The Puzzling Prologue Problem

 

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.

12 thoughts on “The Puzzling Prologue Problem

  1. Maybe as an established author a prologue could be an option.

    As an unknown writer? I would scarcely risk having to introduce my story with its first words NOT being part of the story at hand. To force any possible reader to read TWO story openings; to obscure my tale with broad expository explanation, or vaguely connected conditional setting, not me.

    As a nobody author, you’ve got maybe 30 seconds, 100 words to hook your reader. Do you really want to risk that half-minute on nonessential preamble? Time is of the essence in these days of mass-distraction. Whoops, there they go. A missed opportunity.

    I slam through books using “Look Inside”. If a book has a Foreword, Preface, Introduction, or Prologue—I skip it. Show me your writing chops, out of the gate, cuz’ that’s all that matters 10,000 words in. All the other stuff is just ancillary noise. In fact, such things are often excuses for not being able to write compelling story without decorative explanation.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Prologues are still popular in crime fiction. They’re a good way to set up the crime from a different point of view from the book’s narrator. Often the prologue will show the crime from the point of view of the perpetrator or the victim, while the main story will be seen from the point of view of the detective/investigator. As such, they convey vital information which wouldn’t otherwise be known to the reader.

    I’m all in favour if it fits the story. Like you I’ve seen some creative naming to get round the ‘prologue problem’. Some call it Chapter 0, some don’t call it anything at all.

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  3. Speaking as a READER, the stance against prologues escapes me. I’ve read books with bad prologues that didn’t help the story and could have been left out, just as I’ve read great prologues that enhanced books.

    Could the details in the prologue been incorporated throughout the story? Perhaps. But, the fact that it wasn’t isn’t an automatic detriment to a book regardless of if you’re a well-known author or not.

    There are so many “thou shall nots” in the #writerslife, creativity and expression can be hindered. Better to follow your first mind. If it works, great. If not, lesson learned, move on. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I love prologues as a reader and a writer – but they have to be relevant and in a discrete form of their own. They must serve a purpose. I’d go as far as to say, they should enhance the whole. I know exactly why I wrote a prologue for my first novel and exactly why I didn’t for my second. My third WIP has a prologue. It’s no good writing to rules if you don’t feel they are right for you and your work. Your writing instincts and integrity have to come first.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Does a flashback count as a prologue? Because I’m doing that in an upcoming novel. My first chapter will be an adventure my three main characters have when they are young children – chapter two brings them up to their high school years and that’s where my story is set. But I enjoyed writing them as children, and I think it establishes that they are longtime friends and what their levels of trust are, and where their strengths and weaknesses started to develop. And as a bonus to myself I submitted that chapter as a short story over at Reedsy Prompts. https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/contests/30/submissions/9307/

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A prologue for a prologue’s sake? Well, no. I’ve used and seen it used well, just as I’ve seen and done the opposite. Same with flashbacks: feast or famine.

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  7. Writers must use whatever techniques are necessary to tell their stories to best effect–and that includes prologues. The key word, though, is necessary. Sometimes, a story is enhanced by a short prologue, a promise of what’s to come. Anytime someone declares, “Never do this,” or “Never do that,” beware. Limits should not be imposed on creativity. I’m sure the authors in your long list would agree.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Like

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