Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The past is prologue, etc.

Writers frequently ask about prologues. They've heard that prologues are verboten, and are justifiably confused because lots of published books have prologues. So what have you all heard about prologues? Do you think a prologue prejudices editors against your partial? Under what circumstances do you think prologues work? What distinguishes a prologue from a Chapter One?

Also, are prologues common in the genre or fiction category you mostly write in?

I think genre really matters. A prologue is common in thrillers and suspense novels, but much less so in romance. Why? Well, I suspect it's because the past matters more in thrillers and suspense. Often the prologue shows an event in the past which will have some repercussion in the "forestory," the story that starts in Chapter One. A good prologue usually poses some question ("Who killed Sandy?" "Why did Joe's mother run away?") that the story itself answers.

Successful prologues are usually remote in time from Chapter One. That is, Prologue doesn't take place in May and Chapter One in June-- if there's not a passage of time there, why not just have the prologue as the first scene in the chapter?

Prologues are, however, somehow linked to the story. This should be a no-brainer, but I've seen contest entries and submissions where the prologue might be exciting but doesn't connect to the story. There should be a real link-- a common character, setting, or recurring event (like this is the first murder of the serial murderer at work in the story proper). That link doesn't have to be immediately clear in the first few chapters. But I know I for one get annoyed when even halfway through a book, I don't know what the link is. Well, actually, by that time I've probably completely forgotten the prologue events. So think about ways to link even earlier chapters to the prologue, maybe with keywords or setting. Say the heroine walks over a bridge on her way to work, and we know, even if she doesn't, that in the prologue, her mother had huddled under that bridge to shelter from a storm.

Keep in mind that the editor or agent who asks to see a partial, maybe the first few chapters, isn't likely to have enough material to make complete sense of the prologue or judge whether it works. So consider making a big point of linking it in the synopsis-- like say you summarize the prologue, then introduce the story-proper with something like, "Eight years later, the repercussions of this murder are still being felt in Whelanton."

Also consider how the partial (chapters) can give the editor or agent a bit more sense of the connection, maybe using datelines at the start of the prologue and then again at the start of Chapter One, like:

December 1999
Lake Limberlost, Wisconsin

Chapter One
June 2009
University of Wisconsin, Madison

That way we know that it's almost 10 years after the prologue, and we're still in Wisconsin.

Also think about the tone shift between the prologue and Chapter One. If you have a very dark prologue with a brutal murder, for example, a lighthearted Chapter One might be jarring to the readers.

What else? I'd say the prologue should probably be short, just a few pages. It's NOT a chapter, after all, so shouldn't be as long as a chapter. Should it just be one scene? Probably.

Other thoughts about prologues? Have you ever written one? As a reader, do you like books that start with prologue? What makes a prologue feel successful to you?


Ian said...

In my Deep Six manuscript, I have a prologue which is an excerpt from an autobiography of one of the characters in Deep Six - a "book within a book" kind of thing. I used it as a tool to introduce the concept of superpowered criminals and a prison for those felons. The manuscript works either with or without the prologue (in ABNA '08, I entered it without), but I believe the prologue in this case helps to define the setting to a reader who's not quite the comic book geek I am.

On the other hand, I've read (or, uh, started to read) books that had such lengthy prologues that I started to skip ahead just to see when we'd get to the damn story. I'm not going to give any specific examples (although if I was, I might mention a book that sounds very much like Schmevil's Schmape by Schmob Scmogers, which has some 90 pages of PROLOGUE), but suffice it to say that I think a good prologue is short and sweet and all those other things you said so eloquently in the original post.

Edittorrent said...

90 pages indicates to me that the author can't get the story started.

The autobio excerpt sounds intriguing.

em said...

This was great information!:) I am currently working on a story where I had a prologue and was wondering about it. Someone told me that editors frown on them from new writers but, I think it works so I'm going to keep it.:)
Thanks Alicia!

Julia Weston said...

Thanks for a great post. What I've heard about prologues is that they should indicate a significant change (in time, place, POV, etc.)

I see lots of prologues in the genre in which I write (fantasy). I actually wrote a prologue for my manuscript in the POV of a strong secondary character (a cat) and at the time he's half a world away from my protag - but there's no lapse in time. It's the only time I use his POV, and there's a definite story link...but based on your post above I fear I've goofed.

If you have time, I'd love to know your thoughts.

Julia Weston

Edittorrent said...

