detest it. If it's happened before the beginning of the story but provides important information, then I'm happy to read it.

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