The Puzzling Prologue Problem

Old Book

 

Go ahead, Google something along the lines of prologues in novels. I’ll wait.

Done? If so, you’ll have found links like 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues, The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents, The Dreaded Prologue, Question: the oft-maligned prologue, and so on.

Read these four pages. Did you see the following?

“The problem with the prologue is it has kind of gotten a bad rap over the years, especially with agents. They generally hate them.”
(Kristen Lamb, best-selling author and blogger)

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”
(Andrea Brown, literary agent)

“Fact: Prologues in fiction should be avoided.”
(Carly Watters, literary agent)

“I am fully settled in the I Hate Prologues camp too. I go so far as to NOT read them in a manuscript.”
(Janet Reid, literary agent)

Trust me, there’s more out there in the ether, but I chose these quotes for two reasons:

1. For the most part, they’re unequivocally against prologues.
2. If you’re a writer, the names attached to the quotes will likely be familiar.

So how dare I sit here at my writing table with the springtime sun shining in and write a blog post in favour of prologues? Easy question. I don’t dare. I’m not a literary agent, I’m not an editor, I’ve never worked in a business remotely close to publishing, and, well, I’m not a published author (yet). I have no writing classes under my belt, no workshops, no conferences aside from the super-irrelevant academic ones like The International Congress of Phonetic Sciences (which I pronounce ICK-FISS, or in IPA [ɪkfəs]). I hold tenaciously to the idea that everything I need to help me write can be learned from reading Stephen King and not fearing fragments.

In legal-speak, I have no standing. No standing at all.

But here I sit, after a quick comb-through of my own library and a few “Look Inside this Book!” adventures on Amazon, writing my thoughts on prologues.

On second thought, I’m not going to do that. I’ll simply take the A-List-Is-Worth-A-Thousand-Words approach and offer you seventeen books by seventeen different famous writers. And yes, each of these has—gasp!—the Dreaded Prologue.

A Prisoner of Birth (Jeffrey Archer)
From the Dust Returned (Ray Bradbury)
The Lost Symbol (Dan Brown)
Body of Evidence (Patricia Cornwell)
Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton)
All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)*
The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)
A Dangerous Fortune (Ken Follett)
Hannibal Rising (Thomas Harris)
Winter’s Tale (Mark Helprin)
Fallen (Lauren Kate)**
‘Salem’s Lot (Stephen King)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson)
Twilight (Stephenie Meyer)***
The Informationist (Taylor Stevens)
The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe)
The Book Thief (Marcus Zuzak)****
Four authors title their first chapters as follows:
‘Zero’ *
‘In the Beginning’ **
‘Preface’ ***
‘Death and Chocolate’ ****

Who was it who said “A rose by any other name…?” Someone named Bill, I think.

So. There you have it. I’m sure you’ve heard of a few of these titles and the men and women who wrote them. If they’re all strange to you, maybe you need to get out more. I mean that in a nice way.

As for me, I’m going back to writing. And yes, for the record, two of my books have prologues.

To see what my sister in crime (critique partner), Charlotte Gruber, has to say about prologues, have a look at her recent blog post on Furthering Your First Pages over at Relentless Writers.

 

 

Guest post contributed by Christina Dalcher. Christina has a Ph.D. from Georgetown University in Phonology and Phonetics. Check out more of her articles on her blog.

Would you like two free audio books? Begin your 30-day free trial at Audible.com and receive two free audio books and 30% off additional audiobook purchases. You keep your two free books even if you later cancel.

 

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54 thoughts on “The Puzzling Prologue Problem”

  1. I didn’t realize they were hated, and I want to add one to my own story that I’ve been working on. Come to think of it though, most of the books I’ve read open up with a prologue.

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  2. I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand why people get so passionately up-in-arms about prologues. I read a lot, and have yet to come across a prologue that made me think, “I regret reading that.” Some of them have admittedly been kind of dumb, but the whole books were dumb, so it was par for the course. If a prologue is there, then the author (or editor) wanted it there, so I’ll read it. If there isn’t a prologue, then obviously there didn’t need to be. Personally, I like to use a prologue as a structural element, to set a certain tone or introduce elements for the reader to carry throughout the book. I don’t use them for everything, just when I feel they’re relevant. And that’s how prologues should be treated…not as something evil and anathema, but just another tool that can often be used effectively, but not necessarily used all the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree. My point in writing this piece wasn’t to argue in favour of prologues, but to point out that a prologue isn’t necessarily the literary anathema it’s been made out to be.

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  3. “I hold tenaciously to the idea that everything I need to help me write can be learned from reading Stephen King and not fearing fragments.”
    This is totally me and I love prologues when they are relevant.

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  4. Don’t forget Lord of the Rings – although, maybe you should. That Prologue (or was it an introduction?) was so boring I put the book down about 5 times before someone recommended skipping it and starting at Chapter One. Once I did that, I was hooked.

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  5. I didn’t realize that there was such a strong hatred of prologues until recently, and I honestly don’t understand it. A well written prologue can be a great punch to start the story with. Yes, there are authors who write poor prologues, but shouldn’t we be blaming that on the writing instead of condemning a general method that works fine in the hands of someone who knows how to use it?