Julia, to quote the Bard, the past is prologue, and I think sort of by definition a prologue has to happen before the story opens. I'm not sure why your cat scene isn't just the first scene in the first chapter.
But it's probably more just a matter of definition-- it's not really a prologue if it happens at the same time or is sequential to the events of Chapter 1-- and ordinarily I'd say, "Big deal. Who cares about a definition?" It's just a lot of agents, editors, and readers have strong opinions (negative) about prologues, but they probably can't object too strenuously if it's a true prologue, displaying an event before the story opens that has a later and important effect on the plot, or poses a question the story answers.

I bet no one would have a moment's demurral if you just called it "Chapter 1". And really, if there wasn't such a loud prejudice against prologues, I'd think this was all just kerfluffle. But so many people dislike prologues, and it does seem like if it's not a true prologue, why invite trouble by calling it that?
You can see that "avoidance of conflict" is a major value for me. :)

Julia Weston said...

Gosh, that makes sense. Thank you for clearing things up. Far be it from me to question the Bard. Or you. Chapter 1 it is.

Edittorrent said...

Julia, I wouldn't worry, except that so many people seem so adamant about prologues. Odd, isn't it? I mean, if it works, it works. But I guess we all have our pet peeves.

Anonymous said...

I heard James Rollins speak at Thrillerfest, and he commented that a prologue is like having two first chapters when it comes to submitting to agents.

Of course, James Rollins writes thriller and has used prologues to show a historical event that ties into the modern day storyline. so does Clive Cussler.

But I also think a lot of beginning writers have a misunderstanding about what a prologue is. I've seen ones where they do a backstory info dump or explain the fantasy world and its history. The prologue is part of the story, not place to summarize details!

Edittorrent said...

Garridon, yes, it's not meant to be an easy way to get backstory out there. :) Ought to lead the reader to a question, not an answer.

writtenwyrdd said...

Great post. Thanks! I read and write primarily speculative fiction, and prologs are often useful to give a story some focus.

Riley Murphy said...

What a great topic. I had never really thought about the WHY before, only that the particular story I used one in - was definitely better because I included one. So, why did I feel that it was right for the story? I mean, why this story and not the other seven that I have written? Interesting. With this story, I felt that I needed to do two things and I wanted to accomplish one other besides before I effectively went about starting chapter one.
In this very brief prologue, (less than two pages) I have two fathers basically bartering their children's futures, driven by differing reasons (none of which are noble).
I wanted to lay the foundation for the basic story quickly and factually as it was happening in present time - not retell it later. I was able to outline some backstory and pertinent history in just a few paragraphs without getting cluttered with too many details or putting any needless emphasis on the fathers. The story was not about the parents but, because of them (If I gave them their own chapter? I would have been cheating the reader, I think, as they would have perhaps, expected more from these characters and there was no more than this one small scene). And what I hoped to accomplish was to have the reader already sympathizing with my hero/heroine before they even met them - to want to read the first chapter and see how these children had grown up. To find out how the history (that is implied, as the story picks up fifteen years later) has molded them. Best of all? Details are in place, which would later contribute to, not only my main plot but, two of the secondary, ones as well.
Alicia, I can’t thank you enough for bringing this up. I really enjoyed revisiting this story (insert sigh here).

Edittorrent said...

Prologues, I think, should have either plot or character (or both) repercussions later, Murph, right?
Also notice that you might be setting up a motif of "barter" or "selling" or a theme about restraint of freedom.

That is an interesting aspect of prologues I didn't really consider-- setting up a major motif maybe.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Here's one for you, Alicia: can the prologue be a scene that happens after the story's end, as a frame effect, and then Chapter 1 begins telling the story that will bring us to the prologue point?

Riley Murphy said...

I like the way you think. You are right about the themes, too. Once they were in place it was easy to build on them - also, interesting to note? The biggest part of the story is the hero’s quest to find the young girl who showed him kindness, when he was being cruelly punished by his father. The hero assumes she is a serf - so he has trouble, through the years, trying to locate her -- of course, she winds up being his betrothed and as to when he met her? Why, it was while her father was meeting with his, that afternoon fifteen years ago.
I never realized, until you brought it up, how many things came back to that point of time in the prologue. I think if I had to justify using one again, I would have to say, that without it - there could be no story - if that makes sense? Otherwise, there would just be chapter one...

Edittorrent said...

Susan, if it works, it works. :)
I think I wouldn't call it a prologue if it happens AFTER (that is, not "pro") the story. I'd just put the dateline in italics and no chapter indication, and have that frame intro, and then go into Chapter 1 with another dateline.