    And, for the record, the prologue of the Book Thief is one of my absolute favorite parts of the book.

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  6. Ha ha! Loved your attitude throughout this post. Whoever said that just because something isn’t popular, you can’t make it work?
    I’m sticking with the unusual multiple narrative choice I have made for my first novel and I know I’ll be interrogated like a criminal as to the reasons why I made this choice. Well, I say… Bring it on. 😉

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  7. What I hear/read most often is, “Prologues are always badly written and add nothing to the story, so I always skip them anyway.”

    I wonder how these people know that all prologues are badly written and pointless if they never read any. *shakes head* Personally, I’m not fond of the kind of prologue that is The Entire History of the World Up Until Right Now (an epic fantasy novel is more likely to feature this than, say, a contemporary mystery), but that’s hardly the definition of what a prologue is or what it’s for.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Honestly, I think it a matter of balance and the audience you are looking for, and how you are intending to publish, as to whether you do a prologue or not. In the end though write for you first. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Well, I like most of the prologues I read. Sometimes I speed read, sometimes I don’t, depending upon content. My reasoning would be for writers to write them and agents and publishers who don’t like them bear with them for the sake of those readers who like them. Grant the readers a choice whether or not to read them. Readers do enjoy being given a choice . . . don’t you?

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    1. I honestly think it depends on the prologue and its purpose. I haven’t read one where I thought “Oh, gods, why is this here?” I do wonder if that’s because the books with beastly, irrelevant prologues end up being published without them.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I think of prologues the same way I think of adding more salt to a meal, some books need them, some don’t. We as the writer’s have to honor our creations and how they lead us. If our novel calls for a prologue, it is best we pay attention. Thanks for writing this.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I’ve really never understood the hate against prologues. I’ve read many books with them, and never had a problem with them. I get a bit annoyed at people who just refuse to read them. Each book is different, and some are clearly enhanced by a prologue. To say that they are always bad is snobbery, in my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Prologues can be a great asset to a book, a sneak peek of what’s to come, or a look back at what’s happened. The problem is, so many new writers fill their prologues with backstory, which is why industry professionals shy away from them. If used properly, though, they can really enhance the overall story. Clearly I’m in the pro-prologue camp.

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    1. Sue, I think you’re right on the money here. Perhaps a reasonable follow-up post should include comparing prologues that work and those that should be burnt in the fiery furnace. Problem is, I don’t own any books with burnable prologues.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. A rose by any other name, right? I get where anti-prologue people are coming from, but what if you write a brilliant prologue and simply title it chapter one? Who’d know the difference, or complain?

    I mean, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise” is broken up as Book One, Interlude, and Book Two, with each book having 3-4 chapters, and each chapter having a million little sub-chapters.

    My point is, authors breakup and title their novels in all kinds of ways. Doesn’t EVERYONE hate a completely meaningless group of paragraphs to open a novel? Doesn’t matter if it’s called prologue or chapter 1. The first few pages of a book have to rank among the best, and in the case of, for example, GRRM’s “A Game of Thrones,” “A Clash of Kings,” and “A Feast For Crows,” this is true. They just happen to be prologues, not chapter 1s.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I have read the same thing about prologues- big taboo. But interestingly enough two of the writer’s in my writing group have decided to include a prologue. I initially thought I would warn them not to do it but then I decided…why? What’s the big deal? Why are prologues frowned upon? And decided…I know nothing. And the question is, how much do the editors and publishes know about what readers like and do not like? I think it is as much a mystery to them as it is to us writers. So write a prologue. Don’t write a prologue. It’s all up to you!

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  15. As both an avid reader and a writer, I never understood the hatred of prologues. As a reader they don’t bother me at all and as a writer I believe you need to do what works for your story! After years of hearing all the rules and regulations about writing I’ve come to the conclusion that most readers don’t give a crap about all the internal writing politics, and neither do prolific writers. 🙂

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  16. I think of a prologue as being similar to the introductory minutes of a movie before the delayed opening credits. Do you choose to walk into the theater late or fast-forward past that? It’s there for a reason, although the reason might vary with the genre.

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  17. As Maxwell Smart might say, “Would you believe, a preface?”
    All kidding aside, I use a prologue often, and I like books with prologues. One of the reasons I use a prologue is because my books’ content often spans decades, with action alternating back and forth between time periods. A prologue helps set the stage, and grounds the reader right from the start. How can that be bad?
    Viva la prologue!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Wow – I had no idea this would generate so many interesting comments! As I said in one reply, I’m not arguing (necessarily) in favour of the Dreaded Prologue. Just pointing out that it doesn’t have to be the great Satan we’re all told in writing class.

    Oh, wait. I haven’t taken a writing class…

    Back to being serious: we all have to do what we think is best for our book. If you’re convinced a prologue makes your book better and someone tells you to cut it, point them in the direction of one of those awful books on the list. If that fails, rename it Chapter One.

    Happy writing, folks!

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