Why call it a prologue if it's not really a prologue?

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I think that many people consider ANYTHING that happens before the words Chapter One to be a prologue, that's why.

jaz said...

Susan's question is similar to the one I posed much earlier about whether Annie Proulx could get away with a prefatory intro that occurs after the story in Brokeback Mountain. And of course the advice was if it works, it works! I asked because I do this in my current literary short story. I've gone back and forth about whether to keep it, but all of my betas said it was what made them *need* to know what happened and they each returned to it after they finished reading. So I am keeping it, but I don't call it a prologue. I don't call it anything--just three paras in italics before the story starts.

jaz said...

That should say whether she could get away with it BECAUSE she is Annie Proulx. (Really, whether mere mortals could get away with it.)

Edittorrent said...

I really wouldn't think anything of a prologue-that-isn't-before-in-time except that there seems to be a prejudice against prologues. It wouldn't matter WHAT you called it without that prejudice. So I'd just say... call it something else or, ideally, nothing at all. The heading doesn't affect the story, after all. It's just a label. Don't give it too much power over you! :)

See how other stories with frames handle this sort of situation. Princess Bride, for example-- that's a nice little frame (grandfather reading the story to a little boy). But I can't find it -- it's lost in the chaos of my son's room :)-- so can't remember.

Anyway, I'd say if it's the opening of a frame, it's neither a prologue or a Chapter 1. Logically, I wouldn't head it with anything except maybe a dateline. Can you find other books that are structured like yours? How do they handle it?

Chris Eldin said...

Dear Editorrent,

I apologize for placing this message as a comment, but I couldn't find an email address on your site (which I LOVE, btw!!)

I co-run a free promotional blog for authors called Book Roast.

We are going to have a "Pitch Party" on St. Patrick's day, and I wanted to ask you if I may send you details --There are 3 blogging editors who have agreed thus far.

Thank you so much, and again I'm sorry for posting this message in this particular space.

Chris Eldin

jaz said...

New Question--In a cover letter for a short story, should a writer mention her blog, particularly if the blog is related to the story?? I am married to a man of South Asian descent and my story has a South Asian protagonist and contains many cultural references. I blog about gender issues and my experience navigating a new culture. I feel like mentioning the blog is somehow better than just saying I am married to a Pakistani American man. (My instinct is to provide some explanation for my familiarity with this culture.) But I don't know what the preference is on mentioning a blog. Any thoughts??

Amy said...

I've often seen prologues that are a snippet from later on in the book. This is most common among mysteries or romantic suspense novels that employ prologues. I suppose in this instance the prologue is a kind of "teaser", something suspenseful or shocking that keeps us reading so we can find out what happened and how it all resolved. For me, as a reader, I find these prologues as interesting and useful to the story as the ones that are bits of information from long before the story began. As a writer, I'm so unsure about prologues that I've just shied away from them.

I liked your description of a prologue, and how it can't be so connected to Chapter 1. Makes a lot of sense!


Edittorrent said...

Thanks, Chris, we'll email you!

Amy, yeah, it's a teaser, but not a prologue. :) It can work, though I am wary of anything that breaks the narrative continuity. I'm a puritan, however!

Just don't call it a prologue! I'm not big on definitions, but I don't know why an author would want to mis-define something with a term that raises hackles in so many editors and agents. It's like a chef putting "Haggis" on the menu when she is going to serve "Pate". What exactly is the purpose there-- it's neither true nor enticing. (I have eaten haggis, and it tasted like pate.:)

Seems sort of contra-productive to me.

Genella deGrey said...

Although not all books need them, I don't mind prologues - as long as they aren't pages and pages and PAGES of insignificant information.

If I'm thrown into a situation where the heroin is strong in a time where timid women were the status quo, I'll want to know how she got that way. A short prologue would accomplish this nicely.

Movies with prologues that worked:
Memoirs of a Geisha
While You Were Sleeping
The Princess Bride (mentioned earlier)
The Fifth Element

Those are just off the top of my head.


Riley Murphy said...

Isn’t a prologue that starts at an end scene or even beyond that - the same kind of concept like borrowing emotion from future? Was it Alicia or Theresa who made that point? Acknowledging that you’d have to pay this back to your reader with interest (something I really agree with). I mean, what if the telling of the story doesn’t live up to the end/future you have already shown the reader? I am almost inclined to believe that beginning this way could kill a potentially good story before it even got started.
I can recall reading a novel (by a prolific romance author) that started with the heroine at 70+ in age and you know? I read that prologue and turned the page to chapter one but, I couldn’t get the visual of an older woman out of my head and don’t even ask about the stereotypical grumpy old man - who, I was now supposed to connect with, as being my heartthrob hero. (insert shivers of revulsion here).
Heck, maybe it’s personal preference but, I am wondering now: Are stories that start with a ‘past’ prologue, more character driven storylines - as opposed to a novel that begins with a ‘future’ (event) prologue - that somehow seem, to me, to be more plot motivated? In the example above - I felt cheated that I didn’t experience the characters growth and journey firsthand - because, I had been shown that they had already lived a full life together. This was a tough sell for me. Whereas, in a mystery or thriller - when the strength of the book depends on the events rather than the characters, I have no problem looking into the future first, as it’s not an ‘emotionally driven’ reading experience for me.
And, as far as your comments regarding the infamous ‘mystery meat’ haggis? The chef who prepared yours must have been extremely talented - cause the one time I had occasion to sample this fare - my description of how it tasted would be a four letter word - but, I wouldn’t choose PATE!:)

Edittorrent said...

Murph, I once started a book with a prologue with the heroine at 17(Ch 1 started when she was 30), and an agent said she stopped reading because she had no interest in a teenager. Kind of stung, but I see the point-- "Begin as you mean to go on." If the book is about a grown woman, why did I start with a teenager? I wonder if that's why prologues might work better with plot-driven books than with character-driven books? I don't know. But I guess this is something we have to consider with the start of a book-- what are we telling the reader the book is about?

Riley Murphy said...

Good point. I was thinking too, that maybe, if the reader emotionally connects with the character in the prologue (which is bound to happen because the writer would perfect this scene to accomplish the 'hook'), wouldn't it be tough to switch gears and have to accept this character now, on another emotional level? Not having experienced the journey she took to get there?
Who knows? Perhaps we are more accepting of history occurring through time passing, than we are forgiving of history being experienced (without us) by the character we have already established an emotional connection with?

Anonymous said...

I've been worrying over whether or not to begin my novel with a prologue, but I think I should. I'm not entirely certain how else to set up one of the major themes of the book- how the main character must deal with the emotional fallout from her mother's murder when she is forced to reface the situation years later. So the prologue I've been considering would be the actual murder, which the protagonist was forced to watch, and then it would go into her life when she is an adult (she was a teenager at the time of her mother's death). I think I should use it, although I have a tendency to view poorly-written prologues as a cop-out, just like the dreaded dream sequence.

Edittorrent said...

Annie, I do think this has to do with the genre. In a women's fiction or romance novel, you'd probably not tell much about the mother's death until the heroine actually has to face it (you might hint at it). But in a thriller or suspense novel, you might have a prologue that shows the death or her discovering the body.

What's the difference? Hmm. Well, in a women's fiction or romance novel, the focus isn't on the event but on how the heroine's life and ability to connect emotionally is affected, and how she resolves that-- that is, the emphasis is on the present, on giving the reader the experience of being emotionally hampered and then confronting the past event and overcoming it.

In a thriller or suspense novel, the emphasis might be more on that event and its repercussions, and giving the reader the experience of actually living through the violence and trauma.

This really is a genre thing, I think, and kind of goes to the actual purpose of the genre. So I wouldn't use a prologue in a romance, but I might in a romantic suspense or thriller.

But I don't know what's right for your story. Just don't assume that a prologue is necessary-- it might not be, and might actually detract from the character journey if you want to keep the reader in a bit of suspense about what the character is blocking from her mind, say.


Julie Harrington said...

Apologies for the late comment, but I've been without a computer for 2 weeks and am just catching up. This is a very timely topic for me because -- as I contemplate my next romance novel -- the question of To Prologue or Not to Prologue looms.

The chapter in question would involve the hero being assigned the task of retrieving the heroine by her father. The hero and father would be in one location with the next scene starting some time after that (not a long time, a few days or weeks) with where the heroine is. The hero hasn't caught up with her yet.

My problem/question about the prologue issue comes in not only because of the location jump and the time jump but the physical closeness of rolling from that first scene (hero/father) straight into the next and confusing the reader if I kept it all in one chapter.

The scene with the hero and father wouldn't be more than a few pages, hence why I was thinking prologue, but I guess that first scene could be Chapter 1 with Chapter 2 start with the heroine instead. Hm.

From the sound of this blog entry, it wouldn't warrant a prologue.